SAN FRANCISCO – Dallas resident Thomas Park appeared on a local African American radio show to offer an apology. The 40-year-old Korean émigré had been involved in a December altercation with a customer at his gas station in a largely black Dallas neighborhood.
The fallout from that incident has since engulfed the two communities.
The dispute began when Jeffrey Muhammad, a leader in the local Nation of Islam chapter, requested that Park waive a $5 minimum for a debit card transaction. Park refused, at which point the two reportedly exchanged racial epithets.
Muhammad later launched a protest campaign called “Don’t Stop Don’t Shop” targeting Park. The protest entered its second month, drawing support from a local city council member, as well as members of the NAACP and the Nation of Islam. Organizers say they are determined to drive Park out of the neighborhood.
“I pay my taxes. I work hard to feed my family,” Park later told the Dallas Morning News. “I’m not a racist. I’m just trying to follow the American Dream.”
Doing so meant setting up shop in a traditionally African American neighborhood long besieged by joblessness and economic blight. It’s a pattern repeated by Korean American business owners across the country, from New York’s Flushing Meadows to Oakland and Los Angeles, where in 1992 riots erupted that have left an enduring scar on the Korean American psyche.
“At first there was concern among Koreans in the area that the incident could escalate into a repeat of L.A.,” said Ji-hwe Park, a reporter with the Korean Journal in Dallas who has been covering the near-daily protests that began in February demanding Park close his business.
“What began as a personal matter has now pulled in leaders from both communities as they try and resolve the dispute,” she added. “So far, no one has come up with a concrete solution.”
“Nothing to talk about,” tweeted Muhammad after being contacted by the head of the Los Angeles-based Federation of Korean Associations, a nationwide business advocacy group. “Store owner must go.” He also referenced Park’s radio appearance, dismissing his on-air comments as “lies.”
Park’s gas station was the site of a fatal shooting incident in 2010 involving 26-year-old Marcus Phillips, who was shot by a Korean employee after attempting to run off with the store’s cash register. Park also employs two African Americans.
“Killed a man 4 stealing,” read one of the signs carried by protestors in front of Park’s store.
Juanita Wallace, president of the Dallas-chapter of the NAACP, also took part in the protests. Speaking at a press conference in front of Park’s station, she vowed that protestors would not stop until his business was shut down. “We are here for as long as it takes,” she was quoted as saying in the Korean Journal.
Her comments drew the ire of higher ups in the organization, reported the paper, including Anthony Bond, who sits on the board of the NAACP’s Dallas offices. Bond had met with Korean community leaders on February 2 and urged members not to take part in the protests, the report noted.
Dallas is home to the country’s fourth-largest Korean American community, with about 80,000 having settled in the area. Like Park, who came to the United States in 1990 and spent six years in the Army National Guard, a number are self-employed small business owners whose customer base revolves around the local black community.
It’s a relationship that some local African Americans see as exploitative.
“We need to bring OUR dollars back to OUR communities and businesses,” read one Facebook comment in support of the protests. “If you don’t, you are a traitor.”
Such sentiment, says Gordon Jackson, managing editor of the Dallas Weekly, which covers the local African American community, comes out of a “growing resentment” over the continued lack of jobs and business opportunities for black residents.
“Why can’t this be a black-owned business,” is a question he says is behind the anger.
It’s also symptomatic of the “low level of trust” held by community members on both sides, explains Jackson, a resident of South Dallas. “This [incident] is the tip of the iceberg …The perception is that Koreans make money off black business, but don’t recycle dollars back into the community.”
Most Korean business owners in fact do not live in the South Dallas area, Jackson noted, contributing to the sense that they are simply taking advantage.
Geun-baek Ko is president of the Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce. He pointed out that of the more than 5,000 Korean-owned businesses in Dallas, “more than half” cater primarily to the African American community.
More needs to be done, he agreed, to improve relations.
“There has been talk of setting up scholarships or grants for African American youth,” said Ko, adding that he is encouraging Korean business owners to register with the city’s Black Chamber of Commerce and to join the NAACP.
“This incident,” he said, “should serve as a turning point in relations between the two communities.”
This article first appeared in New America Media (www.newamericamedia.org).