Migration to the “First Large Suburban Ghetto” in America

Korean Immigrant Merchants in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Chanhaeng Lee Sungkyunkwan University chanhaeng@skku.edu

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In this article, I argue that Korean immigrant merchants were active agents who opened small businesses in South Central Los Angeles in order to overcome a range of disadvantages faced in American society. From a structural point of view, Korean immigrant merchants constituted a middleman minority group that played the dual role of “oppressed and oppressor” in the suburban ghetto. Although these merchants made efforts to maintain civil relations with their African American customers, they were often treated with hostile attitudes largely because of the exploitative relationship that existed between the two groups. However, I maintain that Korean American journalists and scholars have not only misunderstood the identity of the middleman minority as an innocent buffer but have also erroneously estimated that race relations with African Americans in Los Angeles were better than those in other areas of the United States.

Contributor Notes

Chanhaeng Lee is a part-time lecturer in the Department of History at Sungkyunkwan University, Seoul, Korea, and an external advisory committee member of the journal Revista Humanidades, which is published by the University of Costa Rica. He received his PhD in History from Stony Brook University in 2012. His recent publications include The Making of Transversal Historical Discourses (coauthored, 2015), “A Study of the Soon Ja Du-Latasha Harlins Incident” (2014), and “Korean American Melodramatic Imagination of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992” (2013). Email: chanhaeng@skku.edu

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