Organizing in Communities of Color: Addressing Interethnic Conflicts

By Okazawa-Rey, Margo; Wong, Marshall | Social Justice, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Organizing in Communities of Color: Addressing Interethnic Conflicts


Okazawa-Rey, Margo, Wong, Marshall, Social Justice


South-Central Los Angeles, April 1992. The images of armed Korean merchants defending their stores against angry African-American looters flooded the network news broadcasts around the country. Many people were killed and injured, thousands of dollars were lost, and dreams were shattered. A less familiar image is that of angry crowds of African Americans surrounding the Family Red Apple grocery store in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, some two years before. In December 1989, a 44-year-old Haitian woman, Ghislaine Felissaint, entered the Korean-owned market to purchase some items. What happened next is still a matter of dispute. Like the Japanese folk tale "Rashomon," the principal actors recount completely different versions of the incident. The customer claims that she was accused of shoplifting and severely beaten by a store employee; the owner contends that Ms. Felissaint lacked sufficient funds to pay for items she had selected and became enraged, but that there was no physical altercation. The dispute and the subsequent arrest of owner Bong Jae Jang led to a boycott, with daily picketing of the market by African-American activists. The boycott spread to include another Korean-owned business across the street from the Family Red Apple store. Some of the picketers carried placards that read, "Don't Buy From People Who Don't Look Like You." Although what actually transpired between Ms. Felissaint and the Jang family may never be known, it is clear that this conflict was being driven by much more than alleged mistreatment of a Black customer by an Asian merchant. Similar clashes between Asian merchants and African-American residents have led to organized protests and occasional violence in a number of other cities, including Washington, Philadelphia, and Oakland.

Both these incidents have brought to national attention a drama being played out on a smaller scale in urban neighborhoods across the nation. The rapid growth of immigrant Asian, primarily Korean businesses in predominantly Black neighborhoods has created an explosive situation, fraught with misconceptions, prejudices, and danger on both sides. The merchants are viewed by Black people as unwelcome foreign exploiters: persons of a different culture who profit from doing business in the Black community, but offer little in return. This perception is also fueled by the resurgence of "yellow peril" propaganda, though aimed primarily at Japanese businessmen, which threatens an Asian takeover of U.S. The African-American community is seen by Koreans as a dangerous place to be, though it provides entrepreneurial opportunities.

Often the sole point of contact between Black residents and Asian merchants is over the counter, in a business interaction. Because of geographic, economic, linguistic, and cultural differences, the two groups rarely live side by side, worship in the same churches, or have children who attend the same schools. Limited information and contact generate suspicion, fear, and resentment on both sides, and merchants and residents charge each other with insensitivity and mistreatment.

To dissect this phenomenon of Korean and Black conflict one must uncover interlocking layers of facts, attitudes, perceptions, and myths that cut to the very heart of our race-conscious and racist society. It is a gross understatement to say that resolution of interethnic conflict is a protracted process. Those on the forefront of mediating such conflicts are searching for meaningful solutions to a problem steeped in centuries of racial and economic inequity, damaged pride, ruined dreams, and internalized oppression. Any informed discussion of Black-Asian relations at once encompasses the complex issues of community control, economic development, and assimilation of new immigrants.

Neither is the Korean and Black situation the only example of conflict and tension between communities of color in the U.S. Against the backdrop of institutionalized racism, interethnic conflicts(1) have become another aspect of the multilayered racial terrain. …

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