Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Black-Asian Relations in the 1990s

In the wake of the recent murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, Asian Americans have joined in solidarity with African Americans to confront race-based police brutality. The group #Asians4BlackLives has mobilized Asian allies – and on December 14, 2014 it supported the “ The Blackout Collective” to occupy the Oakland Police Department.

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This act of solidarity against the police is profound given the historical tensions between Asians and African Americans in the US, especially in California. For the cross-racial animosity during the 1992 LA uprising, following the non-indictment of the police officers that brutally beat Rodney King, remains a seminal moment of division between the two groups.  Media footage of the media-dubbed “riots” showcases African Americans looting and destroying businesses in LA’s Koreatown, with Asian shop owners taking up arms when the L.A.P.D did not respond to their calls for help. TV screens were saturated with images of African Americans breaking shop windows and setting stores ablaze, while Koreans shot their pistols and rifles in self-defense.

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Without adequate historical context, news outlets exacerbated longstanding misunderstandings between the two groups. Far from being the result of inherent cross-racial biases or prejudices, the violence between African and Korean Americans during the uprising was rooted in the construction of the “model minority” stereotype, a direct result of immigration policy that created competition between peoples of color.

Nearly 30 years before the uprising, the U.S. opened its borders to East and South Asians after a longstanding population quota against these groups. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act let Asians and their families into the United States with the stipulation that these new immigrants had to be educated professionals. They were not from their home country’s working class, nor were they disenfranchised refugees. The aim of the Act was to stimulate the U.S. economy while providing first-world opportunities to these new migrants. Unlike the European immigrants who came before, these new immigrants had  financially promising skill sets from the start. As Vijay Prashad points out in his book The Karma of Brown Folk, this new minority class was designed to provide solutions for American issues – racial and economic – not compound its problems. Therefore the Asians of ‘65 were not just a new group of minority immigrants, but would become new and model class of minorities – formally educated, economically independent, well behaved, and family oriented.

That the “model minority” class of immigrants began its construction at the height of the African American struggles for desegregation – the same year of the Civil Rights Voting Act and assassination of Malcolm X – is symbolic of the divisions that were bound to arise between people of color in the United States. One group was given open opportunity and another was struggling for that same opportunity — and interacted in very close quarters. Because of a language barrier, as was the case with new Koreans, many new Asian immigrants in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s were unable to get jobs in their preferred fields of science and engineering (see the film, Clash of Colors). Instead, they established businesses in what were affordable areas to them, but where many white Americans refused to set up shop – impoverished and predominately African American. However, with little to no knowledge of U.S. race relations, in the words of Prashad in his book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Relations and the Myth of Cultural Purity: “they were unaware of the political powder keg they were about to ignite” (155).

African American resistance to these new Asian businesses was strong. Many Koreans worked in black areas, but resided elsewhere. Their language barrier was seen as a refusal to learn the language of the community. As a result, African Americans saw that they did not integrate or support the communities that they served – all while many African Americans were not financially able to own businesses their own communities because of structural poverty. Black New York newspaper The Amsterdam News ran headlines that warned African Americans of “Korean Invasion” and Spike Lee dramatized black and Korean tensions in his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. In 1990, the Black Nationalist lead “Flatbush Boycott” ran a campaign against Korean shop owners in Brooklyn. On the West Coast, the LA Sentinel ran similarly discriminatory headlines in the late ’80s and in 1991 Ice Cube released the song “Black Korea” in which he rapped a startling premonition: “Every time I wanna go get a fuckin brew/I gotta go down to the store with the two/oriental one-penny countin motherfuckers…So don’t follow me, up an down your market/Or your little chop suey ass’ll be a target/of the 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, down to a crisp.” Black/Korean tensions on the West Coast came to a head when, just 13 days before the Rodney King beating, 15 year old African American teenager Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by 51 year old Korean shop owner Joon Ja Du who accused the young girl of stealing orange juice. In this context, the violence between Asians and blacks during the 1992 uprising seemed inevitable. However, it is important to remember that the problem between African Americans and Koreans at that time was not solely one of attitude or stereotype but, in Prashad’s words, “a fundamental flaw in the social relations between people” (116). There have been political forces that created these divisions. After all, a “model minority” class of color implies that there was and is a class of color that needs a model to follow.

Black-Asian relations in the 1990s were not all tense, however. Indeed, a recent NPR report found that during the final days of the “riots,” Koreans in L.A. began to make concerted efforts to reconcile with the African American community it served.

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With the expansion of the 1965 Immigration Act in 1990, came more opportunity for productive cross-racial and cross-cultural exchange. For example, in The Tao of Wu, Wu Tang Clan member RZA recounts the long afternoons he spent watching Ku Fu Movies at the $2 Asian theatres in New York (47). His time immersed in Asian cinema had a direct impact on his creative aesthetic and spiritual philosophy.

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In turn, music producer Sophia Chang recalls that she shied away from her Asian heritage until she signed a Kung Fu loving hip hop tro named Fu-Shnickens and later met Wu Tang. She writes: “I was a second-generation Korean Canadian who lost her language and ate cheeseburgers while the rest of the family feasted on kalbi and banchan. In 1992, my racial and cultural denial was alive and kicking. It wasn’t until I met Wu-Tang that…my belated ‘Asian Renaissance’ started”. Eddie Huang, too, has used hip-hop to help negotiate his place in the United States as a child of Chinese immigrants. His memoir Fresh off the Boat (now a television show) recounts the impact of 1990s hip-hop as he navigated assimilation and oftentimes devastating home life. It is no wonder that he is good friends, now, with Ta-Nehisi Coates. And as early as 1991 director Mira Nair released Mississippi Masala, a film that dramatized a complex love affair between the daughter of African-Indian immigrants who run a liquor store and a young Southern black man with his own carpet cleaning company.

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The impact of black culture and thought on Asian-Americans and vice versa cannot be underestimated. As #Asians4BlackLives makes clear, important alliances are imminent. Rebecca Kumar

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Gang Wars and Peace Truces in Early 90s Media: From NY and LA to Little Rock

“What’s crackin cuz?”

“What’s poppin blood?”

Depending on your location, situation, and ability to understand gang-related terminology, your answer to these questions could determine if you lived or died on certain streets in the 1990s. During that decade, a language that many outsiders interpreted as young urban slang came to signify real insider knowledge, especially at a time when urban youth increasingly defined themselves by street cred, street cred by street violence, and street violence by gang violence, which in turn, became mass mediated gang wars.

From Los Angeles to Little Rock, gang activity experienced a surge across the United States in the early 1990s. This is particularly true of the Southern region. According to a 2010 government History of Street Gangs in the United States, “the southern region led the nation in the number of new gang cities, a 32 percent increase” from the 1970s through the 1990s. By 1998, the South had more states reporting gang problems than any other region in the nation. In fact at the time, this made the South look like it was catching up with the West, Midwest, and Northeast in terms of gang activity.

 

 

One HBO documentary from 1994 attempted to capture this spike in southern gang activity as it was felt in Little Rock, Arkansas, of all places. Director Mark Levin’s footage of Hoover Folk, Crip, and Blood gang member initiation rituals, ceremonies, and their groups’ deadly impact on children in a small city shocked the nation. Levin tracked this impact by following Steve Nawojczyk, the Pulaski County coroner at the time (and still-active community leader for inner city youth), to portray a sad state of affairs for Little Rock, and by extension, a narrative of decline for small cities in the South that were similarly affected by gang violence.

What’s interesting about this documentary is how it leads with a largely white, racially and sexually integrated set of Chicago’s Hoover Folk, showing its teenage members sitting in public parks around Little Rock, listening and singing along to Tupac, while later “beating in” a young woman who wants to be initiated. The priorities laid out in this sequence of events are clear: young white kids are being influenced by rap music, and they’re doing violence to one of their white female peers.

This sequence follows a familiar pattern, one well-known among the American black community—a pattern where young white kids are portrayed in the media as being corrupted by the influence of black American communities where “all the trouble started.” The documentary participates in this narrative by telling the story of a slightly older black men who came up in the Crip and Blood scene of Los Angeles, but later moved to Little Rock in the 1980s, where the documentary suggests the man becomes a major kingpin of that city’s 1990s gang scene.

Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock is unique in its mass mediated portrayal of gang violence affecting white urban youth in a small city, but its subtle portrayal of the American black community as the root of such violence is all-too-familiar. Throughout the early 1990s, movies, television, music and documentaries engaged in a systemic pattern of portraying gang-related crime, gang violence, and gang wars in ways that made that violence look peculiar to American black communities, especially black youth in the inner cities of Los Angeles and New York City. We can see such depictions most readily in movies like Boyz in the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991), which show young black men struggling to survive gang violence within their predominantly black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively.

Then on television and again in 1991, national and international audiences witnessed the initial filming and eventual fallout from the Rodney King beatings in the form of the LA Uprising, whose television news coverage repeated the same systemic pattern of negatively portraying black communities as hotbeds of criminal and gang-related activity. Filtered through an implicit bias about violence on the West Coast—which we also see iterated in the Little Rock documentary when Levin focuses on the city’s supposed kingpin from LA—this event took place in Los Angeles, where the violent video images of white LAPD officers viciously beating the young black King within an inch of his life were broadcast and looped on national news networks for over a year between 1991 and 1992.

Perhaps one day, we will regard this “beat-in” as the horrific act of gang violence it actually was.

But what isn’t often remembered in mainstream accounts of the LA Uprising (an event formerly called the “LA Riots”), which directly followed the acquittal of the white LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, is that it was directly preceded by the Watts Truce between Crip and Blood gangs in 1992. Gangs such as the Crips and Bloods had been around for your years before the decision to call the 1992 truce, and issues of police brutality and racism was not the only thing that led to the truce. Active and non-active gang members on both side had realized how much destruction they had caused on their own neighborhoods. For a short period of time, there seemed to be some end to the madness that was brewing between two rival gangs. Entertainers such as Snoop Dogg and football legend Jim Brown were both vocal about keeping the peace. Here, we see black entertainers (mostly rappers and activists), highlight the possibilities of representing black people in a more positive light.

And yet just days after this small armistice and positive media coverage, the LA Riots, or what many now consider the LA Uprising, began after the white police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted of their crimes. From television news coverage of looting to beatings in the street, the Uprising had people around the nation tuned into the their TVs to see what was going on in LA. And although Watts Truce was still fresh, there was resurgence of violence between the groups because of the LA Riots. Both gangs used the time of chaos to attack each other which ultimately destroyed what many had hoped would end the violence between the two.

However, while short-lived and a little too early, the Watts Truce sent a powerful message, not only to white Americans, but also to black Americans, that change was possible if mortal enemies united against much larger common enemies, such as police brutality and racist media coverage. In Black Looks (1994), bell hooks explains why such racially biased mediations exist by calling attention to their (mostly white) American mainstream audience, which has an implicit, complicit, perverse, and voyeuristic desire to observe representations of black men’s bodies being assaulted by “white racist violence, black on black violence, the violence of overwork, and the violence of addiction and disease” (34). Indeed, it should come as little surprise that both movies and television—two forms of media that are most often made with that mainstream, mostly white audience at the time—reinforce these stereotypes.

So from New York to LA to Little Rock, the 90s were a unique period in the history of representation of black culture in the United States. Indeed, the LA gang peace treaty and the LA Uprising were critical events in that history: one that, if we listen only to 90s media, is simply a story of gang wars and occasional peace treaties that largely affected African American communities. However, if we listen more closely, particularly to the voices of those communities, we might, sometime in the future, begin to hear how to avoid repeating mistakes of the past.

One of those voices comes from West Coast rapper Kam, who might have said it best in his 1993 song “Peace Treaty.”

— Andy Reid and Joshua Ryan Jackson

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.