All Us So Called Blacks - Part Two
The Vagaries of Ethnic Alliances
There is something to the matter of intersectionality that I understand fairly well. In mathematics and computer science it’s called a combinatorial sum. A combinatorial sum is what you get when you take all of the attributes of an entity and figure out all the possible combinations. For example if you have a license plate that allows 3 letters and 3 numbers like in 1960s California, your combinatorial sum of 6 attributes would be 26^3 * 10^3 which is roughly 17.5 million. You could have that many individual cars. We have over 330 million individual people in America, to reduce us down to groups is always a reductionist abstraction that actually flattens diversity. We still ask questions about groups and about ‘race relations’ with just one or two attributes and pretend we have hard facts by which we can make assessments and judgements. What I’m doing today is putting some flesh around the impossible question of how cars whose license plate starts with B might race with, collide with or team up with cars whose license plate starts with A. This is part two of a two part series.
Liang’s Question - Blacks & Asians
Like me, Liang is also a technical professional. For most of her career, she employed her PhD working to enable virtualization at the chip level. After a time, she felt compelled to involve herself in SF Bay Area politics, seeking to leave coding to the young people. Liang and I shared several greetings during, and a 90 minute cab ride to JFK just after the New Alliances Retreat this June. We got to know each other, immediately establishing an easy, friendly and respectful rapport. As our Uber crawled further from Chinatown, where the conference was held, our questions became more probing. She determined to ask me a tough question. Why don’t blacks and Asians get along better?
Of course it’s a loaded question firstly because it does, in a certain sense, presume a pair of monoliths and secondly that we two might be representative experts. We both know that, which is why we know it’s a tough question. Since we both are Californians, we know that there are a multitude of different ethnicities in the ‘Asian’ category as well as all sorts of folks in ‘the black community’. I began, oddly enough by talking about Jews. Growing up in Los Angeles, I can confidently state that there is no clear and present black vs Jew problem. When I moved from LA to Brooklyn in the early 90s I had to recalculate this balance. People were up in arms about the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in the neighborhood of Crown Heights, two entities that had no meaning to me. I am always particularly tuned to cultural geography and thus understood that being black in Brooklyn would mean something entirely new.
What I did know was how I grew up in LA’s Crenshaw District which, of course, had been clumsily abstracted into popular culture by films like Boyz N The Hood and White Men Can’t Jump. What I knew was the friendly disposition between blacks and Japanese Americans there centered around Holiday Bowl. Few people knew that we resided amicably for decades before Rodney King’s misfortune. Jazz fans know the band Hiroshima who attended Dorsey High School with my younger brothers. But what I know was that the friction between ‘blacks & Asians’ arose during the late 80s when more Koreans set up shops in Crenshaw. While us kids were all discouraged from riding our skateboards on the perfectly smooth cement of the inner courts of Crenshaw Square by cranky Japanese businessmen, real heated arguments about suspected shoplifting were more common at the Crenshaw Swap Meet. Suddenly there and at a new furniture store on La Cienega Blvd across from Fedco, some of us black folks felt profiled for the first time in our own neighborhood. When I returned to LA for a brief visit after the riots, I was not surprised to see those two buildings in particular targeted by arsonists. Monsters from the Id.
The meme of ‘Roof Koreans’ took off, and I was one of those who stood up for their defense of their lives and property. Yet most Angelenos were outraged by the shooting of Latasha Harlins by a Korean shop owner over a stolen bottle of orange juice. That story joined a parade of black victimization narratives right alongside the most notorious wrongful deaths like that of Ron Settles. The weight of these stories overwhelmed common sense and historical perspective. More people will know the symbolism of Rodney King, Harlins and Settles but will not know the name of John Lamar Hill who did more to shape black Los Angeles, especially Crenshaw, than just about anyone you could name.
There is a strong cosmopolitan aspect behind the motivation to come to a more elaborated understanding of more than a single ethnic group in one’s periphery. I have the advantage of having grown up within walking distance of the Kokusai Theatre, of Grace’s Pastries, of Kay’s Hardware and of the Shiseido cosmetics store. Kashu Realty signs were all over the neighborhood. The brand new Datsun dealership was built right next to Taco Bell. My parents were strict, Japanese parents were strict. None of us did ‘play dates’. We had black neighbors next door and just across the street whom we never let in our house. So there was a ‘street’ aspect to whatever could be called our intimacy, which really begged the question as to what we were to expect from each other. Why should we get to know each other better? If we have no beef, what is to be gained? We frequent the same businesses; we all hang out at Holiday Bowl. We all shop at Boy’s Market and Fedco. For me intense friendships (and rivalries) were centered around foosball at Mr. Moto’s just across the street from Boy’s Market on Crenshaw. Moto’s had best foosball table around as well as the best char shu pork. We used to tease the Chinese guy behind the counter by calling him Moto who was the Japanese owner of the joint. But the gang of us black and Japanese foosballers held down the serious games at the Fox Hills Mall. Ah those were the days. In my old blog people were talking about the old neighborhood a lot.
I tell you it’s weird how people think about their position in ‘race relations’ strictly in terms of the people they fear and envy the most. Blackfolks and whitefolks obsess about each other and when they come to some accommodation they figure everybody else will fall in line. “Hey it’s all over, what are you people mad about?” Just when you think it’s cool all around because there’s a King holiday, here come the Socialists at the end of the parade telling us we still ought to be angry. I never saw them any other time of the year. So many racial agendas, so little time.
The Model Minority
The terms are different but the concept is the same. Every so-called racial minority has in-group conflict, and one of those points of friction is exemplified in the idea that those on the cutting edge of integration and assimilation at some moment cross a point of no return. You have sold out. You are no longer one of us. Of course the border conditions are fuzzy and change all of the time. But ‘oreos’ and ‘bananas’ know what I’m talking about. You might leave the radio station on the ‘wrong’ station too long, or say Elvis made good movies or do an air guitar. It depends upon who else is in the car. I remember white kids, like all of us, try to sing Minnie Ripperton’s soprano. That’s actually funny. But I’ve also seen the Italian kid and the black kid get into a bloody fight with broken wine glasses over ‘reckless eyeballing’. “Why youse lookin at my girl?” But what you rarely see is how some Asians might talk down others.
The name Arthur Hu still resonates in the bits I think in abstracts about this racially abstracted group of people. His ‘model minority’ essay crossed my path in the early days of the interwebz. His premise as I recall it was simple. Asians have higher averages in X because the lower averages in Y and Z are suppressed. You don’t get to know about the Asian American kid who can’t do math. Maybe he’s in a street gang, disowned and not counted by the Census. Nobody talks about the Hmong or the Vietnamese. If the household income is high, sometimes it’s because everybody works in the family business and there are a lot of people per bedroom. How accurate is any of that? I don’t know, but I do recognize the parallels. Within black America, class is more of a big deal than in the mainstream. Even lower class rivalries are important. Thus there is a difference between the thin gold rope and the fat gold rope. Between the new Jordans and the old Adidas. Between the Altima with plain hub caps and the one with spinning rims. It’s that divisively harsh. It’s a moshpit of racial anxiety thrown angrily and sometimes quite violently at the black man you think the white man sees when he’s looking at you. The gold standard in film about this dynamic is called A Soldier’s Story and it’s one of the few that show the cost. When race is brought into the picture suddenly the individuals disappear. The distrust and disrespect involves every black racial stereotype in microcosm.
I talk about the negative social capital of ‘niggers & white trash’ over here:
So what is at stake is what I generally call ‘social capital’ and what I think is somewhat unique about black Americans, but similar to Asian Americans is the extent to which the perception in the mainstream about the average anyone in the group depends upon the perceived extremes. ‘Asian women are sexy’ depends on some extremely good models that do exist. ‘Black men are violent criminals’ depends on clear and present examples. Why people within such groups adhere to or reject such stereotypes depends on how they perceive their own abilities & individuality beyond the social stereotype or trend. I don’t wish to overstate these social science speculations. But I honestly looked at what Arthur Hu put down as an honest confession that I perceived too. Asians, like blacks are not in control of how they are perceived by America and they too are in a clumsy dance for respectability. Gerald Early put together an excellent collection of essays entitled Lure and Loathing. How do people grapple with their actual and perceived distance from the American Dream, whatever exactly that is?
So in that abstract way, I have been sympathetic to Asian Americans who seemed far behind black Americans in having a hand in Hollywood and in other cultural productions outside of the stereotypical restaurants and dojos. Of course I know individuals, but why are Asians Asians? What is to know anyway? It seems to me there is always some bleeding heart victimization porn that’s always in the mix. What’s an essay about Asian Americans without a gratuitous mention of Manzanar?
On the other hand, several books full of Thomas Sowell’s facts, histories and narrations that I read during my college years that made me think about it all in an economic fashion. Of these, the one I modeled my own life after was his Ethnic America. In that book I learned the progression of various ethnic groups who migrated to America and over generations joined the mainstream by degrees starting from voluntary enclaves or involuntary ghettoes.
Helen Wang & Sham Sui Po
Like many Americans in the late 80s, I wondered about the future of computers and the electronics industry. I watched American brands get beat to shreds by Japanese manufacturing, including at Xerox where I worked. One of the managers on my floor was Roger and he would frequent Hong Kong to source components for future products. He came back with stories about a mystical neighborhood where all manner of computer componentry could be bought cheap, and I mean anything. The chubby guy would turn red and break out into a sweat just talking about Sham Sui Po. He was convinced the future was Cyberpunk and that Asia would miniaturize computers just like everything else. He was correct in a few ways, but all such predictions suffer over time. Dai-Ichi Kangyo did not remain the world's biggest bank. Route 128 in Massachusetts did not become Silicon Valley and the computer industry survived the destruction of DEC. Helen Wang on the other hand affected me profoundly.
Helen Wang was one of the most tightly wound people I’ve ever met. This, at a time when I was in my own extended romance with many things Japanese but not much Chinese outside of Sun Tzu. Starting with Mishima in college and then Clavell (of typical course) and Kurosawa I was one of those early adopters to the idea of the Pacific Rim. I fully expected, given Roger’s predictions, to be working for some Japanese managed company if the trend continued.
At a financial company in West LA, we were part of a large team building a new system. Helen’s work was always on time. Helen’s answers were always crisp. Helen never joined us for beers after work. I approached her about it and probed a bit. What makes her tick? She told me that her family was victim to Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Her father’s factory was stolen by the government and as a little girl she was forced to march. Her family escaped as broken refugees. She came to America to restore her family, not for pizza and beer. To her, we Americans were spoiled and lazy and didn’t know how good we had it. She would not waste a nickel. She left me speechless.
So there was my experience with the steely potential of Asia, along with Sowell’s histories of the ‘Overseas Chinese’ and the economies of Filipino nurses and their remittances. These combined with a shared social anonymity at the hands of the American mainstream media painted a complex picture of Asian Americans for me. It was formal, not warmly cordial. It was structured, not spontaneous. When I think about the Korean American banker who bought up Mid-Wilshire properties in LA expanding Koreatown into something quite impressive, it makes me think of a some people on a mission. I too was on a mission. I too wanted structured formality.
What we daily forget is that many of these immigrants, like Helen Wang, were not always peasants craving for America to give them what they never had. They were educated and wealthy before coming here. When I think of Nigerians, I often sense the same thing. These are not like the starving Irish or the captured Africans. Some of these folks are only marginally trading up, for an upside beyond the capacity of their former homelands. We have no easy way of knowing who they are.
The Torrance Y
As I decided to raise my kids in the affluent beach cities of Los Angeles County, I had a sense of comfort and success I had worked hard all my life to achieve. I had some bumps along the way, but on the whole was satisfied. In 2003, however, the bottom fell out. As an independent contractor, there were basically no contracts. I got to the point at which I borrowed money to pay rent and could not afford a Big Mac. Things worked out, but it was quite an experience having bankable skills and no money in the bank. Things turned around rather quickly as I joined up with another entrepreneur and we sold our consulting and management products. One year into the venture, I was out one night in Beverly Hills and met an older Russian movie producer. He was arranging to build a business in China in advance of the Olympic Games. I pointed him to my partner to be his CTO. Soon my partner was flying back and forth to Beijing as I kept our business rolling stateside. It seemed inevitable to me that I would move my family there too. We would all have to learn to speak Mandarin, and so I started my lessons.
At the local YMCA, my kids were involved with a dance class and I was taking Tai Chi. After class I would go to the ping pong room where there would be older Chinese men playing. After a few weeks, I revealed that I was learning the language. Maybe they might help me. They did not, but the senior man did tell me about himself and his business. He was in the cotton business. Cotton grown in China was shipped to Nigeria where it was woven and dyed. The fabric was then shipped back to China where it was cut into t-shirts and sold to Americans. He could produce a t-shirt for a dollar. It could then be sold here for $15. The cost of shipping tons back and forth between China and Africa was negligible. I was, of course, stunned and impressed. The logistics, the cheap labor, the markup!
My partner told me a great deal about Beijing and how sons of Party officials ran roughshod like American ‘ballers’. The Russian’s pampered wife (and her little dog) managed to curse out one such of our Chinese sponsors and the entire deal collapsed. My partner basically told me that when elephants fight, everybody else needs to stand clear. He brought home a selection of Rolex replicas, I picked one and we closed shop. So much for Mandarin lessons, but I did learn a great deal besides admiration for the language. Between this and a subsequent business experience, I learned how much people change when they get fairly confident they are about to become rich. I learned how people cling to what they have when they are rich and the costs of all that ambition, achievement and accomplishment. It made me appreciate my ping pong partners even more, and I saw how their daughters might be just like Helen Wang.
Early at Xerox I met some interns from Hong Kong. I will always remember what they said about business. “If you have friends, you have business. No friends, no business.” Underlying all friendship and business relationships must come the bond of trust. Trust takes honesty and time, mutual transparency and personal integrity. It’s difficult enough between individuals, tougher still across cultural barriers. Yet to a certain extent it is what we all want. Here in America, we have the infrastructure and environment to support such endeavors. Ultimately cultural barriers can be transcended by trust. These are the lessons all of us must learn, the give and take and patience necessary, and the humility required of lifting heavy loads. It’s impossible to say ahead of time who is going to prove worthy. Every day is a trial.
This is what we owe each other when we look to establish relationships across distances. We’re all not cut out for it, but it is always a reasonable expectation. When you expose yourself to people who have strengths where you are weak, the temptation is to shy away. The inverse condition temps us to dismiss or take for granted. The abstractions of race blur the entire picture, the stereotypes and prejudices introduce ghosts and goblins into the fog of human communication. Obviously trust can never be sustained when people believe in ghosts.
The discovery of crazy rich Chinese who wished to emulate black American rap high rollers was something of a surprise but made sense after I thought about it. A sudden fortune brings ego and danger. For young men everywhere this is a potent cocktail. Apart from the hijinks of Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, I found a much more intriguing drama in a Japanese film starring Omar Epps. As crudely as crime dramas can demonstrate the complex relationships between people there are few that do such a good job as I remember from Brother.
What I haven’t mentioned in all of this is the multifarious experiences I have had working with friends and associates of Indian extraction in the American IT industry. Somehow they are all Asian too, but I have come to too many individual assessments to speak much beyond nationality. I don’t abstract up into ‘Asians’; in fact, I drill down. I want to know if Japanese are from the rural north of the island or the urban south. I want to know which state in India they are from. I want to know if they are Mandarin or Cantonese speakers. But then even with that, only a bit matters. Just enough for a basic cultural geographic orientation. What city were you born in? What’s your favorite cartoon character?
When people ask me about ‘race relations’ I tend to be dismissive, because it’s generally about how people who accept a racial role should deal with somebody else who has accepted a racial role. That’s not a life or death accounting as it is in today’s American armed forces where people give up racial roles to conform into a team under a chain of command. None of that would work without the bond of trust. When I find something in a man I find honorable, I hone in on that aspect of his personality and will call him ‘brother’ on that basis. This is how it all must begin. One at a time.
So I have had a need to find mutual interests, sometimes, and sometimes the people in front of me are Asians of some sort. I work it out with some bit of abstraction and it becomes what it becomes. Given whom I’ve met, sometimes I wish I could know more folks who are similar. My old optometrist, Dr. Natsumeda retired a few years back. We were both from Crenshaw and talked about the old days, but I never met his family and he never met mine. Our loss, but the sun will come out tomorrow.