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.