By Hojun Choi
Business leaders in North Texas’ Black and Korean American communities are starting a dialogue about how they can support and work more closely with each other.
Many Korean American business owners operate in parts of the city that have historical ties to the Black community, including South Dallas and Oak Cliff. Matt Houston, who sits on the board of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, said he would like to reestablish relations between the Black and Korean American communities and start a discussion on how business leaders can improve those ties.
“I want to get the infrastructure right so that we have leaders and influencers from these communities communicating to one another, and so they can spread it to their network,” he said.
This week, members of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Dallas Korean American Chamber of Commerce and the Korean Society of Dallas met at The Island Spot, a Jamaican restaurant in north Oak Cliff. There, they spoke about the state of relations between the two communities and how they want to move forward.
Communities that work together beyond cultural differences are stronger, Houston said, adding that Wednesday’s luncheon was just the start of the efforts to strengthen ties.
“We’re able to have a lunch and tolerate each other for an hour, but really, the proof in the pudding will be if we actually listen and continue building relationships,” Houston said.
Pain, distrust, healing
Members from both chambers said relations between the Korean and Black communities in Dallas have improved in recent years, and noted that the luncheon wasn’t the first time the groups had gathered. Both, however, acknowledged that the two have clashed in the past.
In 2010, 26-year-old Marcus Phillips, who was Black, was fatally shot by a Korean American employee while trying to steal a cash register from a convenience store in South Dallas. Tensions escalated after Thomas Pak, the Korean American owner of the same store, got into an altercation in late 2011 with Jeffery Muhammad, who at the time was a leader of the local Nation of Islam.
Muhammad, who accused Pak of exploiting the Black community, said the store owner used a racial slur toward him during the fight. The incident led to months of demonstrations outside the store, and Pak later apologized for using the slur.
Jung Lee, executive vice president of the Korean chamber, said the incident fueled distrust between many African Americans and Korean Americans in the Dallas area, but added that relations have greatly improved since. More important, he said, it highlighted a need for the two business communities to work together and to maintain communication.
Lee said Wednesday’s luncheon was a continuation of that dialogue and an effort to break through cultural and language barriers. Lee said members of the Korean chamber have been discussing more ways to invest in the communities they do business in.
“This event is more like an icebreaker,” Lee said. “After we break the ice, we can discuss the more important steps.”
Investing in community
Jenny Suh has owned and operated Jenny Beauty Supply since 1989. She said she is committed to working with the local Black community, as the majority of her customers are African American.
In addition to focusing on hiring Black employees at her five retail stores, Suh said, she has tried to visit Black churches and has worked with non-profits to learn more about the Black community. She said she cherishes the friendships she has made through those efforts, adding that they strengthen support for her beauty supplym store.
Since last year, Suh has been gathering support and resources for a scholarship \ program for low-income and single-mother families.
“I don’t see African Americans as just my customers. I want to know how they think and how they live,” she said. “Since I am in America and I do business with African Americans, I would like to engage with them.”
Tiara Cooper, lead organizer of In Defense of Black Lives Dallas, said she, too, has seen more solidarity and collaboration between the Black and Korean American communities. Although the work of social justice and business organizations can look different, she said, they are inseparable when it comes to protecting people in their neighborhoods.
“Companies and organizations have a role, and it might look a little different, but when there is an issue that impacts a community, it also impacts the businesses there,” Cooper said. “So we need them to support and be more vocal and standing up for social justice issues.”
Charles Park, who has lived in North Texas since the late 1970s, said he hopes the Black and Korean communities in the Dallas area not only can have good business relations but can work more closely on political issues as well.
“The freedom we enjoy wasn’t free,” Park said. “We benefited from what the Black community fought for in the 1960s. Korean people have to know that.”