THE rioting and flames that swept through South-Central Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict damaged, among other buildings, hundreds of stores owned by Korean entrepreneurs. Some of this damage no doubt was incidental to the wider destruction that engulfed the area; but there is evidence that Korean shops were targeted for torching and looting by the predominantly black rioters.
This violence by African-Americans against Korean merchants is the latest manifestation of a tension that has been growing for a decade. It has flared in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities. Among the lessons to be learned from the L.A. riots is the need for greater understanding and tolerance between these entwined races.
Korean immigrants have become prominent shopkeepers in the inner city. They run produce and grocery marts, electronics, hardware, and liquor stores. Such establishments require relatively little startup capital and can be operated even with minimal fluency in English. Korean merchants with meager savings are attracted to low-income neighborhoods by affordable property costs. There, through hard work, family involvement, and frugality, many Korean immigrants have built successful businesses.
In turn, inner-city neighborhoods have benefited by the presence of these stores in areas that many other merchants have fled.
But the interface of these two very different cultures has also created flashpoints. Nearly all the flareups in recent years have started with a confrontation between a Korean storekeeper and a black customer - usually because the merchant is accused of rudeness or overpricing, or because the customer is accused of shoplifting. Some incidents have culminated in violence - as when a Korean merchant in L.A. last year shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl suspected of theft.
In Los Angeles and New York such episodes have led to black-organized boycotts of Korean stores that city officials have attempted to mediate.
With the help of outside mediators and, more important, through their own community organizations African-Americans and Koreans need to devise programs to ease these needlessly destructive tensions. In some cities plans have been negotiated to involve Korean merchants in the neighborhoods where they work. Also emerging are efforts to increase black-Korean collaboration in political-empowerment activities like voter registration and legislative redistricting.
Blacks, though understandably aggrieved by what they often regard as over-suspiciousness from Korean merchants, have to recognize that the storekeepers' fear of crime is grounded in experience. Rare is the ghetto store (of whatever race) that hasn't been robbed or burglarized. Community-watch groups could help ease merchants' concerns.
As minorities with some common problems, blacks and Koreans could be doing much to assist each other, rather than glaring at each other with distrust.