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On Terror, Captivity, and Black-Korean Conflict

September 24, 2015

by Tamara K. Nopper

The words terror and captivity are not commonly found in the scholarship on Asian-Black relations, particularly in the scholarship around Korean storeowners and Black customers in the United States. But terror and captivity are there. Numerous studies show Black people report being watched, followed, and treated as criminals by Asian storeowners. And if you go off the grid of dominant commentary circulated and sanctioned in progressive spaces, you will hear more explicit discussions of what Black people endure as they shop in these businesses.

In response to Black people reporting in academic surveys and interviews that Asian storeowners treat them as criminals, many Asian American scholars, pundits, and activists reframe these accounts as indicative of “mutual misunderstanding” or “mutual stereotyping.” According to this narration, we are told yes, Korean immigrant storeowners may have “stereotypes” about Black people as criminals but in return, African Americans are xenophobic and treat Asians as foreigners.

Black people’s desire to live with dignity and free from the constant threat of captivity gets read as Black nationalism and Black nationalism is generally framed in Korean immigrant entrepreneurship literature as American-centric, irrational, violent, and opportunist. Boycotts, calls for community control, and organized challenges to Korean-owned liquor stores in Black neighborhoods are depicted as racist and xenophobic. On more than one occasion, Asian Americanists falsely equate Black protest targeting or affecting Korean-owned businesses with state violence and white supremacy, such as the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans or the 1982 beating and subsequent death of Vincent Chin.

The use of ‘mutual’ misunderstanding suggests shared status or power, with each group contributing to each other’s vulnerability and suffering. While some concede that yes, Black people and Asian Americans don’t have the same power or aren’t “treated the same” (by whites or the state), they will often return to a comparative framework to suggest that we are nevertheless “similar” and that once Black people and Asian Americans realize this, Black-Asian conflict will decrease.

The employment of the mutual misunderstanding framework suggests Asian storeowners desire identification with, and from Black customers across class and race lines. Yet many studies of Asian immigrant storeowners show they hold racist views of Black people and associate them with negative qualities purportedly absent among Asians. And when Asian Americanists emphasize that Asian storeowners do identify with Black customers, the timing of such pronouncements seem preemptive. Solicited comments often appear, in print at least, when the store is considered at risk of being the target of a protest during urban uprisings, such as recently in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. The fear of another 1992 Los Angeles Riots is explicitly or implicitly expressed in such commentaries. We get quotes from Asian immigrant storeowners saying some variation of, “We don’t have any problems with Blacks.” As a preemptive gesture, we can consider how to read this as, “We don’t want a problem with Blacks,” which of course is different from “We don’t want problems for Blacks.This preemptive move maintains the mutual misunderstanding framework and in the process, keeps analyses prioritizing Black suffering off the grid of progressive discourse. An example of commentary prioritizing the banality of Black suffering is this social media post, shared with permission, written by my colleague Marcel Purnell after protests began in Baltimore in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray::

Some things are not, on the whole, being placed in context, which leads folks (including colleagues) to under describe conditions of black life. Many mom and pop stores in black neighborhoods in Baltimore are non-black owned and staffed. Bulletproof glass is often between the customer and cashier. Many of these non-black owned businesses have never and would never employ black people. Black people know which businesses treat them with dignity and which businesses do not.

It’s silly to suggest, even at the level of rhetoric, that mom and pop stores, simply because they do business in black neighborhoods, love black people and don’t also contribute to everyday black suffering. I am reminded that buying crab chips and tropical skittles at mom and pop stores around Baltimore was too often an occasion fraught with anxiety. I knew many kept pistols and bats behind the registers and were unafraid to use them.

What is particularly pernicious about the mutual misunderstanding approach is it recognizes Black suffering only to throw it in Black people’s faces. That is, the structuring logic of the mutual misunderstanding framework requires the recognition of anti-Blackness and to a certain degree, of slavery. But the mutual misunderstanding framework simultaneously suggests Black people protesting their mistreatment are perpetrators of racism against non-Black people of color. Racial power, then, is reduced to stereotypes and not considered in terms of who is in the structural position to determine or participate in the captivity or freedom of another group. This, of course, is a variation of the “reverse racism” claim.

Related, coalitional gestures often involve Asian Americans and our allies pointing out the “immorality” of Black protest towards Asian-owned businesses, basically saying to Black people, “You should know better because you too have been oppressed.” In the process, Asian Americanists suggest similarity or sameness with Blacks and thus obscure Black captivity and our relationship to it. For example, among some promoting Black-Asian coalition, Black protests and political organizing directed at Asian-owned businesses are treated as examples of misdirected rage that should instead target white supremacy, corporations, or the police. According to this account, Asian Americans, non-Black people of color, and immigrant storeowners have no relationship to white supremacy, corporations, or the police.

In some variations, the mutual misunderstanding framework casts Black people as akin to whites. We are to assume Black political demands are driven by territorial beef with “newcomers.” This is the logic of the ethnic succession model, which is unfortunately applied to the study of Black-Korean conflict. According to this approach, there is likely to be tension between long-time residents, who’ve established themselves in an area, with new ethnic and racial groups entering the space. I say it’s unfortunately applied because the ethnic succession model does not know what to do with the afterlife of slavery as it casts Blacks as akin to white immigrants who have become assimilated and American, as having control of space and land they can demarcate as “Black space,” and in that position block new immigrants seeking to enter “Black space.” In short, the ethnic succession model assumes Black people can defend themselves from non-Blacks without political punishment. The ethnic succession model also does not know what to do with anti-Black terror, emphasizing competition and conflict between “established” groups and “newcomers.”

The progressive version of the ethnic succession model suggests that Black people are settlers. While you are not likely to find the word “settler” to describe African Americans in the Black-Korean conflict literature, the accusation is embedded in the discourse regarding Black people as “misguided” in their “Black nationalism.” The reading of Black nationalism as misguided is related to the assumption that Black people are not only acting like Americans but, as racially oppressed people, are confused about being American. This depiction of Black nationalism as “confused” about being American is based on a limited and strategic recognition of slavery and anti-Blackness by non-Blacks, where the aforementioned sentiment of “You should know better because you too have been oppressed” is coupled with the sentiment of “Stay in your lane,” which confines how Black people should trace and confront slavery and its afterlife. Black people are expected to compartmentalize their recognition of slavery as well as their political demands so as not to appropriate a suffering and political demand presumably not theirs.

The “stay in your lane” approach is the “progressive version” of the ethnic succession model because it appears to reject assimilation as a dominant framework and ideal by recognizing settler colonialism and the on-going captivity of Native Americans. It is critical of white supremacy and Black nationalism by claiming the latter, like the former, is a colonizing politic. According to this account, Black people are not only confused about being American, they are confused about slavery and anti-Blackness. On-going captivity as well as the demand for space, territory, land, and sovereignty are treated as the racial formation and political domain of (non-Black) Indigenous peoples. Black people’s demand for community control or other markers of Black space and sovereignty are thus taken as mimicking white people as settlers and cultural appropriators.

This critique of Black nationalism assumes Black people have no ethical standing to make political demands or claims regarding ownership to space, land, and social boundaries – or for sovereignty – because they are not Indigenous. This claim serves to reinforce the reading of Black protest towards Asian storeowners as gestures of xenophobia, American-centrism, and identification with or acting like whites. According to this, the demand that Black lives be affirmed and bodily integrity respected, however articulated, gets read as immoral in terms of misidentifying with land, capitalism, the American project, whiteness, and settlement as well as an appropriation of an Indigenous political demand. In short, it means regardless of the ideological differences expressed by Black people, demands for dignity or political protest are usually read as suspect in some way. This then, requires Black people remain vulnerable to predation and the social mobility aspirations of non-Black people of color so as not to be accused of political immorality.

The belief that Blacks have no ethical standing to make political demands or claims associated with sovereignty (however constructed) or Black space or land hinges, then, on the recognition of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples in the Americas as the “original peoples,” the “truly captive,” and thus the “true” owners of land and claims to sovereignty. I am not suggesting that this non-Black demand, directed at Black people to “recognize” Indigenous peoples and settler colonialism, is sincerely concerned with Native Americans or critical of ongoing genocide. Indeed, we may consider how the demand by non-Blacks, that Black people recognize they are not Indigenous to the United States or that they are the descendants of slaves, weaponizes anti-Native American genocide to disavow anti-Blackness and capitalism––as well as fetishizes (the loss of) land and property in its “recognition” of settler colonialism, thereby ignoring internal debates among Indigenous peoples and between Black people and Native Americans regarding visions of decolonization. In the process, the immigrant’s status as settler disappears from the conversation.

Think here of the way immigrant rights activists defend immigration and a desire for citizenship (and make strange communion, at least rhetorically, with Indigenous peoples) by pointing out to white xenophobes that Christopher Columbus was “the first illegal immigrant.” Relevant to discussions of Black-Korean conflict, Black people––like the white xenophobes who supposedly forgot about Columbus––are depicted as seeking to exclude immigrants while purportedly forgetting that, from an “Indigenous perspective,” they have no legible claim to the nation or territory—a legible claim we are told immigrants (as settlers) supposedly care about. Critics of what is constructed as Black nationalism can thus conceal their anti-Blackness by posing as pro-Indigenous, “reminding” Black people they are not the “truly captive” nor the “original owners” of land, and that sovereignty is the political domain of Indigenous peoples.

This conflation of Black people who protest their treatment by Asian storeowners with Americans, xenophobes, and settlers is coupled, of course, with an unwillingness to recognize non-Black people of color’s role in anti-Black terror and captivity. I want to briefly address this here. I do so by sharing a story about my friend Jay.

A few years ago, when I still lived in Philadelphia, Jay and I met up to get some drinks. On the way, Jay told me about a problem he was having with a dry cleaner near where we were planning to go to happy hour. The dry cleaner had given him the wrong shirt. Not only that, the shirt they gave him had a stain on it. When Jay had told them they had given him the wrong shirt, the dry cleaning staff denied it and refused to do anything to remedy the situation.

I asked Jay if the dry cleaner was Korean-owned. He said yes. I told him I should go with him to see about his shirt. For some stupid reason I thought me being Korean would matter. That I could persuade the staff to believe Jay.

We went to the dry cleaner. Jay and I stood at the counter. One of the owners, a Korean immigrant woman, approached us. She recognized Jay. He had his ticket in his hand. Again, she denied any wrongdoing. I tried to appeal to her. She and I began to argue. Then, she won.

She told us she would call the police and pointed to a camera focused on the counter. We stopped trying to make our case. Jay and I were doing nothing wrong. We were just contesting her mistake. But we knew what could happen if the police came, even though nothing would be on camera but us standing there asking questions and looking unhappy, Jay with his ticket in hand. We knew that all the cops would see is a Korean woman storeowner on one side of the counter and a Black man on the other. Or perhaps the cops wouldn’t bother to look at the film. They would just see Jay standing there.

We left. Quickly. I can’t remember if we got drinks like we had planned. I just remember Jay’s face. And that we felt defeated. And helpless.

When I called Jay to ask him if I could write about his story for my essay in this series on im/migration and colonialism, he told me that he had eventually returned to the store and they acknowledged they had given him the wrong shirt. They offered him $25.00 as compensation. Jay accepted it even though he had purchased his shirt for $45.00. As he put it, he didn’t want to be threatened with the police again. On that visit, they told him not to bring his clothes to the dry cleaner anymore.

Something Jay said to me on the phone when we talked that I want to repeat here: “I knew my shirt.” A simple sentence that says so much. But that, as well as his ticket generated by the store documenting their mistake, did not matter. We also talked about other shopping experiences he had, how often Black people are treated like shit at businesses and expected to take it for fear the police would be called. We talked about the constant navigation to not be accused or arrested or incarcerated. We talked about terror.

While the word terror may not be found in the literature on Black-Korean conflict, the word captive sometimes will. In such accounts, Black residents in urban neighborhoods will be described as a “captive market.” A concept found in discussions of “internal colonialism,” notably in Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton’s book Black Power, Black residents in poor urban neighborhoods are considered a colonized group and thus captive to economic exploitation by non-Black people who find urban neighborhoods fertile ground for their social mobility. It is rare, though, that you see the idea of Black residents as a captive market taken seriously in studies on Black-Korean conflict. Such an account does not fit well with the mutual misunderstanding framework that dominates the literature.

For the most part, the captive market concept is a spatial one. It focuses on how Black people are spatially segregated and bound to urban ghettoes and the exploitation and control of Black people in Black neighborhoods by non-Black people. But Jay’s experience did not happen in a Black neighborhood. The Korean-owned business, like many Korean-owned businesses, was located in an upscale predominantly white neighborhood.

How then, do we think of Black captivity? We could see Jay’s experience as reinforcing the captive market model in terms of being punished for leaving a Black neighborhood, i.e., we could read this as Jay being unwanted in non-Black spaces or specifically in upscale predominantly white neighborhoods. That he “went out of bounds” of where he “belongs.” But then, per the captive market framework, Jay would be treated as badly in a Black neighborhood by Korean storeowners capitalizing on the captivity of Black residents. Given this, where does Jay belong and where is he free from the threat of captivity?

Anti-blackness followed Jay. Or it was waiting for him. Non-Black power over Black people is not spatially bound. The storeowner could have pointed to a camera in the dry cleaner or at a camera in a bodega at the corner of a poor, Black neighborhood. Regardless, the Korean storeowner could do whatever she wanted to Jay. Wherever the camera was, wherever the store was located, the Korean immigrant storeowner, as non-Black, as a person of color, as an immigrant, and as a woman, had the power to participate in Jay’s criminalization and thus play a decisive role in the future of his life and the lives of people who love him. Admitting fault and not calling the police on Jay when he returned to inquire about his shirt were not signs of her respect, they were signs of her power.

The body of scholarship on Black-Korean conflict is now forty years old as it started to develop shortly after the 1965 Immigration Act and the noticeable establishment of Korean businesses in Black neighborhoods. Yet the way we (can) think about Black-Korean conflict is not a “done deal.” Study after study tells us Black people report being treated like criminals in stores. Testimonies that appear off the grid, i.e., in discourse not preoccupied with coalition or widely circulated in progressive media, tend to report this in more explicit terms than found in survey research. How might more of us as scholars, pundits, and activists seriously and ethically grapple with this reality as indicative of terror and captivity and not “mutual misunderstanding”? While I focused on Black customers and Asian storeowners, we can consider how variations of the mutual misunderstanding framework and related patterns emphasized here are expressed in other projects involving Black people and non-Black people of color, such as some immigrant rights work. And as a recognition of settler colonialism gains more traction in the academy and activist spaces, we may also consider the ethics of how settler colonialism is inserted into conversations addressing non-Black people of color/immigrants of color’s structural relations with Black people.


Tamara K. Nopper has a PhD in sociology and is a writer, editor, and college instructor in Ethnic Studies. Her scholarship focuses on Black-Asian relations, Korean immigrant entrepreneurship, immigration and urban development, and racial and economic inequality.

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