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Beyond the Murder of Joel Lee


Hyung Kim, speaking for the Korean Society of Maryland, wants desperately for people to stay focused on the murder of Joel J. Lee in talking about a jury's decision to free the man suspected of killing the Towson State student. But that's hard to do. The charge by Korean Americans that the mostly African American jury acted out of sympathy toward the defendant, who is also black, goes far beyond what happened in that courtroom.

Relations between these two pieces of the patchwork quilt that is this nation have been poor for a long time. In many mostly black neighborhoods, Korean Americans have replaced the Jewish and Italian immigrants who came before them to set up shops. Unlike their predecessors, however, they have not been as successful in bridging the cultural and language gaps. Consequently, the lack of communication and understanding has created a gulf between these two groups that appears much greater than the divide between blacks and whites.

The slaying of Joel Lee isn't the first time a violent incident has forced the spotlight on how poorly the African American and Korean American communities get along. It was obvious following the Los Angeles riots that Korean American businesses in black neighborhoods had been a special target for looting and destruction.

It didn't have anything to do with the initial acquittal of white police officers accused of beating African American motorist Rodney King. It was the result of a simmering feud between blacks and Korean Americans ignited by the fatal shooting of a black teen-age girl suspected of shoplifting by a Korean store owner, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter but given no jail time. Blacks called the decision an injustice. That is exactly what Korean Americans say about the innocent verdict given Joel Lee's accused killer.

Mr. Lee's father said at a protest rally Wednesday that he can't let the case end like this. He wants the jury system changed, though he doesn't know how. Black members of the jury said doubts about the defendant's guilt, not his race, led to their verdict. But the fact that a lot of people -- not just Korean Americans -- think the jurors were motivated by race is reason for concern.

Korean merchants in Baltimore already believe efforts to redevelop Lafayette Market are aimed at kicking them out and bringing more African American shop owners in. They face the same possibility in Old Town Market, which city officials are also seeking to redevelop. On top of all that comes an acquittal in the Joel Lee murder, a case that seemed open and shut. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has a Korean liaison with the Korean community. But more than that is needed to develop good will between Korean Americans and African Americans -- in Baltimore and the rest of the nation.

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