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Migration to the “First Large Suburban Ghetto” in America

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

Chanhaeng Lee

Abstract

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.