FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Afros, weaves, braids and jerry curls - black hair can do anything. On our special Roundtable, we examine who's selling the products, and the list is short.

Filmmaker Aron Ranen explores the Korean dominance of this multibillion dollar market in the documentary, "Black Hair." In this scene, he asks a Korean shop owner about the stores in Chicago.

(Soundbite of film, "Black Hair")

Mr. ARON RANEN (Filmmaker): How many black-owned beauty supply stores are there in Chicago?

Unidentified Woman #1: How many?

Mr. RANEN: Yeah. Black-owned.

Unidentified Woman #1: I think it's over 10.

Mr. RANEN: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: A lot of are no more.

Mr. RANEN: Ten stores?

Unidentified Woman #1: Over 10, I think. Yeah.

Mr. RANEN: And how many Korean-owned beauty-supply stores?

Unidentified Woman #1: Koreans, almost 80 percent -

Mr. RANEN: How many?

Unidentified Woman #1: - maybe, I think, 300.

CHIDEYA: Ranen's film argues that Korean businesses control 80 percent of the black hair care distribution market. Joining us on our special Roundtable from KQED in San Francisco is the filmmaker Aron Ranen. He's also an instructor at DV Workshops. At our New York bureau, we've got Ayena Byrd, journalist and co-author of "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America." And by phone, John Park, owner of Gigi Beauty Supply stores in Dallas, Texas.

Welcome to all of you.

Mr. JOHN PARK (Owner, Gigi Beauty Supply Stores): Hello.

Ms. AYENA BYRD (Journalist): Hi.

Mr. RANEN: Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Aron, let me start with you. You're white. How did you come to this story?

Mr. RANEN: Well, I stumbled on this story. I was doing a TV pilot, and the host was an African-American woman who just told me simply how much more African-American women spent on their hair than white women. And I thought that would make kind of an interesting, funny little short.

And then I started filming, and people started telling me about this Korean lockdown on the black hair industry. And it inspired me, with my own money, to fly around the country and travel to these African-American neighborhoods and see for myself what the true story was.

And there, and behold, I found that 99 percent of the customers for black hair products were, in fact, black. But 99 percent of the owners were Korean. And it made me just reflect on kind of like economic social justice. And I decided to follow the film and the story.

CHIDEYA: Ninety-nine percent. We just heard a figure of 80 percent. How do you calculate these overall figures?

Mr. RANEN: Well, you know, these are empirical. But it's - there are very few black-owned stores. And you know, to me this is just a wake-up call that something needs to be done to encourage black entrepreneurship and black ownership in these disenfranchised neighborhoods.

And I'm just amazed, to be honest, that, you know, that African-Americans other than, let's say, Magic Johnson haven't entered these small neighborhoods and started opening up retail shops to sell these products.

CHIDEYA: Ayena, do you think, first of all, that really the market is as dominated by people of one ethnicity or one nationality, as Aron has found in his documentary, and if so, why?

Ms. BYRD: I do think that it's probably closer to the 80 percent number. I know when we were doing research for the book, which ended in 2000, we interviewed the president of AHBAI, which is an African-American watchdog group about the black hair care industry. And they estimated that, in 2000, that Koreans and Korean-Americans dominated about 60 percent of the black hair care market. But they said that that number was growing in a crazy way. So it's not surprising to me that in Aron's documentary, he said it's about 80 percent now.

One of the reasons is because I think there was just a lack of vigilance by African-Americans that this really could be a problem. A lot of times, the focus on quote-unquote saving the black hair care market was looking at white-owned companies buying the companies that made the products, not really at looking who is distributing the products and opening the stores.

CHIDEYA: John, I want you to listen to something from Aron's documentary.

Mr. PARK: Okay.

CHIDEYA: He spoke to the black owners of a hair supply and styling tool company called Kozuri(ph).

(Soundbite of film, "Black Hair")

Unidentified Woman #2: About three years ago, they start to blacklist our product. As they brought their own products in, they start to manufacture curling irons, and then they start to slowly cut back on orders, and then they tell you that your product is not in demand.

CHIDEYA: Now, what I want to pursue with you, John - you are an entrepreneur. You own three stores. That's pretty much the American dream. It's just like to go out there and have your own business. Is this is a case of people just pursuing their dreams in the Korean-American community? Or is this a case, as the last clip from the film indicates, of people kind of being shut out?

Mr. PARK: I don't see anybody being shutout. As far as Kozuri is concerned, yes, they have a good product, an excellent product. And they cost a bit more than some of the products that have been coming out, say, made in China over the last couple of years. But it's up to the customer whether or not they buy the particular product, okay.

Now, say a Kozuri product is $30 worth. Some of these cheaper ones are half the price. Of course, a prospective customer is gonna more often than not go for the cheaper one. And as far as sales are concerned, we're selling more of the cheaper ones and consequently not able to move as much as the more expensive items.

So as far as there's being some kind of conspiracy to shut her out of the market, I don't see that being a valid argument.

CHIDEYA: Aron -

Mr. RANEN: Well, how do you - well, I want to interject here. I had a very interesting experience. I was in Atlanta about three weeks ago, and I was at one of the few black-owned beauty supply stores. And he had received a letter from the Atlanta Beauty Supply Association and it was about a hair show that was happening in the Atlanta area.

The letter was entirely in Korean. There was absolutely no English. In fact, the number one magazine, which you know, John, is Beauty Times, which is published in America and has, basically, articles about black people and their hair. That magazine is written entirely in Korean. What's happened is the Koreans have completely vertically integrated the industry.

First they took over the retail, then the wholesale. And now they are grabbing some of the actual manufacturers. So what they are able to do is completely lock in the industry. And again, one of the ways they control it is by limiting the English language use among them. They communicate entirely in Korean.

CHIDEYA: John. Let jump in here, Aron. You know, John, I mean, I do think that there have been many examples, over time in America, of people using language as a way to network -

Mr. PARK: Well, in my case, I can't read Korean very well. I don't even read Beauty Times, just simply because it's in Korean. There are a lot of Korean-owned beauty supply OTC stores in America, okay? So (unintelligible) a lot of them don't speak English very well, and they are producing and publishing these magazines. And they are all to inform the owners about the products that they're selling.

CHIDEYA: Ayena, I'm going to get to you -

Mr. RANEN: Let me interject -

CHIDEYA: No. I'm sorry. I want to just get back to John for one moment. And Ayena, I'm going to come to you next. But John, I want to ask you about how you got into the business. I mean, because it seems as if there is definitely an intergenerational aspect to it. Your family brought you in, correct?

Mr. PARK: Yes. In the late '90s, I was actually in chiropractic school and we - my parents had started taking over a beauty supply from another lady, and I spent some time there working and decided that retail is what I wanted to do.

And if I can expound upon - expand upon that, my intention in this beauty supply business is not to just have my stores based on one specific ethnic segment. You know, African-American women, yes, but increasingly I am seeing Caucasian women coming in to my store for hair extensions, Hispanics.

CHIDEYA: Before I get back to Aron, let me just go ahead and ask this question of you, Ayena. You have a situation where you've got intergenerational merchants, you know, people in Korean and Korean-American families helping each other start businesses.

But you also have a situation where African-Americans are not always in the buy-black state of mind. Let's listen to another clip from this film.

(Soundbite of film, "Black Hair")

Mr. RANEN: If there are two products and one product was $2 cheaper at the Korean store than a black-owned store, where would you shop?

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, I don't know. I don't know.

Mr. RANEN: Be honest with me, where would you shop?

Unidentified Woman #3: I always shop at the Korean store.

CHIDEYA: So Ayena, what's all that about?

Ms. BRYD: Well, some of it is just economics. People think, okay, well, this is the cheapest product. This is what I'm going to get, because I think a lot of times consumers are not aware of how much the dollars made by black hair actually went back into the community.

Historically it has been such a community builder. It's - universities have begun because of money made by black barbers. There's - people have bought their families out of slavery by money that they made on the side doing white hair and black hair.

In the '60s and '70s and through the '80s, scholarship programs and breakfast programs were funded by black hair care companies; so I think it sounds like, oh, well, it's $2 cheaper so why wouldn't I buy this? What's the big deal? But the big deal is that these stores that now sell the products are not funneling the money back into the communities that they're in.

I think if more consumers knew that it's not as simple as getting a cheaper bottle of shampoo, maybe people would actually walk into the black-owned store and purchase it.

Mr. RANEN: Well, I think the most interesting question is if you turn that question around - and this is what I'd like to ask John - if I ask a Korean person, in general, if there are two stores next to each other, and there was a Korean and an African-American store, and the product was $12 at the Korean store and $10 at the African-American store - John, where do you think, and answer honestly, most Koreans would shop?

Mr. PARK: What's cheaper? The $10 store.

Mr. RANEN: Well, you know -

Mr. PARK: If it's the same product -

Mr. RANEN: I'll let the audience - I'll let the audience decide that and - but really, I don't want to be a hater. I want to be a motivator. And I think this is an incredible opportunity to educate folks. They can see the entire film at no charge at YouTube. Just type in black hair documentary at YouTube.com. You can watch the entire film at no charge. And basically, I think here's an opportunity for the African-American community to finally create the beginning of an economic civil rights movement.

CHIDEYA: Well, Aron, though, let - John, I'm going to get you in a second. But Aron, you are filming what is definitely going on in terms of - on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, block-by-block level. But in your film, do you feel any sense of responsibility for creating an environment where Korean proprietors are seen as the enemy?

Mr. RANEN: This film is a wake-up call to all African-Americans to get this economic train moving in the neighborhoods, period.

Ms. BRYD: Can I add something though? I think that we have to look at outside of Koreans and Korean-Americans who own beauty supply stores in black neighborhoods. They were, for the most part, coming in and taking advantage of what was already an opening.

In the '80s, during the Reagan era, a lot of black businesses shut down, a lot of beauty-supply businesses, a lot of businesses in general. And that was when we really started to see a growth of Korean-owned beauty supply stores because Korean-Americans have built credit associations where they can lend money within their associations to each other to start these businesses.

And African-Americans did not - we didn't have that. So I think that it's not just, oh, Koreans have come in and locked it down. It's also that black people historically have a harder time getting a loan to open up a business. Now, there are other problems, which I think Aron went into great detail in his documentary, and looking at how it's hard, even if I did own a supply - a beauty-supply store, will I be able to get the supplies that I need from Korean-owned distributors?

CHIDEYA: John -

Mr. RANEN: You know, I agree -

CHIDEYA: Let me go to John. Do you feel sort of a chill because of this conversation going on in black communities? Do you worry that you'll lose the support of your black customers?

Mr. PARK: No.

CHIDEYA: Do you feel unsafe? No?

Mr. PARK: No. One of the main things about this film that Mr. Aron had made that I disagree with is the focus on the whole racial issue and turning it into a racial issue, about black money and black communities. And when it comes down to it, it's about where an immigrant can come and set up a business to feed his family, basically. Okay, granted, it's in a black neighborhood, but -

CHIDEYA: Well, I think that there's a couple of things that I would throw out on the table. One of them is that Korean-Americans and black Americans have had some traditional beef, which is true between, you know, many different ethnicities in different situations. But there has been some racial bad blood between Korean-Americans and black Americans.

And secondly is that, you know, historically, when you look at black communities, a lot of vendors of different races or ethnicities have come through, and sometimes it's Lebanese-Americans, sometimes it's Korean-Americans, sometimes it's Jewish-Americans. And that has a lot to do with race and the structure of society, as well as personal decisions that people make.

So knowing that is the back-story, do you ever feel an obligation to give back to the communities that you're located in, financially?

Mr. PARK: I do. And whenever the opportunity may arise, whether it be through supporting a local high school or church or what have you, I see that opportunity and give what I can. But say a black person sets up a black beauty - or a beauty supply in a black neighborhood and makes a million dollars. Is he going to be throwing that million dollars back straight into that community?

Ms. BRYD: Historically, yes -

Mr. PARK: He's like any other entrepreneur. He's going to go in and use that money for - as he sees fit.

CHIDEYA: Ayena?

Ms. BRYD: I'm sorry to interrupt. Historically, yes. He wouldn't have given the million dollars back into the community. But a sizeable portion of it would have gone into community programs, either ones that maybe he helped to start or ones that already existed, whether it was a scholarship or breakfast program for children or giving a large amount of money to a school.

So yes, actually, it was always something that historically black barbers and beauty salons and black beauty supply stores have done in their communities.

CHIDEYA: We're just about out of time, but I'm going to go around and ask everyone what we should take away from this. John first. What should we take away from not just the film but the conversation that "Black Hair," the film, has started?

Mr. PARK: There is a great divide in how certain people are seeing this business. And I'm not going anywhere anytime soon, but I'm going to be here at least to show everybody that it's not just about black and - or black and Korean or black and white or black and whoever. It's just about entrepreneurship and building a good business.

CHIDEYA: Aron?

Mr. RANEN: Well, I'm looking forward to the day when the new Madame C.J. Walker arrives in town and pops up a thousand black-owned beauty supply stores and hires local African-Americans and that the money circulates 12 times in the community, and I hope that this film plays a small role in it.

CHIDEYA: Ayena?

Ms. BRYD: I hope two things. One is that black business owners and potential black business owners can organize themselves in ways that Korean merchants have, which is giving ourselves credit associations within our community so that we can maybe have a chance to build those businesses that Aron just mentioned.

I also hope that there can be more organizations that are coming up across the country to actually investigate whether or not there are problems getting - even if you do manage to open a store if you're black, making sure that you can get the products and that your products aren't being forced out and not distributed by the Korean-owned distributors.

CHIDEYA: Ayena Byrd, John Park, Aron Ranen, thank you all so much.

Ms. BYRD: Thank you.

Mr. PARK: Thank you.

Mr. RANEN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Ayena Byrd is a journalist and co-author of "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America." John Park is the owner of Gigi Beauty Supply stores in Dallas, Texas. And Aron Ranen is a film instructor at DV Workshops in San Francisco and creator of the "Black Hair" documentary. You can learn more about his film at www.blackhairdvd.com.

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