'Daddy, Why Do People Steal from Us?'
Three years ago, my family moved into a predominantly African American neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to plant a church. Since then, we've had a lot stolen from us: a GPS, sunglasses, both my daughters' bicycles, a television, my wife's jewelry box, sinks, ceiling fans, and a garbage disposal. But the most recent theft blew my mind: Someone had snatched a pair of old clogs from our front porch. At first we just assumed that my wife had misplaced them, but on a neighborhood park with my eldest daughter, there they were, sitting in the middle of a field: the clogs. I regarded them sadly. Not knowing where they had been, we left them there.
We began to make our way back home, when my daughter asked me a question:
"Daddy, why do people always steal things from us?"
I struggled to formulate the correct response. A couple of years ago I would have told her that people steal because they are poor and need money. That still make some sense to me; high unemployment and poverty are common in our neighborhood, and we are hardly the only victims of petty crime. But that doesn't explain why someone would steal my girls' bicycles, not to mention my wife's clogs, which were worth less than nothing. Those thefts smacked of something more malicious than simple financial need.
Perhaps I should tell her that people steal from us because we are the minority here, thus giving voice to the fear of minorities everywhere. Asians make up less than 1 percent of the population in our zip code, in a neighborhood that's 86 percent black. We live on a busy street corner, and drivers are always transfixed by the sight of a large Korean family in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood, so much so that they often don't realize that the light already turned green.
But we are not just any minority: We are Asian, and Korean. And that makes us an even larger target for crime. There is a long history of antagonism between African American and Asian communities, specifically Koreans, that has gone generally unnoticed in the United States, because the discussion on race is often framed as division 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. Warranted or not, that perception has made Asians fear that they were a larger target of violent crime in urban areas.
I do not share this perception lightly, nor without personal experience. I have the dimmest of inchoate memories from childhood of a black man pointing a sawn-off shotgun at my father in his hat store in the West Loop of Chicago, and then spraying bleach in his eyes in order to expedite his getaway. My wife's family lost everything in the L.A. riots in 1992. More recently, D.C. Council member and former mayor Marion Barry went on record after his recent re-election,saying, "We got to do something about these Asians coming in and opening up businesses and dirty shops. They ought to go. I'm going to say that right now."No less than two months later, just two miles from my house, a Korean American deli owner was robbed and shot to death inside her store.
A recent Pew Research Group study on Asian Americans thrust this often-hidden dynamic into the public spotlight. The study 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 percent say they get along pretty well and just 4 percent 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.
The Pew study confirmed what I and so many had feared, that Koreans and blacks simply cannot get along. It was as if a previously subconscious undercurrent had become a concrete fact: the unavoidablerealityof Korean vs. black animosity, given absolute contours through academic study.
And so, perhaps it was time for me to reveal the bitter reality to my little girl. I could explain it this way:
Well sweetheart, 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 scare us, or to get back at someone who once hurt them or treated them badly, unfairly.
No. I was never going to tell my daughter this.
First, it is not categorically true. I'm not ignorant of the racial prejudices of my own community or those of others. Yes, the thefts may have been racially motivated. It's possible, even probable. But possibility and probability do not make it true. But even if these crimes were racially motivated, it would be foolish and unfair to look with suspicion at every person passing our house, because 99 percent of those people have no desire to harm us. It is not fair to cast such a broad net of suspicion over so many in response to the perceived and isolated actions of a few.
But isn't that the mental trap that we so often get lured into in regards to race:generalization, whereby we allow one person's actions or one story to poison our perception of millions who share nothing more with that person than the color of their skin? How unfair and absurd, and more, contrary to most of my own experiences.
Moreover, I won't tell my little girl such a thing because I don't want it tobecometrue. With social dynamics, just the whisper of a sentiment is enough for you to look at another person differently, askance. 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 largely through cultural osmosis rather than experience. Those who were previously unaware of the dynamic have a prejudice foisted upon them. And sometimes this rumor is perpetuated not from within, but from without, by well-intentioned and well-educated but ultimately ill-informed sources.
But this means that if one generation is raised without accepting the rumor, the prejudices can be severely weakened, even exterminated. So this is why my family and I have chosen to stay where we are, to actively resist the assumption that Koreans and African Americans are doomed to enmity. We consciously do this in hopes that the final generation that accepts this self-fulfilling rumor is my own.
So while our house has been broken into twice, our car, more times that we can count, we are committed to staying here as long as I can find gainful employment. We sent my eldest daughter to the local public school, where she was the lone Korean but was respected and loved, where she learned to read and to love the music of James Brown. I also decided to become the interim pastor of a small church in an overwhelmingly black neighborhood, a church wedged between two Korean-owned liquor stores, prominent symbols of the divide between the two communities. This was a difficult step for me and for the church, but one that we made in order to make a conscious statement: we were not going to simply assume that Koreans and African-Americans could not worship and work together.
This situation was so novel that The Washington Post did a feature article about it. In response, calls and e-mails began flooding in from D.C. and beyond, from Koreans and African Americans alike who were encouraged by our story, and similarly committed to mending relations. The words of Marion Barry and the Pew study may have thrust the antagonism between Asians and African Americans to the forefront. But a growing number of people reject these blind generalizations, and want a better reality for their children.
Sometimes, the most important step you can take to bless your city is what you do not do: not jump to conclusions; not buy into gratuitous news stories, not generalize; not indulge or perpetuate careless opinions and prejudices. As wonderful it is to be pro-active on behalf of a city, we should never forget the importance of personal postures like self-control, fairness, open-mindedness, and good judgment. Even in the face of tragedy, these inward qualities allow us to see how ridiculous it is to assume every person of one race is hostile toward every person of another.
And so, returning to my conversation with my daughter: After a long, very pregnant pause, I stooped down to her 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.
We left those shoes where they lay, and we didn't look back.
Peter Chin is the husband of a courageous cancer survivor, father to four children, and pastor of an inner-city church in Washington, D.C. He writes at PeterWChin.com. Follow him on Twitter@peterwchin.