But Robert Cleary, a former director of the Dashing Diva [nail salon]franchising corporation , said that although he did witness discrimination in the Korean-dominated nail salon business, he doesn’t believe that the discrimination on a business level is exclusively race based.
“The central Korean distributors actively work to create barriers of entry to any group- even other Koreans to protect the status quo,” he said. “The Koreans used the [nail and hair industry] to get a foothold in this country. They were doing something, as many immigrants do, that the people who lived here didn’t want to do or didn’t have an interest in. They found a need, they found a niche and they made it their own. The concentration in these businesses promoted a shroud of secrecy and protectiveness that became hard to penetrate.”
The business methodology is highly cultural, said Cleary, only to be understood by many other Koreans who accept and conform to the way of doing things. Other elements of the business are highly controversial and susceptible to scrutiny to those who are not comfortable with the way things works. “The [nail] salons they distribute products to employ many illegal aliens and the distributors themselves often employ illegal workers as well,” he said. “This adds another layer of secrecy and motivation to keep things tightly controlled and quiet.” The issue of taxes and cheap labor also enforce the secrecy. “Many salons pay for their supplies with cash therefore a large part of the business at all levels is cash and rarely reported – just enough to fly under the IRS radar,” he said.
Regardless, this shroud of protectiveness fueled part of the tension between Korean business owners and the urban African-American community which famously erupted during the the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Korean entrepreneurs in the inner city usually maintain a separate existence, living outside of the urban communities in which they serve. Despite the fact that Koreans may be competitive even amongst one another, like many other ethnic groups, they have fostered a collaborative entrepreneurial spirit through establishing banks and business associations.
“In the 80s, they organized rotating credit associations,” said Dr. Park. “The way they formulate capital isn’t very different from other Americans.” Interestingly enough, Park says, what appears to be a strong relationship between entrepreneurship and Korean immigrants is not strong historically. “For a long time in South Korea, because of Confucianism, it was looked down upon to be a merchant,” she said. “These days, in South Korea, because of neo-liberal restructuring and other things [like lack of life long employment], Koreans are now thinking of opening up their own businesses. Until the 1980s and early 90s, opening up a small business was the last thing people would [want] to do.”
When Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” came out last year, it shed a lot of light on the origins of the hair used for weaves and the relationship between black women and their hair. But Ranen, who is a Jewish filmmaker, still believes that the powers that be in the African-American business community need to take a stronger stand in highlighting this issue.
“They’ve watched my movie but no one has done anything about it,” he said, revisiting his dream of seeing 100 black owned beauty supply stores open and establish a funnel to black-owned distributors and manufacturers. “There are people on Wall Street who can fix this in a minute and create some kind of dynamic kind of stock offering, completely above the board to open and fund the stores and give out shares.” It’s a vision that may not be wildly popular but one that addresses the passivity that hovers over the challenge of African-American empowerment by way of business and investing.
Watch the Black Hair documentary here: