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Repercussions of the Model Minority Myth Leading to the LA Riots of 1992

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Repercussions of the Model Minority Myth Leading to the LA Riots of 1992

Post by Nightshade on May 29th 2017, 4:27 am

The LA riots of 1992 brought to national attention the complex interactions between different minority groups in America; specifically the conflict between Korean American shop owners and their African American patrons. The model minority myth and its promotion of anti-blackness helped contribute to the tensions leading up to the conflict. The model minority myth can be traced back to the mid-1900s, with the spreading of the myth leading to repercussions that contributed to the LA riots, as well as to heightening the tensions between Asian and African Americans during and after the riots.

The model minority myth was created under relatively good intentions during World War II. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Following the battle of Dunkirk in France, the United States relied on Asiatic allies such as China, India, and other former British colonies for support during the war. The United States feared that China would withdraw its support in the war if anti-Japanese hate crimes harmed Chinese Americans living in America, so “for the first time, being able to tell one Asian group from another seemed important to white Americans.” To ensure that this would not occur, Life Magazine published an article with two portraits that “[were] the same size and the proportions of the facial features virtually identical”. One of these portraits portrayed a Chinese man and the other a Japanese man. The Chinese man was described as a public servant, tall, European passing, and a tolerant realist. The Japanese man, on the other hand, was described as a warrior, alien, short, and a ruthless mystic. To further ensure the support of China during the war against Japan, the United States finally overturned the Chinese Exclusion Act, which “[had] been a foreign policy goal of successive Chinese governments for more than half a century.” With this publically encouraged racial profiling between Chinese and Japanese Americans, the groundwork of the model minority myth was laid, though at this point Chinese Americans were the only ‘model’.

Japanese Americans would quickly join Chinese Americans as a model minority after the end of World War II. In response to a series of hate crimes against the returning Japanese Americans, a group of Christian women’s organizations arranged General Joseph W. Stilwell’s highly publicized visit to deliver the Distinguished Service Cross Award to the family of American citizen Kazuo Masuda. The deeds of Kazuo Masuda, who single handedly marched through enemy fire to set up a mortar and sacrificed his life to save members of his unit from mines, were reported on by all levels of media. In front of a large crowd, the general asserted that “such bravery was emblematic of Japanese American soldiers.” This was not the only publicized event that tried to promote tolerance of the once scapegoated Japanese Americans, as the United States suddenly became very invested in portraying the Nisei (second generation Japanese immigrants) as model citizens. The Nisei, recognizing that they were being carefully watched, realized that they had to assimilate and make a positive impression on white America or risk the future of the Japanese American community.

The Cold War also contributed greatly to the creation of the model minority myth. With the rise of communism in the east, mainly through the newly created People’s Republic of China, the United States “lauded stateside Chinese and … effectively drew contrasts between U.S. Chinatowns and Mao Tse-tung's China to suggest that superiority of the American way of life” in order to combat the spread of communism. Japanese Americans were drawn into the fold as John Foster Dulles declared that the United States must “align [Japan] with the West and alienate it from Asia.” Another politician by the name of Walter Judd pushed to provide Japan with its own immigration quota, hoping that Japan could serve as a capitalist bastion within the Asian region. The immigration quota proposal was incorporated into an omnibus bill that would also allow the detaining of subversives in internment camps like those the Japanese Americans were placed during World War II. Despite overall opposition to the bill by left-wing critics, the Japanese American Citizens League followed the majority opinion of Japanese Americans and pushed for the bill to pass. This was because the JACL had embraced the anti-communist ideology uniting the United States and Japanese governments and hoped that the bill would grant the aging Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) population their long awaited American citizenship. Because of this bill, Chinese and Japanese American groups started embracing assimilation as a method of abating racism, which led to them becoming model citizens in the eyes of white America.

While the model minority myth originated and persisted throughout World War II and the Cold War, the term would not be properly coined and gain the full connotation it has today until the 1960’s. In January 1966, the New York Times Magazine published the article “Success Story: Japanese-American Style”. The article described how Japanese Americans had overcome years of prejudice and racism to embody the American Dream thanks to their cultural emphasis on hard work, respect for authority, strong nuclear families, and other such traits that were already very similar to those valued in western culture. This allowed, in the view of the Times, Japanese Americans to assimilate fully and become true American citizens. Chinese Americans were next in an article by U.S. News and World Report, where they were described in a manner nearly identical to the way Japanese Americans were in the New York Times Magazine article. The U.S. News article was much more direct, stating that “it must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today.” These vaunted depictions of Asian Americans were contrasted with other minorities’, especially African Americans’ relative lack of success in America.

The model minority myth is an intrinsically anti-black concept, especially in its modern form. The purpose of its resurgence in the 60’s was to insulate politicians from accusations of racism and shift negative international attention away from the racism within the United States government. The New York Times article was released shortly after a report written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan’s report blamed African Americans’ lack of success on a multitude of factors that can be summarized as ‘Black families are dysfunctional’. He also characterized African American’s demand for equality as “a demand for equality of results, of outcomes." This report, combined with the articles published by New York Times Magazine and U.S. News and World Report, fully deflected the accountability for the lack of African American achievement from the current administration. Instead, the blame was placed on some imagined cultural aspect intrinsic to African Americans rather than to the oppressive systems in place such as the Jim Crow laws.

However, this political rhetoric alone was not enough to raise tensions to the point of the LA Riots, as it required that both Asian Americans and African Americans believed that the model minority myth was true. In a study conducted by Paul Wong et al. exploring how Asian Americans perceived themselves as well as how other racial groups perceived them, it is shown that belief in the model minority myth is empirically present in society. The study showed that Asian Americans perceived themselves as more prepared, motivated, and more likely to have higher career success. This sentiment is reflected across every racial category sampled in the study despite actual academic results being statistically equal across minority groups. While this study is more recent, the results would most likely apply to the past as well.

Many Asian Americans readily bought into the myth, as they were eager to escape the yellow peril stereotypes spread in America during World War II and the Cold War. After all, yellow peril was used to justify Japanese American internment, anti-communist persecution of Chinese Americans, wars in Korea and Vietnam, and various other hate crimes. According to Scot Nakagawa, “nearly everyone around me, and most especially Asian Americans, just accepted it [the model minority myth] as the truth.” The promotion of Asian Americans as model American citizens was even taken up by Asian American advocacy groups themselves, especially during World War II and the Cold War. The JACL supported the internment of Japanese Americans, hoping that it would show that they were not traitors to their country, but loyal citizens. They even lobbied to be allowed to fight in the war, hoping to further prove that they were model citizens that had assimilated into America. Those that did not fall into rank and file were silenced in various ways, such as the deportation of ‘spoilage’ Japanese Americans.

The model minority myth masked the problems within Asian American communities to outsiders due to the twisting of statistics used to justify the model minority stereotype. For example, Asian Americans were commonly described as self-reliant with strong family cohesion due to the fact that not many were enrolled in welfare programs. However, this was not a reflection of Asian Americans’ lack of poverty, but simply that they weren’t utilizing the government resources available to them. In 1970 New York City, 15% of Chinese Americans were under the poverty line, yet only 3.4% of them had enrolled in welfare programs to receive public assistance. This was due to apprehension and mistrust in the state that had done very little to help Asian Americans in the past.

This mistrust in the United States government manifested in relatively little political activism from the Asian American community. Japanese Americans were still recovering from their internment by the United States government, with those who were incarcerated exhibiting response patterns similar to those of people who had been raped. Eager to simply rebuild their lives and ensure that such an event never happened again, the Japanese American community remained largely silent in fear of history repeating itself.

Chinese Americans also remained silent out of fear, as their country of origin was now an enemy of the United States. In 1950, after the start of the Korean War, the U.S. government passed the Emergency Detention Act, which allowed the internment of any residents it decided were a domestic threat. The Trading With the Enemy Act was passed soon after, preventing currency transfers to the People’s Republic of China and allowing the deportation of suspected communist sympathizers. In 1955, the U.S. consul of Hong Kong drummed up hysteria, declaring that Communist China was using spies disguised as immigrants to infiltrate the United States. This prompted raids in Chinatowns around the country as well as the posting of public notices encouraging innocent residents to turn in any suspected spies. The final straw for Chinese Americans was the Chinese Confession Program of 1957. Chinese Americans who had immigrated to the U.S. illegally during the Chinese Exclusion Act were encouraged to confess their illegal status as well as those of their friends and relatives in hopes of deporting even more troublemakers and supporters of communism. While very few political activists and leftists were deported overall, these acts served as sober reminders that what happened to the Japanese Americans during WWII could just as easily happen to Chinese Americans. Chinese American labor unions and activist groups soon declined and disappeared under the constant attack of the United States government.

Even after Asian Americans began to mobilize, their contributions to social justice movements were largely ignored by the U.S. media, such as in the Third World Strike of 1968 in San Francisco State University. During this multi-racial strike, Asian American activists played a large role and the strike was considered a watershed in Asian American activism. However, the media largely disregarded contributions of Asian Americans and focused on African American and Chicano involvement instead. All of this contributed to overwhelming acceptance of the model minority myth by Asian Americans and the larger American culture. Asian Americans were shown either fervently accepting the model minority myth as true, remaining silent and showing no opposition to it, or opposing it; but the latter were not shown due to cover-ups by the media. To the larger American public, Asian Americans were still the model minority, showing up other minority populations due to their hard work and family structures.

Due to the popular public perception of Asian Americans as organized by the government and media, other minority groups including African Americans also believed that Asian Americans were the model minority and therefore did not consider them oppressed. A significant amount of Black activists bought into this thought process, as shown in Ana Nieto Gomez’s description of her experiences attempting to keep the multiracial coalition together while there were ““people who were saying, ‘Why should we do this? Why are we with these Orientals? They don't have any problems, they're all rich.’” If Asian Americans were not actively discounted, then they were rendered politically invisible because they were “not characterized by the widespread poverty and misery of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians” due to the stereotypes glossing over any issues within the community. Asian American activists did their best to fight against the model minority myth. Organizations such as the East Wind actively reached out to other political groups in an attempt to show their solidarity and UC Berkeley's Asian American Political Alliance newsletter stated that “Chinatown's problems ‘will forever be neglected by the government’ unless the community liberated itself from ‘the tyranny of this Chinese myth.’” Despite their fervent attempts, the model minority myth still actively Othered Asian Americans from other minority activist groups, most prominently African American led movements.

Anti-blackness caused by holding the model minority myth as truth was another major divider between Asian and African American movements. All evidence points to the model minority myth being an inherently anti-black concept, created in order to shift the blame of African Americans’ lack of achievement to themselves rather than on to the oppressive society at large. Hence believing in the model minority myth means believing that African Americans are culturally inferior. This can be seen very clearly in a documentary by Christine Choy that explored race relations in the Mississippi Delta. Throughout the course of the documentary, many of the Chinese American citizens expressed anti-black views while noting their own hard work leading to success. This culminated in the excommunication of a half black and half Asian woman from the Asian American community due to her mixed ethnicity.

Despite the perceived distance between the model minority and problem minority, a.k.a. Asian and African Americans respectively, the two communities were commonly tied together by location and economics. As seen in Christine Choy’s documentary, Asian Americans often opened grocery stores within black neighborhoods due to comparatively low rent and accessible clientele. This was not only restricted to the Mississippi, but it also occurred in many urban areas including New York and Los Angeles. The Asian and African American communities within these areas would soon come into conflict over their economic disparities.

An article by The New York Times showed the rising tensions between Korean American shop owners and their African American clientele. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) accused the shop owners of exploiting the community and urged African Americans to boycott Korean owned shops and ‘buy black’ instead. The Korean Americans deflected any criticism levied by the UNIA, such as Koreans being favored for business loans, by stating that there was no such advantage because they was also minorities and that they simply saved up with no show of favoritism before buying the empty businesses. The conflict repeated itself in 1985, again in Harlem. The New York Times article depicted another boycott on Korean merchants who were accused of siphoning money out of the community as well as being unduly rude to African American customers. The Korean shop owners again deflected criticism by blaming customers’ usage of drugs and drawing upon their hardships as immigrants to a new country. The reasons the Korean shop owners gave against African American criticism parroted those first documented in "Success Story: Japanese-American Style." and "Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.". This showed the lack of meaningful communication between the two groups as well as how the model minority myth promoted anti-blackness in Asian American communities.

Similar tensions led up to the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, with conflicts between Korean shop owners and their African American clientele which led to boycotts and protests. What caused the tension to come to head was the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD. The full conflict was caught on tape, showing the unarmed man being struck by police batons over fifty times. In the end, he suffered eleven fractures as well as other injuries due to the beating. Despite widespread protests from the African American community, the four LAPD officers on trial were acquitted of all charges on April 29, 1992. Rioting started the same day.

The Rodney King incident alone does not explain why Korean American businesses were targeted. That was due to tensions between the Korean shop owners and their African American clientele that culminated in the shooting of Latasha Harlins by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du. The store owner believed that Latasha Harlins was shoplifting a bottle of orange juice and shot the fifteen year old in the head after a short physical confrontation. This alone was enough to raise tensions between the two groups. However, things became more incendiary after Soon Ja Du was convicted of manslaughter but only sentenced “to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and restitution to the Harlins’ family for funeral expenses”, which many believed was not a harsh enough sentence for the crime committed. All of these factors caused the majority of African American ire during the riots to be directed at Korean owned businesses.

For many Korean Americans, the L.A. riots were a rude awakening to their true status within the United States. Prior, Korean immigrants labored under the assumption that if they worked hard and assimilated into American culture, they would be provided acceptance and safety. However, their experiences during and after the riots said otherwise.
“Meanwhile, the faith of many Korean immigrants in American opportunity and the ‘American dream’ shattered as a result of their experience. As if securing a socio-economic foothold as a business owner in South Central Los Angeles had been challenging enough, the suddenness with which their already precarious livelihoods struggle was inexplicably cruel and unfair, particularly in light of the unshakeable belief that many had in the American system.”
During the riots, Korean Americans were left to fend for themselves as police entirely ignored calls coming from Koreatown. Instead, the LAPD and National Guard focused their efforts on guarding the majority white suburbs and other areas without a heavy minority population. Because of this disregard from the government forces, many Korean Americans realized that the model minority myth afforded them zero actual protection in American society.

Despite this, many Korean Americans still clung to the notions of being respected as a subculture and tried to deny any contribution to African American oppression as a middleman minority, despite the very definition of being a middleman minority meaning that they still held a level of privilege above African Americans in United States society. Perhaps some of them did recognize that they were scapegoated in larger society, pointing at how the media tended to sensationalize any conflict between the two minority groups, making it seem like it was a daily occurrence in the community rather than an occasional event while simultaneously ignoring any of the attempts at coalition. Still, Korean Americans tended to describe themselves as being the victims of oppression by both White and African Americans, as seen in a documentary by David Kim.  They tended to use the results of the riot as a way to absolve themselves of any responsibility or participation in anti-blackness.

Analyzing Korean American responses to the Latasha Harlins shooting showed that anti-blackness was still a prominent issue in the community. In the documentary by David Kim, many interviewees defended either Soon Ja Du or Korean American response to the shooting. They talked about how many Korean shop owners were killed prior to this which may have raised the wariness of Soon Ja Du. Many also attempted to deflect attention from the crime by talking about how the media over-highlighted the race aspect of the case, saying that if it were a Black on Black crime, it would not have been reported on. They even blamed the media for only showing the shooting of Latasha Harlins rather than the whole tape, including the minor fistfight before the shooting. While the interviewees’ criticisms of the media did hold an aspect of truth, as there was no doubt that the media’s focus on the ‘Black Korean conflict’ was meant to draw attention from the larger system of oppression in place in the U.S., the argument still sought to absolve any responsibility from the Korean American community.

Watching the entirety of the security footage from the shooting of Latasha Harlins still does not paint Soon Ja Du in a good light. While there was indeed a short physical confrontation between the two, where Harlins punched Du in the face four times, most discussions of the shooting left out what happened before the physical altercation. Analysis of the video showed that while the orange juice was in Harlins’ bag, she also had money in her hand, ready to pay for the product. Harlins only hit Du after she was grabbed by the shop owner; and when she turned to leave, she left the orange juice on the counter. That was when Du shot Harlins, with Harlins’ back turned away as she withdrew from the conflict, a clear sign of her resignation from the fight. Anti-blackness was an uncontested factor of this unnecessary shooting and the anti-blackness stemmed from belief in the model minority myth.

Various minority groups within the United States have always had complicated relations between each other, and the Asian and African American communities ware not impervious to this. The LA riots brought this fact to national attention, especially the complicated interactions between Korean American shop owners and their African American patrons. The inherent antiblackness of the model minority myth was slowly being brought to attention of the greater population of the United States through this. Originating in the mid-1900s, the repercussions of the myth spreading contributed to the LA riots, as well as to exacerbating community tensions during and after. The best solution to prevent similar occurrences from happening again would be to dismantle the model minority myth so that Asian Americans can take an objective look at their place in society as a middleman minority and attempt to reduce future conflict.

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