Korean and Black American Relations Past and Present
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway, where I'm listening to China Mac's They Can't Burn Us All.
China Mac Singing: Yeah, do you know where our pain at? (Do you know?)
Who you think built them train tracks? (Do you know?)
What we contribute, can't erase that (blaow!)
Put in blood sweat and tears, tell them this is payback (ha!)
God bless America
They hate us in America
But we helped make America
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now China Mac is a second-generation Chinese American from Brooklyn. When he released this track back in 2021, he was the first member of the hip-hop community to speak artistically and politically to the movement to stop Asian hate.
China Mac Singing: Why they wanna kill me in America?
Is it me or is it 'cause they scared of us?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which is part of what made this moment especially interesting.
China Mac: I didn't even look at that. You know what I'm saying?
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's part of a 2021 interview China Mac gave to Vlad TV, an urban news and celebrity interview channel, and Mac was responding to comments from actor Michael Jai White, who claimed in an earlier exchange that Stop Asian Hate was a more socially acceptable movement than the movement for Black lives. It's this kind of comparative framework of whose group is most harmed by dominant systems that can make cross-racial coalitions particularly hard to achieve.
Go back to 1991 when Rodney King was brutally beaten by police officers in the early hours of March 3rd. Videotape of the incident was broadcast over and over again nationwide, both because of the horror over what had happened and the new reality of a 24-hour news cycle that played out in real-time on cable TV, but just two weeks after that beating on March 16th, Korean American business owner, Soon Ja Du shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in her store.
The girl was unarmed and Du believe she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. After a physical struggle, Du pulled a gun and shot her in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died with $2 in her hand. Then after a jury acquitted four police officers of the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1992, many Black Americans took to the streets outraged by injustice. Some of the primary targets of that outrage were Korean Americans who shared the streets in south-central Los Angeles. By the end of the uprising, over 2,200 Korean businesses had been vandalized or looted, or burned to the ground, resulting in about $400 million in damages.
Claire Jean Kim: I would say the relationships were fraught and tense for structural reasons primarily. That is that Asian immigrants, including Korean immigrants, come in and even though they're disadvantaged by language in the labor market, and faced certain forms of discrimination, they're also exempted from the kind of state violence and hyper segregation that Black Americans are subjected to. There's already a differentiated status and a power differential.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Claire Jean Kim, Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She's also author of Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World.
Claire Jean Kim: When they come in and start opening stores, those stores serve as paths for mobility for their children. They're store owners, but their children become accountants and doctors, and lawyers while their customers remain in these segregated, hyper police Black neighborhoods where their children don't have the same opportunities. It's a structurally fraught situation.
Then the killing of Latasha Harlins by a store owner Soon Ja Du, Joyce Karlin, the Judge Joyce Karlin, who was a white woman, gave Soon Ja Du probation and time served and a fine, but Soon Ja Du did not serve any time for shooting Latasha Harlins who was Black and that treatment of Soon Ja Du and that sort of disregard for Latasha Harlins and the devaluing of her life was a very important factor, I think, in bringing attention to the Korean immigrant communities involvement in the power structure and their complicity in anti-Blackness. I think that's why we saw the targeting of Korean stores during the LA Rebellion.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say more about that targeting and how the LA uprisings and unrests revealed so much of what had been simmering.
Claire Jean Kim: The targeting of the stores included some vandalism, arson, looting, and, interestingly, we know from the statistics right after the events that the majority of people arrested were actually Latinx folks, mostly central and Latin American immigrants, not Mexican Americans or Mexican immigrants. It wasn't just a Black, Korean, white event.
There was clearly a strong Latinx component but, in part, the Black aspect of the rebellion, the speaking back to power about police brutality that had been going on for decades, the segregation, the job discrimination, the denial of credit, and discrimination in banking, all of these factors together, plus the acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating, as you mentioned, plus the effective acquittal of Soon Ja Du, in the sense she didn't get jail time, all of these things came together and prompted the Black community to act in a way to take to the streets to protest in what I think we can fairly say it's out of political critique.
This was very interesting in that the US government and the mainstream media tended to see this as "a riot" or something that was irrational and even criminal, and to therefore erase what was clearly the political critique at the heart of this Black-led rebellion, which was a critique of anti-Blackness and a speaking back to power. In that sense, we can see the LA Rebellion is part of a centuries-long Black liberation struggle and not as a riot, even though that was the term used to discredit it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We talk about these things as though these communities are one community, the Black community, the Latino community, the Korean community. Can you complicate that a bit for us and give us a sense of how issues like class, location, immigration status actually crosscut these identities.
Claire Jean Kim: One reason that we think that central and Latin American immigrants were more involved than, let's say, Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans in terms of the Latinx component of this event is that these were people who were more recently arrived and less established. There was less representation for them politically. They were less integrated into the economy. They were in a more marginal status, and that probably helps to explain their involvement.
In terms of the Korean American community, there is no single monolithic Korean American community any more than there is a single monolithic Black community. For Korean Americans, one good example of one of the divisions would be generational, because that, in part, is also a political divide in the sense that after these events, we see first generation Korean immigrants, on the whole, taking a more law and order conservative approach to the events and saying the police need to come out and protect our stores.
Their children, on the other hand, many of whom were either born here or raised and educated here, really taking a different approach and saying, "We want justice for Rodney King, too. We want justice for Korean Americans, but we also want justice for Black people." Recognizing that white supremacy is a force that affects all groups.
Now, in my estimation, and in my research, I talk about how I think that Asian Americans don't sufficiently discern the differences between how they are discriminated against and how Black people are discriminated against. They don't talk enough about differentials in status and power and I think that's a serious problem. On the other hand, at least in the second generation Korean American cohort, you see a recognition of the fact of anti-Blackness and some interest in addressing that and finding a way to connect to that rather than simply dismissing Black protest as crime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How were police reacting relative to Korean business owners in the context of the uprising?
Claire Jean Kim: One of the main complaints that Korean store owners and the Korean community at large had during and after the events was the absence of the police in terms of protecting Korean-owned stores. You see this in some footage of the events that you see police officers standing by while people are going into the stores and taking things out. There was an absence of the police and also a lack of commitment on their part to protecting the property of the Korean store owners.
There was a commitment of the police to protect areas like Beverly Hills, white affluent areas, to make sure that protestors wouldn't reach those neighborhoods. Korean American store owners felt abandoned by the state and what's interesting is they then took matters into their own hands, some of them. That's how we get the Korean men with rifles on the rooftops, that image.
Ironically, the one Korean American who was killed in all of these events was killed by mistake by a Korean store owner on a roof with a gun because he mistook this young man for a looter and shot him to death. Ironically, that was the cause of the one person's death.
I think it's important to, on the one hand, recognize, yes, Korean Americans were discriminated against vis-a-vis affluent whites, as police went to Beverly Hills instead of protecting Korean-owned stores. On the other hand, the call to the police to protect their property, in and of itself, is an indicator of the kind of positioning of Korean immigrants relative to the people who were involved in the protest, relative to their poor customer base.
Melissa Harris-Perry: 30 years later, how would you characterize these relationships?
Claire Jean Kim: I think they're effectively the same. I know that's not what people want to hear because in the US, we're trained to hope for and to believe in a linear sense of progress with race relations, so-called, and we think something is wrong if things are not progressing incrementally forward. Notwithstanding the efforts of many Black and Korean-American activists at the grassroots level to improve relations, there is a deeper structural problem that I mentioned at the beginning, the problem of occupying different structural positions in the racial order and in the economic order.
No matter how well-intentioned activists are, and no matter how creative their programming, they can't touch this underlying structural problem. That remains with us. The protests that we saw after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, of course, was a national and international protest. The largest protest movement in US history. The New York Times estimated 15 to 26 million Americans went into the streets to protest this.
That set of events reminds us, however many years later, 30 odd years later, that we're still dealing with the same issues at the core of an anti-Black society. Which are segregation, job discrimination, police violence, even fatal violence, the containment and repression of Black communities, incarceration of Black communities, those problems really sit at the center, I think, of our social and political dilemmas. We see them recur periodically in these events.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We can talk about this in context of state violence, which is clearly where we begin given that we're discussing the LA uprisings from 30 years ago, but I'm also wondering about how these tensions play out in spaces like higher education and the current affirmative action discussion?
Claire Jean Kim: It's such an important front for these issues right now. The anti-affirmative action case brought against Harvard and UNC and soon to be brought against other universities, it was first filed in 2014 and we're about to see the Supreme Court take it up this fall. This is, with a very conservative Supreme Court, the most conservative we've had in a long time, we, people, I think generally expect that they're going to overturn Bucky for the '97-year case and that they will effectively end or strongly hamper affirmative action in US higher education.
We see this push against affirmative action. Now, it's always been coming from conservative whites, as you know, from the beginning of affirmative action in the 1960s, we've seen this is a major agenda item for conservative whites. What's happened in the last 10 to 15 years is conservative Asian Americans, a group of mostly Chinese, affluent, highly educated, professional class Chinese immigrants, this is their reason for waking up in the morning. This is the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning and last thing they think of before they go to bed. They're incredibly disciplined and passionate national anti-affirmative-action fighting force.
They helped to defeat Senate Constitutional Amendment Five in California in 2014. They were strongly defending Peter Liang when he killed Akai Gurley, officer Peter Liang in New York City in 2014. They're cooperating with conservative activist Ed Blum, who helped to advance the case Shelby County versus Holder in 2013, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. They're working with Ed Blum in the Harvard case.
We see them presenting this incredibly powerful argument that it's not white Americans who are suffering because of anti-affirmative action, it's Asian Americans and because Asian Americans have already been historically disadvantaged by race, this is the pinnacle of unfairness to burden them further in the name of helping those who are considered the paradigmatic beneficiaries of affirmative action that is Black students.
It's really setting it up as an Asian versus Black issue. In that sense, it is connected to the LA Rebellion of '92. I think this is where we need to be looking as people who are observing race politics because this is the coming front I think of where these inter-minority conflicts are going to start being played out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Claire Jean Kim is Professor of Political Science and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and also author of Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World. Thank you for joining us on The Takeaway.
Claire Jean Kim: Thank you, Melissa. Appreciate it.
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