In our retrograde era, “the personal is political” might better be put “politics sure messes up progressive lives.” This past December, just after the Supreme Court completed the electoral coup that imposed the Bush presidency upon us, I spent a miserable snowy afternoon in my Chicago-area university office trying to winnow down a set of readings for a graduate seminar on race, ethnicity and nationalism. Glumly predicting the sorts of Cabinet appointees and White House policies that have indeed come to pass in the weeks since, I found myself unable to pare down the list. Instead, mindful of the racist renaissance we are likely in for in the coming years–not that Clinton’s two terms, characterized by the police-state crime bill and the evisceration of AFDC, were exactly models of antiracist governing–I shoveled back in masses of old Bell Curve-era readings on New Right cultural politics.
The Talmudic reading load imposed by a punctilious and politically depressed lefty professor on hapless grad students is, of course, the least of the burdens of newly enhanced conservative rule. But as we attempt to assess and contest the worsened life conditions, from Colombia to Cairo to Kazakhstan to California, about to be produced by Bush Administration policies, we need new analytic tools to help us envision the meanings of race and ethnicity in shifting national and global political economy. And Claire Kim’s fresh study, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City, offers precisely such tools.
Bitter Fruit is based on a meticulous account of the 1990-91 black-led “Red Apple” boycott of two Korean-run produce stores–Family Red Apple and Church Fruits–in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a boycott that arose in response to allegations that Family Red Apple’s store manager, Bong Ok Jang, beat an older Haitian woman customer, Ghiselaine Felissaint, during an argument at the cash register. But Kim, a younger politics and ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, uses that narrative to reframe the ways in which even we progressives, influenced by public culture despite our best efforts, tend to see the history and contemporary realities of race, immigration, representation, politics and poverty in American cities. Most political, ethnographic or other analyses of urban lives–with key exceptions in works like Brett Williams’s Upscaling Downtown and Dwight Conquergood’s “Life in Big Red”–focus on only one population, whether black street vendors or Latina or Chinese sweatshop workers. One of Kim’s strengths, making her the Anna Deavere Smith of the poli-sci set, is her careful consideration, through extensive interviewing, of the voices of all the players in the Red Apple imbroglio–Haitian immigrants and longer-term residents, black American political activists and elected officials, Korean merchants and community politicians of different generations, the various mainstream and alternative media–and her clearheaded recognition of their differential access to power and resources.
This is the key to the issue and the real innovation in Kim’s work. She lays out for us the “conventional wisdom” about black/Korean conflict:
Shut out of the mainstream economy by historical discrimination and hit hard by recent global economic changes, urban-dwelling Blacks are frustrated and angry. Enter Korean immigrants, who open stores in poor black neighborhoods and rapidly achieve economic success by virtue of their hard work and thriftiness…. Blacks lash out at them, irrationally venting their accumulated frustrations on this proximate, vulnerable, and racially distinct target. Korean immigrants…simply get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kim then disassembles this “racial scapegoating” narrative for us. She notes that “historical discrimination, economic competition, Black rage, immigrant dreams and prosperity” are all genuine phenomena but that this formulation “isolates these features and rips them out of the overall context of how racial power operates in America.” Racial power, in Kim’s analysis, is linked to racial ordering, the economic and ideological process through which populations are evaluated relative to one another. These constructions rely not on notions of ongoing white conspiracy or intentionality but on the reproduction of political-economic structures and discursive frames, the very ways in which we talk about the subject. Racial power “finds concrete expression in a wide variety of…processes that tend cumulatively to perpetuate White dominance over non-Whites. Putatively impersonal forces such as global restructuring and deindustrialization are in fact mediated by racial power so that Whites systematically accrue greater benefits from and suffer fewer burdens from these developments than do non-Whites.” The racial scapegoating story turns out, then, to veil the “‘bitter fruit’ of deeply entrenched patterns of racial power in contemporary American society.”
Central to contemporary American racial ordering are the empirically false and mutually interdependent constructs depicting a feckless and violent black and brown urban underclass and a hardworking, bootstrapping Asian “model minority.” The model-minority myth presents “Asian Americans as culturally superior to Blacks and yet culturally distinct from Whites and detached from politics.” As the American economy improved over the 1990s, as crime plummeted because of improved economic prospects, demographic transition, mass imprisonment and rising youth common sense, and as the impoverished were thrown off public assistance without much public outcry, we have heard less and less about the dangerous minority poor who have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. (Given the bear market and other recent indicators, though, watch this space.)
Representations of Asian model-minority behavior, though, dating from the 1960s, continue strong in mass media. Kim traces the origin of model-minority ideology to the use of Asian-American “success” stories–with mom-and-pop stores in the forefront–“as an explicit rebuke to Blacks involved in collective demand making of one kind or another.” “Consider the two myths as mirror images,” Kim invites us:
The underclass is lazy, undisciplined, lacking in family values, criminally inclined, unable to defer gratification, deviant, dependent, and prone to dropping out; the model minority is diligent, disciplined, possessed of strong family values, respectful of authority, thrifty, moral, self-sufficient, and committed to education. Whites–the unspoken overclass to the underclass and majority to the model minority–are factored out of the picture as if they were neutral, colorblind, wholly disinterested observers.
This triangulated racial ordering helps to rationalize common-sense “colorblind talk” that serves to mask both white power and the innately relational character of all racial systems.
Providing clear empirical proof of the bankruptcy of this vision, Kim locates both blacks and Koreans in the historical political economy of New York City. She uses other scholars’ work to establish the persistent and unique residential segregation of black populations–so extreme, both locally and nationally, that Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton label it “American apartheid”–and reprises the record of brutal and deadly actions by outer-borough whites against “trespassing” blacks throughout the 1980s. She uses sociologist Roger Waldinger’s research to demonstrate the ways in which blacks have been excluded from the changing urban occupational “ethnic queue.” Even their relative success in public-sector jobs in the 1970s, the result of federal antidiscrimination legislation, tripped them up when the public/private balance shifted and they lacked networks and resources to gain access to burgeoning business opportunities.
Kim cites abundant evidence that New York employers, like those elsewhere in the United States, operate on the basis of “old-fashioned racism–or discrimination based on the construction of Blacks (especially Black men) as undesirable (lazy, dishonest, unreliable) employees.” Even the conservative business newspaper Crain’s New York Business lamented in 1989 that “being black reduces the prospects for entrance and advancement in nearly every sector that defines the economic life of the city.”
The cumulative national effects of residential segregation and systematic credit discrimination, in addition to specifically regional oppression (for example, Koch administration refusal to grant city contracts to nonwhites), explain both Afro-Americans’ generally low levels of self-employment and the particularly extreme paucity of black small businesses in New York. The per capita rates in Los Angeles, for example, are 2.5 times as high.As a result of combined governmental and private-sector actions, by the late 1980s “increasing rates of overall and extreme poverty, deepening income inequalities, and persistently low labor-force participation rates shaped the lives of most Black New Yorkers.”
Haitian migrants to the United States, and New York specifically, beginning with 1960s waves of anti-Duvalier activists fleeing certain death, were immediately racialized as black and subjected to the same discriminatory treatment, with two additions. In the first place, blackness “is a source of great pride” in the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and Haitians had to come to terms with its often degraded American status. Then, as black foreigners began arriving in the 1970s in larger numbers, and with the rise of the AIDS crisis, Haitians were further coded as dirty, diseased and dangerous.
In this overall context of extreme antiblack racism, finally, Kim documents how ordinary patterns of ethnic political succession in New York City have never included Afro-Americans. In the period in which blacks were winning City Council seats and mayoralties, and influencing (if largely in the interests of the better-off) urban policy elsewhere, Ed Koch’s and then Rudy Giuliani’s long mayoral reigns, through finagling with the Board of Estimate and the City Council, were dedicated to wholesale black exclusion. Kim notes dryly that “this sheds some light on why Black efforts at empowerment eventually migrated outside of traditional political channels, resulting in the new Black Power movement of which the Red Apple Boycott was part.” The Afro-American David Dinkins’s short-lived stay in Gracie Mansion would be, among other political disasters, haunted by the boycott, begun only seventeen days after his inauguration.
The experiences of new Korean immigrants run entirely counter to this pattern. In the first place, Kim places post-1965 Korean immigration to the United States in the context of “America’s protracted efforts to influence economic development and shore up repressive anticommunist regimes in a non-White nation located on the periphery, resulting in significant migration from periphery to core.” That migration, in response to the explicit economic policy embedded in the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, was largely of educated, white-collar Koreans with small but significant savings to invest. Then these migrants were “racialized as Asian Americans and triangulated between Blacks and Whites…. It is in this way that the very economic opportunities that are closed to Blacks become the ticket to upward mobility for Korean Americans.”
Thus, while they were certainly victimized by American racism, these Korean immigrants, unlike blacks, were not subject to its more extreme forms–residential segregation, pervasive violence and abuse on the streets and in the criminal justice system. They were, however, forced into the “status derogation” of small business by both their poor English skills and employer discrimination against them as “foreigners.” Extensive Korean exploitation of retailing niches created ethnic business networks allowing them to take over entire urban retail sectors–greengrocers in New York and liquor stores in Los Angeles, for example. Relatively privileged but stressed and squeezed, Koreans in small business tended to subscribe even more extensively than white Americans to victim-blaming underclass mythology. The stage was set for the Red Apple boycott.
Here Kim really shines as an analyst. She disabuses us of “the conventional notion that the boycotters were venting their frustrations on Koreans instead of on Whites” by placing the event inside the “resurgent Black Power movement in New York City.” She identifies the heterogeneous players in and the politics of that movement, characterized in mainstream media as a solid bloc of crazy white-haters, and places them in the context of the public and private antiblack onslaught of the Koch years. Kim demonstrates how always-latent black nationalism became the lowest common denominator “frame repertoire” for organizing the boycott, despite the more developed left politics of the dominant black American December 12th Movement, which took over from the original Haitian agitators. And she notes the ultimate irony that this group, which was vilified as violently anti-Asian, “had presumptively positive feelings toward Koreans,” encouraged black patronage of all Korean greengrocers except the two under boycott and had even engaged in pro-Korean unification demonstrations.
Kim also carefully lays out the roles of mainstream, black, Haitian and Korean media in motivating the boycott and the backlash against it. As a long-term lover of the neglected public media of black and Latino radio, I particularly appreciate her coverage of the key organizing functions of minority radio stations. Kim shows effectively how their very different transnational as well as American placements structured Korean and Haitian interpretations and actions. During the boycott, for example, to offset their losses, the two storeowners received $150,000 from Korean-American and other sources. While this capital infusion was important, the real battle of the boycott occurred in the realm of the political. The “multiple layers of contested meaning” created by activists and their associated media inevitably resolved themselves into the overwhelming mainstream-media narrative, in which “colorblind talk,” heavily appropriating civil rights-era references, “garbled and distorted” the boycotters’ message and defined them solely as crime-prone anti-Korean racists. Michael Kinsley, for example, “the putative representative of the left on CNN’s Crossfire, said simply: ‘You don’t mediate between out and out racism on the one hand and a hardworking entrepreneur on the other. And that’s what’s going on.'” Kim justly observes that “the most striking aspect of the regular news coverage of the Red Apple Boycott was its univocality.”
This single voice put David Dinkins “squarely on the hot seat.” Already having been accused, before taking office, both of pandering to black extremists and of selling out communities of color, Dinkins could only lose on the boycott issue. His early refusal to send in the NYPD to move the protesters off-site enraged the city’s elite, who claimed he was ruining New York City’s business climate. But his final capitulation to white pressure, a televised speech opposing “any boycott based on race,” stung his black supporters. Al Sharpton accused Dinkins’s speech of being like “a James Brown record–talking loud and saying nothing.” And attorney Vernon Mason declared that “he ain’t got no African left in him.” Overwhelmed by bad publicity, the boycott lost steam and collapsed after only eight months of picketing. Kim notes the key role it played in New York electoral politics: “David Dinkins made history again by becoming the first breakthrough Black mayor in American history to lose office after only one term.” In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani “won a highly racially polarized election to become only the third Republican mayor of New York City since 1930.” And we all know what happened then!
Kim ends her fine study with a riff on W.E.B. Du Bois’s twentieth-century color-line aphorism: “It seems likely that the problem of the twenty-first century will be that of the multiple color lines embedded in the American racial order.” She rightly asks, “When is ‘voice’ really voice?”–querying claims of American democracy in the context of centralized and corporate-controlled mass media (and, we might add, of differentially efficient and functional voting machines). I would have liked her to deal with the gendered dimensions of the Red Apple boycott, write more extensively about non-Korean Asian-American politics around the event and trace out the implications of her work for other faulty analyses of the dilemmas of “middleman minorities” in the American and global past and present. But no one book can accomplish everything, and Kim’s Bitter Fruit sets an incisive new pattern for our understanding of class in multiracial politics as we live through the bitter years ahead.