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One of D.C.’s most prominent politicians inflamed long-running tensions last week when he disparaged the Asian-owned businesses that serve the city’s poorest wards. Former Mayor and current D.C. Council Member Marion Barry accused some of those business owners of running “dirty shops” and suggested they close down and move out. We explore what this episode reveals about the complicated relationships among the city’s African American and Asian communities.
- Gary Cha Owner, Yes! Organic Market; Former President, Korean American Grocers Association
- Barbara Lang President and CEO, DC Chamber of Commerce
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, the story of the man accused of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks. Author Josh Meyer is here to talk about the hunt for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But first, explosive comments rekindle tensions in Washington's poorest ward.
MR. MARC FISHERAfter winning re-election last week, former D.C. mayor and current Councilmember Marion Barry accused Asian business owners in his part of the city of running what he called dirty shops, suggesting that the owners of many carryout and convenience stores in Ward 8 should close up and go elsewhere.
COUNCILMEMBER MARION BARRYWe got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I'll just tell you that right now. You know, but we need African-American business people to be able to take...
FISHERNow, Marion Barry has since apologized for those comments, but they've already reminded people throughout the city about the uglier side of the relationship between African-Americans in Ward 8 and some of the Asian businesses that serve them, all at a time when advocates for the ward are trying to change its image and attract new businesses to their side of the Anacostia River.
FISHERJoining us to explore those tensions is a man who runs a business on the southeastern side of the city and who has advocated on behalf of Korean businesses throughout the entire Washington area. Gary Cha is the owner of the Yes! Organic grocery chain. He has eight stores, seven of them in the District and one in Anacostia that has been opened for a year-and-a-half. He's also a past president of the Korean-American Grocers Association.
FISHERAnd joining us by phone is the president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, Barbara Lang. Gary, let's start with you. Obviously, you do business east of the Anacostia, but yours is a more upscale chain that came to that part of the city not that long ago. You told The Washington Post that even though you were offended by Barry's comments, you at times felt some of the frustration about some Asian business owners serving his ward that he was talking about. What is that feeling?
MR. GARY CHAWell, yes, I have -- I'm running a business in Ward 8 in a day-to-day basis. I'm constantly engaged with the customers and also the neighborhood retailers. So there has been a perception where, I think, a lot of people simply doesn't understand unless you are there seeing them, working with them, dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. The perception is that the residents thinks a lot of times where retailers are making lots of money, taking their money outside of stores.
MR. GARY CHAAnd if you talk to them, their sales revenue is very small. Oftentimes, less than half million dollars a year and maybe their net profit that they get -- take home, maybe 5 or 6 percent, so they're living on a very small income. And also, they...
FISHERAnd I imagine that that very small income and a very thin profit margin is a reason why they tend to employ only members of their own family 'cause they can't really afford to pay anyone else.
CHAThat's another -- that's one of the reason also, but they're -- those small shops are usually run by the first-generation immigrants, and their English level is surprisingly quite low. And you need to be able to communicate with your staff, your employees, and, naturally, they give it to their family members. And there isn't a whole lot of profit there to hire other people.
FISHERYou can join our conversation about tensions between blacks and Asians in southeast Washington by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at kojo, K-O-J-O, @wamu.org. You can also send us a tweet to @kojoshow. And, Gary Cha, as you look at the -- when you heard the comments that Marion Barry made, did that seem completely out of line with things that you ordinarily hear day to day? Or do you hear some of those sentiments in your own business or in your travels around the ward?
CHAFirst, I was concerned that many people may jump into conclusion about Councilmember Marion Barry, former mayor, Marion Barry. You can't just make conclusion or make judgment based on the comment, although the comment, I wish it was different. But what he has done for the city of D.C. for four decade, you know, he's been in public service for 40 years, and he had done a lot of things that are very good.
CHAAnd a lot of people would not be in business because -- it wasn't for Councilmember Marion Barry. It's just that unfortunate that statement that he has made has irritated or angered a lot of people. I think he could have said it better.
FISHERSure. Let's bring Barbara Lang into the conversation. Ms. Lang, thanks for joining us. It was about 26 years ago that Willie Wilson, one of the most influential black pastors east of the river, tried to lead a boycott of an Asian market there because the owner had been accused of refusing to serve a customer he -- that he suspected of stealing from him. How have things changed since then? And where do you see room for progress in this relationship between Asian business owners and the African-American customer base?
MS. BARBARA LANGWell, Marc, good morning. First of all, just let me say that I thought that the councilmember's comments were unfortunate and really does not help us all in moving towards the mayor's goal of one city. And that's certainly not the sentiments of the mainstream business community. We want to help all businesses grow and develop here at the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. If you look back, you know, a lot of things have changed and changed for the better. And that's a good thing. But there's always room for improvement.
MS. BARBARA LANGAnd where you have a perception of real tension between groups, it's our call to action to how can we alleviate those tensions. Whenever you have one group that it feels that they're being favored -- another group is being favored over them, you're going to have these kinds of tensions develop. But I had wished that Councilmember Marion Barry would have sat down to -- let's see how can we work through that as opposed to saying folks have to go and new folks come in.
MS. BARBARA LANGThat's just not the way -- that's more a divisive approach. And I would much rather see how can we sit down and work through this, such that there are a lot of very good African-American businesses that we want to move into the ward, into the city, but also how do we help the Asian businesses, that are there, grow and develop? And what are the things that they need to move forward?
FISHERAnd, you know, for many years, the Asian -- the corner grocer or convenience store, often Korean-owned, was one of the few merchants that existed in parts of Ward 8 that are kind of retail deserts. That is changing to some extent. But is there -- are you seeing a resurgence now of black-owned businesses in the ward?
LANGIn the ward itself, not as much as we clearly would like to see. In D.C., as a whole, doing pretty well, but certainly not in -- not east of the river, and that's part of the whole economic development plan that, I think, the city is putting forward, and that Councilmember Marion Barry wants, is: How do you incent businesses, African-American or majority-owned to move into the city, spur economic development, hire residents in the area.
FISHERLet's go to a call from Keith in Ward 8. Keith, it's your turn. You have a question for Gary Cha?
KEITHYeah. You know, I'm not on either side, but, you know, I think I'm in agreement that what Marion Barry said was wrong. And, you know, as a Ward 8 resident, I have -- I've had to deal with the frustration of getting in my vehicle, even going to Virginia, as many of us do, just to get a decent bag of groceries. But, you know, one of the things that, when I did come to Ward 8, I immediately discovered was that when I ordered from a menu that was placed on my doorstep from an Asian carryout, the food was given to me in a Styrofoam container where the food was melted into the Styrofoam.
KEITHAnd when I called and asked for my money back, I was told that's how we serve it. We don't serve it any other way. But more important, you have to lose your dignity just to even get your food because, when they come to your home, you have to get up and go outside on the street and pick your food up. Those are problems that you can easily avoid by just not patronizing the business which my family and I chose to. Now, as far as...
KEITH...African-American and other minority businesses in Ward 8, that's the $64,000 question. Harlem, going through a serious of renaissance up there with gentrification, same thing. And the biggest victim of gentrification, NBC, as it is in New York, is that the Asian businesses are going out of business because no one will patronize them who has a slight education over the ignorant people that, quote and unquote, Marion Barry is talking about in Ward 8.
FISHEROK. Let's give Gary Cha a chance to respond.
CHAHello, Keith. Thanks for calling in and making those -- sharing with us the experience that you had. It's unfortunate that you have had such a negative experience at the Asian-owned restaurants. But I think, naturally, the law of equilibrium works itself out when those people who are unkind to their customers, don't listen to their customers, they'll eventually go out of business. And, luckily for me, I've been fortunate. I have made those mistakes early on in my life where I should have treated my customers better.
CHAI should have treated my employees better. And I have learned. And those are lessons that you learn. And if you learn and make that adjust -- that change and improve, you'll do better. But there's always somebody out there will treat you better than the restaurants or retail stores that you are patronizing. And you do have a choice. And, hopefully, the person will feel that change that what he lacks in sales due to bad treatment to his customers realize it and he will work of his improvement.
FISHERGary Cha is the owner of the Yes! Organic grocery chain, and that's a chain that really -- the stores are in stark contrast to some of these corner shops that Keith was talking about in that call. You know, in some of those corner shops, you have to deal with the merchant through very thick bulletproof plastic. It's sort of a dehumanizing feeling to order food there.
FISHERYet your store is clean and bright and open and has all the kinds of food that Keith talked about having to go to Virginia for. Was it with some trepidation that you entered that marketplace and went into a place where at least many other Asian businesses feel they have to barricade themselves in?
CHAMarc, that's always on my mind. And after about a year-and-a-half, then we realized we did -- we are doing the right thing by not having the bulletproof glass barrier there. But that was always on my mind when we opened. And still, the perception of people thinks that Ward 8 is unsafe, but that's totally -- for me, my experience was totally the opposite. We have not had any incidents of any crime.
CHAAnd the police have been very supportive. So I do talk to, oh, our other retailers who had the bulletproof glasses there. And then this has been their response. They said, Mr. Cha -- as I said, I would ask them, why'd you put up this bullet -- this glass, the dividers? And he would say, Mr. Cha, you look down the gun barrel three times in one month, and the man is demanding to open up register. Your leg is just not moving.
CHASo you think you want to -- you may get killed before you have chance to open the register. Then you put up this glass. And I said, oh, OK. I'm sorry that has happened. But -- so that was -- those were some of the responses I've gotten from retailers have that. And also, if you go to -- I think it's a police station on Indiana Avenue, 3rd and Indiana Avenue. When you go over there to pay your bills in the cashier's desk, there is bulletproof glass.
CHAAnd the -- also, building in DCRA, where you pay for your license fee, et cetera, and you go over there to pay the cashiers. I think they work behind the glass. You pay through this little cubbyhole. So I'm not sure if the people with all the -- they can afford all the security in the world, they could afford that, have those. And the people there are out on their own...
FISHERBut you've managed to do business successfully without any of that. And have you had problems with crime in your store?
CHANo. We have found this formula that worked for us. Our cash register and all the valuable has to be clearly visible from the street and have -- just let people know that they are being carefully watched. We do have a good security system there. And also, we treat people with respect. And we're hoping that that they would respect us back, and that has worked.
FISHERYes, Barbara. Go ahead.
LANGI just wanted to also respond to the caller around common courtesies, particularly in the retail environment. And one of the things that all businesses need, particularly small businesses, whether it be African-American, whether it be Asian-owned businesses, and that is customer service and how you treat your customers.
LANGAnd, you know, one of the things that we do in the chamber, but those services also exist in Ward 8 through the Small Business Development Center, or the Anacostia Development Center that's run by Butch Hopkins over there to teach small businesses how to do certain things. And we offer those services at the chamber, but they are right there in Ward 8. And we are very supportive and try to help support that as well because many times, you may have an idea that you want to be an entrepreneur and you may have a skill set in certain area.
LANGBut the whole customer service and how to treat your customers and all of that is not something that people may know -- common courtesies. So those -- they need to take advantage of those services that are in the ward or that are here at the chamber downtown.
FISHERThat's Barbara Lang. She's president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. Now, let's go to Shirley on Capitol Hill. Shirley, it's your turn.
SHIRLEYYeah, I hope I can get in all of my points. But the conversation, in some ways, is very upsetting. Unless you live in a neighborhood where you have a lot of the Korean grocers, you probably don't understand what's happening. I live on Capitol Hill, where I have two stores, not on opposite corners but within a couple of minute's walk of each other. Recently, I -- about a month ago, I returned a can of cranberry sauce that had gone bad.
SHIRLEYAll back in October, I returned a box of (word?) biscuits -- lemon biscuits imported from England. Those were rancid or stale. So I don't return things all the time. But when I went back a month ago and returned the cranberry sauce, I was told, you return things all the time. How -- you know, I was just read the Riot Act, so I said, you give me my money, and I will never come back again. In fact, I had to go out the next -- that day before after I got the bad cranberry sauce, before I went back to get my money back, and go to Harris Teeter and bought the good can.
SHIRLEYThe merchants in the area, some of them are so rude. They're incredibly rude. They don't -- I don't care if you're middle class. I don't care -- whatever. They are really rude. The other thing about -- go out of business if you're rude. Sorry, go ahead.
FISHERAnd do you think that's a racially directed kind of rudeness? Is it -- or based in some sort of racial animus, or is it something else?
SHIRLEYWell, I happen -- well, you know, I happen to be African-American, so I have no idea if it's racial or not. I think it's based on some ways on maybe they're not understanding -- Korean merchants not understanding that, at least in this culture -- maybe everybody doesn't do it -- but if you want to, you can demand your money back for something you have not consumed or something that is not good. The other thing that's happened in this area from time to time, even with the -- that same store was owned maybe five or six years ago by another couple.
SHIRLEYThey went out of business -- in fact, they didn't even warn the people in the neighborhood at all, and they were really nice people. All of a sudden, they just said, we're leaving, bye. And they shut -- well, they sold the store to the current owners. So it's just a way of doing business that, you know, maybe a lot of people won't approve of what Marion Barry said, and maybe it was said very, very, very roughly.
SHIRLEYBut if you come from a background where you'd grown up in a segregated community or you've had discrimination from other groups of people to have merchants come in and charge you incredibly high price -- I shop at Whole Foods, Harris -- I shop at a lot of stores. Sometimes I have to run up to the corner store. Their prices are so high (unintelligible).
FISHEROK. Let's give Gary Cha a chance to respond. Gary?
CHAYeah, I'm terribly sorry that you had such a bad experience with the Asian-owned retailers. But let me share with you something that many people rarely talk about or probably never have seen. This lady named Lucy Park, who owns Tenley Mini Market, but before, she had a carryout where, predominantly, the customer base was African-American. And even though I had been friends with her for about 10 years, I didn't find out about until recently when her former employee is -- now works for me and told her story.
CHAAnd what she had done is there are a lot of neighborhood kids there, and there's a -- raised by -- being raised by single mother, and the kid comes home before the mother gets home, and she would come to lose his carryout. And she would not just take care of them, but kids always hungry. So she would feed the kid until mother comes home. And when the kids -- the school kids gets a report card, they would all rush into Lucy's carryout with the report card and say -- they call on Lucy. I got an A.
CHAAnd she would offer the kids anything they want on the menu for free, the kids who got an A, and also kids who have received one full great improvement from previous semester gets to eat anything on the menu. And then, also there's some mothers, they're visiting their son in a jail, and Lucy would pack up a goodie bag to take with them 'cause that's -- their son may have broken the law, but he's still a precious son of somebody's mother.
FISHERWell, there are clearly, I mean, Asian business owners and other business owners who do extraordinary things for their customers. And yet there are also these tensions where people feel that they've been either treated rudely or overcharged. And I have to say, I'm surprised. We've -- just looking at the number of calls coming in and a number of emails, a lot of them are from people who say that they were treated poorly at shops, and that while Mr. Barry certainly said something that was ugly, they feel -- here's an email from Anna, saying that he -- "Mr. Barry has nothing to apologize for.
FISHER"He is correct, and he should've said a great deal more. Some businesses are horrific for the people in that ward, and they tend to be filthy and serve poor quality food." Is there -- Barbara Lang, let's bring you in on this point. There does seem to be a continuing tension that is based at least in part of how people feel they're being treated by some shop owners. Is there -- how do we get past that?
LANGI think that sitting down and talking about it is absolutely the right way. You know, hurling the insults and the accusations, pro or against, is not -- does not solve anything but sitting down. And if we start in Ward 8 -- and I think Councilman Barry is absolutely the right person to start those conversations between the residents and the business owners therein.
LANGBut I think it ought to be very inclusive. It shouldn't just be the Asian business owners. It ought to be the African-American, and if there are white business owners that are in that area as well. It ought to be all inclusive such that we want to make this community much better than it is today, but we have to start with some dialogue back and forth.
FISHERAnd Gary Cha, at Yes! Organic, you seem to have been able to find a way to get past a lot of these problems. One of the things that when Marion Barry apologized for his comments, he said he was also frustrated about the lack of access to healthy food in his part of the city. And he accused some of the Asian grocers of contributing to the problem of they're being a food desert of mostly very fatty, high caloric foods being available in these convenience stores. So you're actually part of this change in making different kinds of food available. How is that working out?
CHAMarc, always doing the right thing in a long run is what you should be doing. And I feel like we're doing the right thing by opening a store there, although income level and demographics and other study made is quite different. There are other stores which has much higher sales volume. But if I was living in Ward 8, why should I not have access to healthy food like the people living in -- off the Wisconsin Avenue? So we were listening to our customers who are driving across the river, shopping at our store in Capitol Hill. So that was our next store that we opened.
FISHERIs it doing well?
CHAWell, I think it's getting better, but it's one of the -- it's -- that you have room to...
FISHERIt's a struggle.
CHAIt has a lot of room to grow. And let me reiterate some respond to Barbara Lang. I totally agree with her about bringing two groups together 'cause we have done that. Three -- exactly three years ago, when the neighborhood grocery stores and community store being protest for ABC license renewal and the perception was all the stores were selling drug paraphernalia, so I went to -- I'll decide -- I visited them again. And I asked some owners, like, are you selling drug paraphernalia? They said no.
CHAThen I asked them, would you write down this form, agree that you will not? And they said -- unanimously, they said they would agree, and they don't sell. They would not sell. So with that information, we had a meeting and turned out to about 300 people showed up at a Baptist church. And we had a chance to people -- for both side of people to get to know one another and share some of the things, their concerns. Like, for example, the caller where brought in about the negative experience they had at the carryout.
CHAI'm not sure if we can help. But since then, we have had constant dialogue with good friends like the executive director of Anacostia Coordinating Council, Philip Pannell, and Chairman Arrington Dixon and also ANC commissioner and Chairman Anthony Muhammad. We have constant dialect, and if there's issue there, they would call, and I'm sure we could find something. And if dirty store is a concern or a bad service, I'm sure two sides, if we can talk, we can work those out to improve.
FISHERGreat, well, we'll have to leave it there. Gary Cha is the owner of the Yes! Organic grocery chain and past president of the Korean-American Grocers Association. Barbara Lang also joined us. She is president and CEO of the DC Chamber of Commerce. And when we come back after a short break, we'll talk about the hunt for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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