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

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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. …