My neighborhood is a tragedy. Not that I don't like it. I do. It's multiracial, multiethnic, vibrant and interesting. Not too long ago, the neighborhood was mostly black. Now it's all mixed up: white, Hispanic, African, African American and a bit Asian. The whites and the Asians seem to own almost everything.
The nearest grocery store is owned by a Korean. The dry cleaner up the street is also owned by a Korean. Two blocks away is a store that sells Italian gourmet specialities. It's owned by a Korean, as is, by the way, the place I go for southern-style barbecued ribs. A nearby Italian restaurant is owned by Iranians, but the Chinese and Ethiopians have their places, too. Throw in a couple of Hispanic groceries, and there you have it: my neighborhood.
Walking the streets, I ask myself how this has happened -- how is it that stores that should (or could) be owned by blacks are not? It seems that an entire generation has been passed over. Mom-and-pop stores that were once owned by Italian or Jewish immigrants have passed to Koreans or Vietnamese. These stores are the lowest rung on the entrepreneurial ladder, the way out of poverty for wave after wave of immigrants -- but not, in any numbers, for blacks.
I talk to the grocery store owner. Her English is still not particularly good. She works all the time, day and night, and sometimes I find her slumped at the cash register. When she is sick, other Koreans appear to relieve her, sometimes after working at other jobs. Somehow, the store never closes.
In New York City, blacks and Koreans have been going at one another. A Haitian woman complained that she had been manhandled in a Korean grocery store. Two stores were boycotted, and soon the merchants of produce were fighting the merchants of hate. One of the boycott's leaders is Robert (Sonny) Carson, a convicted kidnapper and an ecumenical bigot. Asked not too long ago if he was an antisemite, he said no -- he was "anti-white."
In 1988, a similar Asian-black confrontation erupted in Washington. Here, a Chinese grocery store owner (initially denounced as Korean) was accused of pulling a gun on a black customer. A minister, the Rev. Willie Wilson, organized a boycott. As in New York, the boycott took on racist overtones, and again like in New York, too many black leaders just looked the other way. In Washington, these are some of the same politicians who are now calling for a return to morality.
Koreans and African Americans may well have cultural differences. The Asians seem curt. My dry cleaner deals with me as if I'm not there. She "sirs" me all the time, but has never asked me a single question or attempted small talk. She does not know my name, never remembers that I like my shirts in a box and not on hangers. When blacks complain about Asians, I think I know what they mean. Still, my shirts come back clean.
And yet, what a diversion all this picketing and boycotting is. And what a tragedy to boot. In New York, Washington and other cities, certain blacks talk about Asians as if they were involved in a conspiracy against them: Where do they get the money to buy these stores? Certain black leaders curse Asians or, just for good measure, Jews. They are constantly on the lookout for scapegoats. They have so thoroughly accepted the ethic of victimization that they blame others for a situation that they themselves can rectify: open some stores.
Of course, it's never that easy. The obstacles are two: financial and cultural. Government programs can deal with the former, honest leadership with the latter. It seems the cultures of certain Asian peoples are more amenable to the entrepreneurial system than those of poor blacks, still injured and hurting after years of racial discrimination. But if culture represents a hurdle for some -- but hardly all -- blacks, then scapegoating just raises it. It does no one any good to denounce Asians or to deal in rank racism. And black leaders who are more attuned to their constituents' sense of victimization than they are to a cure for their plight, are doing no one any good either.
The question I ask myself as I walk my neighborhood also occurred to Spike Lee, the black filmmaker. In "Do the Right Thing," his street characters -- Sweet Dick Willie, Coconut Sid and ML -- ponder how newly arrived Koreans can own stores in black neighborhoods. "Either them Koreans are geniuses or we blacks are dumb," says ML. Coconut Sid has the all-too-conventional answer: "It's gotta be 'cause we're black. No other explanation, nobody don't want the black man to be about s---."
"Old excuse," says Sweet Dick Willie.