We Need to Put a Name to This Violence

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tags: racism, Los Angeles, Asian American History, Los Angeles Riots, Korean American History

In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a dedicated group of community organizers, activists and academics banded together to address what the press had called the “Black-Korean conflict.” Their work, which included a march through Koreatown demanding peace and the publication of several studies, aimed to tell a story of mutual misunderstanding and media distortion.

In “Blue Dreams,” the first in-depth post-1992 study of the Black-Korean conflict, John Lie, a sociologist, and Nancy Abelmann, an anthropologist, wrote that while the fissures between the two communities had a long history, “the situation is not simple; the responses are not singular.” For example, they noted, “There are Korean-American merchants who work hard to better community life by holding neighborhood picnics, sponsoring sports teams and offering scholarships.” By casting out a constellation of exceptions, the authors, who certainly were not alone in this type of work, attempted to show that underneath all the media hype, real people were still sharing real community.

One can certainly understand the desire to reduce tensions and provide some path toward mutual understanding, but many of these calls for unity, especially those expressed in the endlessly nuanced, overly caveated language of that era’s academy, read in hindsight like desperate attempts to paper over the immensity of the divide.

The commonly observed reality was much more straightforward. It took the form of Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old girl who, a year before the Rodney King verdict, was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner in an argument over a bottle of orange juice; the more than 2,000 Korean stores that were looted or burned to the ground during the riots that followed the verdict; the Korean men who carried rifles onto the roofs of their businesses in Koreatown and shot at looters who came near. And anyone who thought that the national news media had invented a race war out of thin air needed only to listen to Ice Cube’s 1991 song “Black Korea,” which warned:

So don’t follow me up and down your market
Or your little chop suey ass’ll be a target
Of a nationwide boycott
Juice with the people, that’s what the boy got
So pay respect to the black fist
Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp
And then we’ll see ya
Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into Black Korea

Over the past month, as reports of attacks on Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American elders, have circulated, a new generation of scholars, writers and celebrities have tried to figure out not just what to do, but what exactly is even happening, and how to discuss it.

The public conversations, which have focused on rising xenophobia and what it means for a largely professional class of Asian-Americans, reflect, in many ways, the legacy of the scholarship following the 1992 riots. One can feel the understandable desire to reroute the conversation to safer and more familiar conclusions. The conversations also reflect a disconnect between the people on all sides who experience the violence — who are often working class — and the commentariat.

Read entire article at New York Times

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