Why Korean Support For Black Lives Matter
Exploring the model minority myth, the tragic history and the future
One winter afternoon of 2014, I stood with hundreds of protestors on the steps of Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland to decry the police murders of unarmed black victims. The plaza’s unofficial name is Oscar Grant Plaza--which was named by Occupy Oakland protesters previously in 2011 after the 22 year old black man from Hayward was shot by the police while he was lying face down on the ground, with his hands on his back. He was one of numerous innocent black people who were murdered for ‘being at the wrong place at the wrong time while black.’ And that was exactly why hundreds of us rallied that day, and marched from Oscar Grant Plaza to the Alameda High Court building.
As helicopters buzzed above us, making us nervous, I caught a glimpse of one sign that stood out to me amongst many signs that were present that day. “흑인의 생명도 소중합니다” a sign in my first language which reads “black lives matter” or in a more direct translation: “black lives are precious too.” The sign was lost amongst the crowd soon after, but that short moment, when I saw the sign, I became a little more brave. I marched on because I was reminded of why my support mattered for a movement that believed in justice and liberation of black people.
I, as a Korean American immigrant, both benefit and am oppressed by the history and its enduring legacies that had pitted not just Asians, but especially Korean Americans against black communities. The clash of the Korean American and black communities which especially was heated in the 90s, had left gaping wounds in these two communities that are still carried today. And I believe that these wounds can only be healed by Korean and black communities coming together, and working in unity to effectively battle the larger structural and cultural system that makes up America. This structural system is held up by ultimately oppressing both racial groups under one ideology and the institution of white supremacy, in which white lives matter above all others. Under white supremacy, there are multitude of things that take place; from microaggressions to seemingly heavier symptoms such as discrimination in housing, health, cultures, education, economy and law. White supremacy works like a complex spider web in which everyone’s lives, both people of color and whites are affected.
As expected, political movements and its branching protests are often labeled as something futile and a nuisance. This is the same with the Black Lives Matter movement. This has always happened in history. When anti-war movements and protests were at its peak during the Vietnam War era, the protesters and activists were criticized with the same rhetoric. However, we are now aware today that these activists and their movement have changed how the American culture looks at war, and inspired journalists and the public to assess military and foreign policies like never before. I want to note another example from my native country, where in 2016, more than 1 million protesters undeniably paved the course in which an extremely corrupted president Park Geun Hye was impeached and convicted. All over the world, the colossal impact activists and protesters have are often dismissed and erased, yet in human history, it has been proven that activism and protests are the most powerful actions to bring about change and raise awareness. For many black movements and activism however, including the Black Lives Matter and the original Black Panther Party, they have been criticized by those who do not understand the mission of the movement as being violent. This is predictable considering the history of how societies perceive protest but also the enduring stereotype of black people being violent. People remember the Black Panther Party with their berets and guns, (which was legal at the time) but very little people remember them for their free lunch program which fed the hungry black children of Oakland. Most importantly, the members of the Black Panther Party were murdered by authorities for reasons none other than being black activists and making racist politicians paranoid. We are seeing a similar pattern with the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
However, as many researchers and experts note, much like the original Black Panther Party, Black Lives Matter is not a hate organization. The president of Southern Poverty Law Center, J. Richard Cohen stated in Times magazine in 2016 that there are indeed black hate groups. The New Black Panther Party is one of them, as its leader specifically advocated for killing white people, and anti-semitism. Even Bobby Seale, the founder of the original Black Panther Party have strongly denounced the new party for these reasons. In defense of the Black Lives Matter movement, Cohen writes: “we have heard nothing remotely comparable to the NBPP’s bigotry from the founders and most prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement and nothing at all to suggest that the bulk of the demonstrators hold supremacist or black separatist views. Thousands of white people across America—indeed, people of all races—have marched in solidarity with African Americans during BLM marches, as is clear from the group’s website. The movement’s leaders also have condemned violence.”
It is not to say that there are no violence and hate amongst protesters of the movement. The murder of eight police officers in Dallas by Micah Johnson during a protest in the aftermath of the murder of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling is one example. This incident naturally garnered the harshest criticism of the movement, despite the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement condemning Johnson. What the public miss is that these civil unrests, including the protests and violence happen because without them, the reality for the oppressed do not change. These civil unrests are ultimately symptoms of an oppressive society.
By becoming involved in activism, I unexpectedly connected more deeply with my own Korean roots and heritage. The perceived image of Koreans is that we are model minorities: quiet, employed, submissive and passive. But what many both Koreans and non-Koreans forget is that Koreans and Korean Americans’ identities and histories are entrenched in civil unrest and radical activism against colonialism, war, military dictatorship and economic disenfranchisement.
It is only recently that Koreans started to make their way into economic prominence both in homeland and abroad as a diaspora. Have we forgotten the time when Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world? When starvation was ingrained into our seasonal routine? Did we forget Euyeoldan, the radicals who bombed colonial establishments when Korea was under the Japanese rule? I think of my great grandfather, who funded the Korean independence movement and provided the rebellion with arms--surely a civil disobedience I look up to and respect. Furthermore, while researching about the history of black civil rights movements, I came across numbers of Asian American role models such as Yuri Kochiyama, who fought for justice for people of color, in a day and age when seeing an Asian ally to black rights was much rarer than now.
As I’ve noted early on, the struggles of Korean Americans has been greatly intertwined with the struggles of black people more recently and more deeply than many other Asian communities. This is because of a number of reasons: Koreans were the latest arrival to the United States as an immigrant group amongst Asian Americans and because of this occasion overlapping with the Rodney King Riots. This event visibly showed the racial division not only between black and white communities, but also between black and Korean communities especially in Los Angeles. When we discuss the Rodney King Riots, many often forget another victim of another murder which led to protests and riots taking place all over Los Angeles at the same time. Her name is Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old girl who was shot in the back by a Korean store clerk Du Soon Ja after an argument over an orange juice. Du was only given 400 hours of community service as a sentence, and it has become a defining case of anti-blackness carried out by a Korean American. This case ignited violence and destruction of L.A. Koreatown, costing about 300 million dollars for the Korean American economy. The L.A. Riots also taught an important lesson to the early Korean immigrants: this country did not care about them. When the Korean stores and houses were going up in flames, not a single police officer came to Koreatown for aid, and it is now known that L.A.P.D. only aided in white neighborhoods during the riots. And soon, naturally, the Koreans took up arms themselves, much like the Black Panther Party, to take matters into their own hands--because it was life or death. The racial divide also inspired further anti-blackness amongst Korean Americans; but also, Koreans became perpetually racist “gooks” in the eyes of black America. A prominent black artist Ice Cube even made a song about the conflict in his song: "Black Korea."
As Korean Americans earned more social mobility throughout the last decades or so, most of us left the black neighborhoods we first settled in. It was the only place Koreans could afford to open businesses, because unless one had a medical or law degree, most Koreans could not find employment due to the fact that they were newcomers and had language barriers. So in an already disenfranchised neighborhood, two ethnic groups who had gone through immense turmoil were put face to face, making a perfect setting for racial tension and conflicts.
While Asians are surely noted for their economic and educational mobility, hence, the myth of ‘model minority’ being born, what many do not see is the wealth gap within the Asian American community. Numerous surveys and research has proven that while Asians generally make more money than whites, Asians also have the higher rate of poverty. Although it is encased in a rather positive vocabulary, the notion of model minority is hugely damaging to both Asian and black communities. First, by upholding the myth of Asian Americans succeeding just by the vague notion of hard work, education and mostly conservative values, it presents a picture of America without white supremacist ideologies barricading people of color, including Asian Americans and black people from wealth, health care, education, housing, and more. Furthermore, this allows the biggest advocates of this myth to question, if Asians could succeed through hard work and education, why are black people not as successful? And does this make black people the "unmodel" minorities? The model minority myth has reinforced the stereotype of black people being uneducated and lazy, because it was used as a tool to erase the realities of institutional racism. It presents America as a utopia which has no racial and class barriers by using the success of certain Asian ethnic groups such as Indian Americans and Chinese Americans.
Yet, despite the image of success and stability, Asian Americans are still robbed of the political, social and cultural agency. These struggles of Asian Americans show that at the end, no matter how much money and success an ethnic group appears to have, theey are still unable to be represented properly in medias, face discrimination in workplaces, treated as perpetual foreigners, and are still dismissed politically. There are many reported cases of Asians being denied of jobs because of their “foreign sounding name” or their nationalities being in questions while applying to jobs. Another example is when in 2018, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa shared a story about her own grandfather’s detainment in the World War II internment camps, and sought promise for securing grant money for maintaining these internment camps as historic sites. To this, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said: “konnichiwa,” dismissing her question and belittling her American identity. For majority of history, Asians have been represented as either exotic, and passive. My heart breaks everytime my Asian friends and I share our stories of rampant street harassment and threats that are racialized. From a cat call like “nihao, sexy” to “get the fuck out of my country,” I’ve had my own share of public harassment and verbal abuse to know that Asians are simply not taken seriously in our own country despite the economic privilege some of us appear to have.
While Asians are not given agency like so, our role as allies are still special in a movement like Black Lives Matter. By becoming an actually effective ally, Asians will be able to challenge the myth of model minority, and hopefully bring the communities that had been pitted against each other closer to strengthen the anti-racist and feminist effort against the status quo. The harshest critics of BLM and conservative politicians mistakenly believe that the increase of black rights is somehow at the expense of white people. But to bring about change, I believe that we, Asian Americans have a unique and special role that our communities are yet to claim.
Compared to black and Latinx people, Asians are often able to occupy majority white spaces. In environments such as the suburbs, educational institutions or occupations with higher salaries, Asians are often the largest minority group among the white majority. This gives us an advantage that other people of color do not have, and I believe we can use this privilege to stand up for other people of color and bring about change. Surely, the change will come slowly, and when it does, there won’t be another Latasha, there won’t be a need for a movement like Black Lives Matter, and no one will need me to march on the streets of Oakland.