Black, Korean tension is focus U.S. civil rights panel to meet in Baltimore; 'Some real concerns'

Ask many of the city's Korean-American merchants and their largely African-American customers if there is tension between them -- tension mirrored in explosive incidents across the country -- and the likely response will be a quick, definitive "No."

But such a response may tell only half the truth. In reality, city and neighborhood activists are closely monitoring black-Korean relations, a fact that reveals more concern than some seem willing to acknowledge.


City officials have twice sponsored meetings this year to defuse tension between the two communities. A third is planned for this fall in Park Heights.

Today, federal civil rights officials will continue that discussion. In a meeting at an Inner Harbor hotel, Korean-Americans, blacks and city officials will spend the day fact-finding. The primary question: Do Koreans have equal access to protection and other services they need as they operate mom-and-pop groceries in predominantly African-American communities?


The U.S. Civil Rights Commission's Maryland Advisory Committee, which is conducting today's meeting, held a preliminary hearing last September in Westminster.

"I've talked to at least 40 Korean-American merchants in the last few weeks, and I am hearing some real concerns," said Chester L. Wickwire, head of the advisory committee, which estimates that about 1,000 Korean-owned groceries operate in Baltimore. "Many Korean Americans daily are subjected to abusive anti-Korean language by [mostly black] customers: 'Why don't you get out of here? Why don't you go back home?' " Wickwire said. "This is something we need to look at."

Help bridge gaps

Alvin O. Gillard, director of the city Community Relations Commission, said he is not convinced that blacks are targeting Koreans. But he says city officials should help bridge gaps that may exist between blacks and Korean-Americans.

He said turnout was strong at the first two city meetings -- in East Baltimore in April and in Cherry Hill in May -- largely in response to killings and violent robberies of several Korean merchants last year.

Discussions surrounding those incidents also sparked today's meeting.

Among contributors today will be Kenneth Lee, father of Joel Lee, a Towson State University student fatally shot during a $20 mugging in Northeast Baltimore on Sept. 2, 1993. The ensuing murder trial touched off a wave of protest when a jury made up of 11 blacks and one Asian-American acquitted the African-American defendant, Davon Neverdon.

In January 1997, two Korean-American grocers were fatally shot during a spate of eight robberies in four days. Later in the year, black-led protests led to the closing of a Korean-owned market in Park Heights amid charges that the grocer had sold outdated meat.


Conversations with city residents reveal undercurrents of tension -- and a palpable desire to defuse further problems.

"I think a lot of people have overreacted," said Kap Y. Park, vice president of the Korean American Grocers Organization (KAGRO). "It's not everywhere but, yes, it's in some places."

Complaints in Cherry Hill

But during the Cherry Hill meeting, a large group of African-Americans complained loudly and persistently about the Korean-American merchants. Several who spoke in support of the merchants were shouted down.

Gillard said the honest tension at the May meeting may have been uncomfortable, but it highlighted issues that can be addressed in future meetings.

"We're not trying to have fights [at these meetings], but at the same time we're not trying to have a sterile gathering where we throw bouquets at each other," he said. "We can use this as a stepping stone."


Among the complaints African-Americans often voice: Korean-American merchants don't live in the community, they charge inflated prices, they don't hire blacks.

Bill Goodin, a community activist and president of Unity for Action, a grass-roots political action organization, said blacks often complain that many Korean merchants live in the suburbs -- that African-American dollars do not stay in the community.

Language barriers

Language barriers don't help. Park, 40, who owns Pennington Market in South Baltimore, said he has been taunted by customers -- black and white -- because he speaks with a thick accent.

"I do get nasty comments," said Park, who will attend today's meeting. "It makes me really sad."

The goal of the meeting, which begins at 9: 30 a.m. at the Holiday Inn Inner Harbor, is to begin changing people's perceptions and behaviors, said Edward Darden, a spokesman for the commission.


"People say this is a one-shot deal -- that there are no solutions offered," Darden said. "But this is a federal agency stepping up LTC on this. It draws a level of attention. And part of our mission is to draw attention where it may not have been before."

Pub Date: 7/23/98