As Tensions Flare, Koreans Seek Bridge to Black Community

In 1989’s iconic movie “Do The Right Thing,” writer-director Spike Lee depicted a Brooklyn mob taking out their anger on a Korean bodega owner. Three years later, Korean-owned stores were targeted in 1992’s Los Angeles riots. And even this month, a clash between a Korean gas station owner in Dallas and an African-American customer have led to charges of racism on both sides and a boycott and protest by locals seeking to remove the gas station owner.

To address mistrust and suspicion between Korean and African-American urban communities, Korean organizations held a “Korea-U.S. Friendship Night” on Feb. 10 at the Harlem School of the Arts.

The Korea Daily reported:

More than ten Korean organizations, including The Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in New York, the Korean-American Association of Greater New York, and the New York Society of Korean Businessmen, made donations to African-American organizations. The Global Children Foundation and several other Korean organizations also awarded scholarships to African-American students.

The Dallas clash started with an incident between two men, but escalated dramatically, New American Media reported:

Dallas resident Thomas Park recently appeared on a local African American radio show to offer an apology. The 40-year-old Korean émigré had been involved in a December altercation with a customer at his gas station in a largely black Dallas neighborhood.

The fallout from that incident has since engulfed the two communities.

The dispute began when Jeffrey Muhammad, a leader in the local Nation of Islam chapter, requested that Park waive a $5 minimum for a debit card transaction. Park refused, at which point the two reportedly exchanged racial epithets.

Muhammad has organized daily protests and a boycott of Park’s gas station, and has said that the “store owner must go.” But Park insists that he has been misunderstood.

“I pay my taxes. I work hard to feed my family,” Park later told the Dallas Morning News. “I’m not a racist. I’m just trying to follow the American Dream.”

Doing so meant setting up shop in a traditionally African American neighborhood long besieged by joblessness and economic blight. It’s a pattern repeated by Korean American business owners across the country, from New York’s Flushing Meadows to Oakland and Los Angeles, where in 1992 riots erupted that have left an enduring scar on the Korean American psyche.

“At first there was concern among Koreans in the area that the incident could escalate into a repeat of L.A.,” said Ji-hwe Park, a reporter with the Korean Journal in Dallas who has been covering the near-daily protests that began in February demanding Park close his business.

“What began as a personal matter has now pulled in leaders from both communities as they try and resolve the dispute,” she added. “So far, no one has come up with a concrete solution.”

Here in New York, Friendship Night organizers said they sought to prevent the tensions that lead to the standoff in Dallas, and to establish a dialogue between the communities, reported the Korea Daily:

“This event was the best way to prevent conflict between the Korean and African American communities,” said Myen Soo Park, a representative of a Korean American association that works to support Rep. Charles Rangel (D – NY) but is not officially affiliated with the lawmaker. “And hopefully be good neighbors by strengthening ties together.”

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