White supremacy’s deadly game with minorities

Violence between Asian and black communities seen stemming from racist power structure in US

An expression of solidarity takes place in a Korean-owned store in South Los Angeles on April 20, 2012. Over the subsequent decade relations between minorities have continued to improve. (MATT SAYLES / AP)

On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, Scott Kurashige, a Japanese-American student at the University of California, Los Angeles, was taking a class with his mentor, a Korean-American professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies. The topic that day was relations between the Korean and African-American communities.

"That's how close I was to it," said the 52-year-old, referring to what's known today as the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. They broke out that afternoon when groups of black people started to gather in the city's metropolitan area to attack, loot and torch stores, the majority of which were owned by Korean immigrants.

The LA Riots were and still are today framed as black-Asian conflict. But the truth is: it didn’t occur in a vacuum.

Scott Kurashige, an academic focusing on race studies at Texas Christian University

Over the next five days, residents of what's known as Los Angeles' Koreatown watched with horror the ravaging of their properties and, some would say, the collective memory of Koreans as a community in the United States. Sixty-three deaths and $1 billion in losses were recorded before order was restored.

Some attackers said they were avenging the death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American, fatally shot in March the previous year by Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American liquor store owner who accused the girl of stealing — a highly provocative charge that, when directed at a black person, is often associated with strong racial biases.

In November 1991, a white judge sentenced Du, found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, to five years' probation, while handing out a $500 fine and ordering him to do 400 hours of community service. The black community was enraged as people spoke of a miscarriage of justice.

Anger was building up, yet the cap on the racial powder keg wasn't blown away until six months later. Then, on that fateful day, April 29, 1992, a jury in a California county court pronounced four white police officers not guilty of assault in the brutal assault of a black man they arrested for drunken driving in Los Angeles. The beating of Rodney King, an incident captured in film footage that shocked a nation, took place just 13 days before the death of Harlins.

"The LA Riots were and still are today framed as a black-Asian conflict. But the truth is: it didn't occur in a vacuum," said Kurashige. The professor of comparative race and ethnic studies at Texas Christian University describes his academic pursuit over the past three decades as "a direct response" to the incident that has extended way back into the history of Asian Americans in the country.

Customers from diverse backgrounds shop at a Japanese-owned business in Los Angeles in 1945. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Generations of struggle

In 2008, Kurashige, a fourth-generation Japanese American whose paternal great-grandfather once worked as contract laborer on a sugar plantation in Hawaii, published the book The Shifting Grounds of Race: black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, a study of "the mutually determining historical trajectories of two ethnic groups" who "struggled to advance in a city that prided itself on whiteness", to use the author's words.

By the early 20th century, the Japanese immigrants, having set up their own enclave of Little Tokyo in LA's Eastside, found themselves living near African Americans — a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country, from the city of Seattle, where Kurashige's mother grew up, to Mississippi, where Chinese immigrants notably mingled and intermarried with the blacks.

"Both were kept out of the white neighborhoods through discriminatory housing covenants. Yet in the pre-World War II years in Los Angeles, the Japanese and the blacks were facing distinctly different realities that led them to adopt different strategies and to look at each other for inspiration," said Kurashige.

"Despite being barred from so many jobs, the Japanese were able to establish for themselves a commercial footing through small businesses, a fact admired by their black counterparts," he said. "However, their exclusion from US citizenship meant that the Japanese had no political representation at a time when the African Americans were astutely breaking down racial barriers, often through their civil rights attorneys and a small number of elected black officials."

Occasional success would be achieved by the latter with the opening up of a formerly all-white neighborhood, the city's Westside for example. And the Japanese, seen by the blacks as "fighting for the same rights", would be following behind. Kurashige, who grew up in the Westside, acted as a consultant for a documentary film that tells this black-Japanese Westside story.

Then came World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Army on Dec 7, 1941. Kurashige's mother and her family, along with about 120,000 of their fellow Japanese Americans, were thrown into internment camps across the country.

As the old residents were forcibly removed from Little Tokyo, the new ones crowded in. Fleeing debilitating racism in the Jim Crow South and attracted by the newly available jobs on the production line — the government, to aid the war's Asia-Pacific theater, had moved the defense industry to the West Coast. As a result, many black people flooded into Los Angeles, doubling its African-American population within a few years. A lot of these newcomers ended up in Little Tokyo, which they then renamed Bronzeville. The new job opportunities weren't opened up to black people until their political leaders threatened President Franklin Roosevelt with the prospect of a mass protest in Washington.

"At the heart of this Little Tokyo/Bronzeville story are two narrative threads that converge and diverge, the latter taking place immediately after the war," said Kurashige, who attributed "the whites' shifting animosity" to "postwar national and international conditions".

With Japan becoming a postwar US ally, Japanese Americans were partly able to trade their malicious slit-eyed, bucktoothed wartime image for a more benevolent one. Meanwhile, the African Americans, their patriotism no longer trumpeted up, were continuing their push for civil rights. And in doing so, they positioned themselves against a conservative rollback in reaction to the progressive social policies implemented during the war, such as fair employment practices.

"The thinking from those in the power structure was: 'if we just let some of these Japanese into our neighborhoods and schools, we don't have to change anything.' But there's no way to meet the demands of the blacks without transforming the whole system," said Kurashige. "That's where they drew the line."

Buildings in South-Central Los Angeles are engulfed in flames as the riots unfolded over several days in 1992. (REED SAXON / AP)

Aggrieved groups

Out of this social backdrop came the term "model minorities", first used in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article by William Petersen to describe the Japanese immigrants, whom the sociologist believed had risen from the depths of exclusion to a level of accomplishment, successfully avoiding the sense of resentment that had befallen other aggrieved groups who became "problem minorities".

The author stressed that the Japanese did so "by their own almost totally unaided effort" — in other words without the help of state programs black activists often demanded to counter racism and its virulent legacy.

"The model minority stereotype really isn't meant to define Asian Americans. Rather, it's meant to define African Americans as deficient and inferior to white people by using Asian Americans as a proxy or a pawn to serve that purpose," said Kurashige, born four years after the article's came out. "Back then, a lot of us congratulated ourselves, unaware of the fact that we had been bailed out by the blacks."

Kurashige, who attended a high school with many black and Asian students and an almost all-white management, felt the playing out of that model minority stereotype, which consists of multiple presumptions including financial and academic success, a strong work ethnic, strict parenting, and social and political meekness.

"Asian American students including myself were more likely to be put into the college prep track while my fellow black classmates were asked to attend vocational-school-focused courses," he recalled. "But the privilege became a barrier elsewhere: I was supposedly good at math, but not at basketball."

Kurashige was seemingly on his way to becoming a member of the model minorities. But, having been taught what he called "a whitewashed history that didn't really cover Asian Americans", he came under the influence of "some outstanding Afro-American studies professors" while taking an economics major at the University of Pennsylvania, a city with a sharp black-white divide.

This experience would later benefit his Asian American studies at UCLA, and was informative when he worked to find a solution with African-American and fellow Asian-American community leaders and activists in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, viewed as a nadir of relations between Asians and blacks.

"What happens too often is that because people don't have a broader way to contextualize individual cases, they quickly jumped to sweeping generalizations," said Kurashige. "The fact that Soon Ja Du was framed in the media — and possibly viewed by the judge — as a member of the model minorities had devalued the life of Latasha."

In fact, the Peterson article had come on the heels of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the year Los Angeles was convulsed by what's known as the Watts Rebellion, staged by the residents of the city's black-populated Watts neighborhood.

With the merit-based immigration policy giving preference to skilled professionals, the years after 1965 saw an influx of Asian immigrants, most notably Koreans, the overwhelming majority of whom hold college degrees and would soon join the Japanese, Chinese and other Asian American groups to fill the ranks of "model minorities".

In her book Asian American Dreams — The Emergence Of An American People, Helen Zia, a second-generation Chinese-American journalist and civil rights activist, paints a vivid picture of their existence in New York, where many opened vegetable and fish markets and grocery stores in "low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods", having failed to do so in white neighborhoods due to the prevalent discrimination.

Cultural gap

The 16 or more hours each Korean family member put into a store to guarantee its survival had all "taken a toll", leaving the Koreans with "little time or energy to develop a relationship with their customers and community", said Zia. The issue was compounded by their lack of cultural savvy and limited English ability.

Discontent grew. In a 1988 boycott following a scuffle between two black women and a Korean market proprietor in Brooklyn, New York, black organizers called the Korean merchants "agents of the US government to destabilize the economy of our community".

Kyeyoung Park, who mentored Kurashige on that fateful day of April 29, 1992, later wrote that it was hard for the black poor to think of the lifestyle of a posh white neighborhood. So when they see "the (Korean) merchants who ring the cash register", they were tempted to blame them for their economic disenfranchisement, despite the huge profits being made by big corporates who were behind the store owners and the decision of the financial establishment to disinvest in black businesses and withhold loans.

Earlier this year, Michael Eric Dyson, a black author and academic, told an online forum: "The way in which American capitalism has operated at the behest of white supremacy is to deny legitimate opportunities to the African-American people and to give crumbs to Asian brothers and sisters while demonizing them as the origin of the invidious practices that we need to call out."

Dyson was also quick to point out the internalized racism on both sides: the anti-blackness the Koreans, like other immigrants, had assimilated as they became Americanized, and the anti-Asian scapegoating and xenophobia that the blacks, being native-born Americans, were susceptible to. The latter went back to the talk of "yellow peril" and the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 19th century.

Their feelings wounded by "yet another ethnic group advancing at their expense" to use Zia's words, the blacks were largely unaware of the fact that these "model minorities" were very often the "middleman minorities". Sandwiched between the society's dominate (white) and subordinate (black, Latino) groups and holding professions heavily concentrated in the retail and service industries, the "middleman minorities" — a term frequently used by race scholars today — had daily contact with black Americans in a way that white Americans often do not due to segregated neighborhoods and schools.

The contact had led to both conflicts and cooperation, said Kurashige, who insists on calling the 1992 Los Angeles Riots "the LA Rebellion".

"If you call it a riot, then a natural solution would be to call for the police, whose brutality gave rise to the riot itself," he said. "The word rebellion recognizes an anger that's justifiable and calls for efforts that would eventually move people beyond rage into community building and investing in cross-racial human relations."

"Break bread and share stories"-that's the advice from Zia, who has long been involved in the Asian-American movement, which was directly inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. "It's no coincidence that the term 'model minorities' was born in 1966 during the height of these struggles," she said. "There were active efforts to divide people."

And people need to look at nowhere else than Los Angeles in April 1992 to understand how the term had distorted the image of Asian Americans at the expense of the blacks. Instead of acting with resignation as the stereotype would have expected of them, the Koreatown residents, whose male members had often received military training back in South Korea, took to their guns in defense of their family and property.

Yet their effort didn't constitute much. With little initial intervention from the city's mayor and the police department, Koreatown was effectively left to burn since "it was a neighborhood that was brought up and populated by people who were themselves marginalized", to use the words of Alex Ko, a second-generation Korean American who speaks in a 2020 documentary about his family experience during the riots.

For many in the Korean and the black communities, that revealed white supremacy as at the crux of things. In the aftermath, a younger generation of Asian Americans including Kurashige rebelled against any racial profiling — and sometimes their own elders — in ways that linked their own fate to that of their black neighbors.

"The model minorities myth was foundational to the whole concept of the Asian-American movement in the sense that much of the defining of this diverse group started with the rejecting of that notion," said Kurashige, who recounted in his book the story of a black woman sending high-school yearbook copies to her Japanese-American classmates put into internment camps during World War II.

In a not so distant echo, Zia cited in her book a brief note left by an anonymous person to a Korean grocery store owner, together with a small donation, during an 18-month black boycott of Korean-owned businesses starting from 1990 in Brooklyn, New York. Taking place at a time of severe economic downturn that had disproportionately affected the black community, the boycott was accompanied by occasional clashes between blacks and people who were either Korean or looked Korean.

"I am a black American born in Brooklyn raised 20 years in Bedford-Stuyvesant … If any man has the authority to throw the first stone at his neighbor, it should be me," the note goes. "Instead I only feel LOVE."