New York's Korean Grocery Turmoil Rooted in Cultural And Economic Conditions

Quieter tone in Flatbush neighborhood, but recent racial tension highlights economic plight of city's blacks

KOREAN shop-owners and black customers, bristling at each other. A boycott, angry words, and an urgent appeal from the mayor. As these events unfolded in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn recently, New York City appeared poised for a long, hot summer of racial confrontation. In Flatbush, things are far less tense than the flurry of press coverage in local newspapers and television stations would suggest. Still, behind the ongoing black boycott of a Korean-run greengrocer lie unsettled issues of cultural differences, and of relations between recent immigrants and the city's large black population.

The boycott began last January, after the Korean grocer allegedly roughed up a black Haitian woman customer with whom he had a run-in. The boycotters say the store's owners have a history of being abusive to black women, and they want the store closed.

In the past four months, the store has remained open, but virtually without customers. Nevertheless, the landlord, also a Korean, and other Korean merchants, have provided the tenants with the financial means to hold on. And of late, some blacks have begun making symbolic purchases at the store.

Both sides say they have a point to make: The boycotters say Koreans cannot treat blacks rudely and get away with it; the Koreans say that whatever actually happened at the store was minor, and that no one has the right to shut them down simply because they are Korean. Many residents say the dispute has gone on long enough.

A small group of demonstrators, however, has managed to secure ongoing press coverage in a way that suggests the affair is much larger than it is. The confrontation has even seeped into the national spotlight, with ABC's ``Nightline'' devoting a recent program to it. Now, in the wake of criticism by Mayor David Dinkins, media coverage seems finally to be shifting away from the sensational.

Under pressure from newspaper editorials, Mr. Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, delivered an unusual address on May 11, carried live on local television, appealing for calm and racial harmony. He also criticized the boycott.

A VISIT to Church Avenue in Flatbush indicates that behind the controversy are subtle issues of culture and appropriate demeanor.

``Some islanders get mad more easily,'' says an American-born black woman about the many Haitian and Jamaican immigrants who live in the area. ``They come from a place where people are gentle and friendly, and they're not used to this.''

Koreans themselves explain that traditions such as not smiling, and avoiding eye and hand contact may alienate their customers. Also, many have adopted behavior to protect themselves in what are often high-crime neighborhoods.

``Store owners are one of the least racist of any group, because they deal day in and day out with so many people,'' says Steve Null of the Coalition for Fair Business Rents, a multiethnic network of small-business owners.

Also, blacks see a steady stream of new arrivals getting a bigger piece of the pie, while their meager share appears to be diminishing. The numbers bear this out.

Of 200,000 businesses in New York City, Latinos own a whopping 40,000. Combined, other recent immigrant groups - chiefly Koreans, Arabs, and Indians - own about 18,000 businesses. By the year 2000, that figure should top 30,000. Blacks, however, may own as few as 1,500 enterprises. That is out of a black population of 2 million.

Blacks are not having much more success in finding jobs in stores, either, even though labor experts say that most of the new jobs available to those with little training or education are in small business. In some parts of the city, 48 percent of young blacks are unemployed.

Experts say this is partly because small shopkeepers employ family members to help keep the payroll costs down; other entrepreneurs place a high priority on helping relatives emigrate. One Bangladeshi, who owns a Manhattan restaurant, has helped 300 relatives come to this country since he arrived in 1968.

But beyond family, shop-owners are increasingly turning to other recent immigrants, particularly those from Central and South America. Ecuadoreans and Hondurans stacking fruit in front of Korean-owned markets have become a common sight. Many shopkeepers say they do not hire blacks beyond what is necessary for public relations purposes.

``I have some black employees,'' says Charles Aini, a Lebanese who owns a store in Flatbush. ``Every store has to keep some.'' But on a recent day, all of the employees in the store were Pakistani.

One store owner says he is not eager to hire native-born Americans, of any stripe: ``I tell you something: the black, white, and Spanish who are born here don't want to work.''

As this perception proliferates among business owners, some black leaders are looking at ways that blacks can create more economic leverage. United States Rep. Major Owens (D), in whose district Flatbush lies, has been trying to launch a modest initiative to get blacks to combine assets to open their own businesses.

``None of the big rich folks, black or white, are willing to invest,'' he says. ``It has to be people pooling their money.''

Efforts to address economic problems in the black community, he complains, don't get a fraction of the publicity that the greengrocer boycott has received, and therefore don't have much chance of success. Until they do, he says, there will be more race-related conflict in the news.

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