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Racism's Last Generation?

Racism's Last Generation?

In the past three years that my family has moved into DC and planted a church, we’ve had a lot of stuff stolen from us: a snow sled, a GPS, sunglasses, my daughters’ bicycles, our sinks, ceiling fans, television, and a garbage disposal.  But this last theft absolutely blew my mind—someone had taken a pair of my wife’s old clogs from our front porch. At first we just assumed that she had misplaced them, but while walking through a neighborhood park with my eldest daughter, there they were, sitting in the middle of a field. I regarded them sadly, and not knowing where they had been, we left them where they were.

We began to make our way back home, when my daughter asked me a question I would never forget:

“Daddy, why do people always steal things from us?”


A couple of years ago I would have told her that people steal because they’re poor and need money. That makes some sense to me, especially since there is such high unemployment and poverty in our neighborhood, and we are hardly the only victims of crime. But at the same time, that doesn’t help to explain the frequency of those thefts, or why someone would want to steal my wife’s clogs, which were definitely of negative financial value. This latest theft smacked of something more stupidly malicious.

Perhaps I should tell her that people steal from us because we are the minority here.  According to US Census data, there are eight Asians who live in my zip code, six of whom are from my family, meaning that we stand out like …well, like an Asian family in a neighborhood that is 90% African-American. Drivers who pass by our corner house are so transfixed by the sight of a young Korean family in this part of the city that they often don’t realize that the light turned green several seconds ago. Although comical in some sense, standing out for any reason can make one more susceptible to crime.

But we are not just any minority — we are Korean. And that makes us an even larger target for crime because as everyone knows …African Americans and Koreans just don’t get along.

There is a long history of antagonism between African American and Asian communities that has gone generally unnoticed in the United States, largely because the discussion on race is often framed between blacks and whites. The usual explanation for this antagonism runs thusly: blacks resent Asians who set up shoddy stores in their neighborhoods, charge exorbitant prices and then take that money back into the suburbs, a view that is not without merit. But warranted or not, it is that perception that has made Asians fear that they were a larger target of violent crime in urban areas.

This is not a completely baseless fear. I do not say this lightly, nor without personal experience. I have four Korean friends who have lost a parent in a store burglary, and my own wife’s family lost everything in the L.A. riots. I myself have the dimmest of memories from childhood of an African American man pointing a sawn off shotgun at my father in his hat store, and then spraying cleaning solution in his eyes in order to expedite his getaway. Just this week, my family came home to see that our back door had been kicked in, our home and sense of safety violated. Through these experiences, I had always been aware of a fear that pervaded Korean-American culture: that we were conspicuous targets of crime by virtue of our ethnicity.

But this dynamic was recently thrust into the public spotlight in a Pew Research Group’s study on Asian Americans, which contained the following statement: “Korean Americans stand out for their negative views on their group’s relations with blacks. Fully half say these two groups don’t get along well; while 39% say they get along pretty well and just 4% say they get along very well. In several cities across the country, there has been a history of tension between Koreans and blacks, often arising from friction between Korean shopkeepers and black customers in predominantly black neighborhoods.” Reading that, it was as if a previously subconscious undercurrent had become a concrete fact: the reality of Korean vs. black animosity.

And so, perhaps it was time for me to pass that bitter reality onto my little girl:

“Well sweetheart…you see, we’re Korean and we live in an African American neighborhood. And those two groups don’t get along. So maybe people have been stealing these things from us to intimidate us, or to get back at someone who once hurt them or treated them badly.”

No. I was never going to tell my daughter such a thing.

First off, it is not categorically true. I’m no fool, and am not ignorant of the racial prejudices of my own community or those of others. I realize that there is a chance that these thefts were racially motivated. It’s possible, even probable. But probability does not make something true. And even if these crimes were racially motivated, it would still be foolish and unfair to look at every person passing our house with suspicion, because the truth is that 99% of these people have no desire to do us any harm at all. It is not fair to cast such a broad net of suspicion over so many in response to the isolated actions of a few.

But that’s the mental trap that we so often get lured into in regards to race: generalization. We allow one person’s actions or one story to poison our perception of millions of innocent people who share nothing more with that person than the color of their skin or their historical nation of origin. How unfair, absurd, and contrary to most of my own personal experiences. My family feels by-and-large embraced by our neighborhood, barring the occasional purloined pair of footwear. I have started serving as a pastor at a church which is more than half African American, and have been treated with nothing but total kindness and support. And I was not about to sully my daughter’s perceptions just because material items had been taken from our house and car.

Moreover, I won’t tell my little girl such a thing because I don’t want it to become true.  With social dynamics, something doesn’t have to be true to have a destructive impact.  Let’s say you hear that a person doesn’t like you for some appalling and unfair reason. That idea may be patently false, but just the whisper of that sentiment is enough for you to look at that person differently. I believe this principle lies at the heart of animosity between Asians and African Americans, that the viral rumor of bad blood is creating real bad blood in turn. It is bigotry that is inherited through osmosis rather than experience.

But this also means that if one generation is raised without blindly accepting that rumor, then those prejudices can be exterminated.  I already have seen this take place in the evangelical community, where young Asian and African American Christians are consciously rejecting the prejudices of their forebears and embracing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not minimizing the very real issues that remain between communities, but pointing out that prejudices have greater longevity if we choose to unwisely perpetuate them. I want the last generation to buy into the rumor of Black vs. Asian antagonism to be my own.

And so, after a long and very pregnant pause, I stooped down to my daughter and said, “Sweetheart, I don’t know why people steal stuff from us.  But thankfully there’s nothing that we own that we can’t live without!”  She took time to parse out what I had said, and when she grasped its meaning, firmly nodded her head in agreement.

And we left those shoes where they lay, and didn’t look back.

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