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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 295-298
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Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City
Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City.By Claire Jean Kim. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000.
During the early 1990s, a series of African American boycotts of Korean mom-and-pop stores in the gritty urbanscape drew an inordinate amount of media coverage, thus dominating the racial discourse of urban America. On the West [End Page 294] Coast, the 1992 Los Angeles civil unrest which wrecked 2,300 Korean businesses in South Central and the adjoining Koreatown and Pico-Union districts in three days of looting, firebombing, and mayhem exposed the highly volatile and bewildering nature of new race relations, shifting from the traditional black-white paradigm to a multiethnic and multicultural one.
During the 1990s, several books and articles have been published to describe, examine, and analyze Korean-African American relations. Claire Jean Kim's Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City attempts to construct black-Korean conflict within the context of "racial order" in contemporary America. Unlike previous works on black-Korean conflict, 1 Kim focuses on presenting a "big picture" of how black-Korean conflicts occur and are maintained.
Thus, Kim's main contribution is the construction of an alternative theoretical paradigm on race and racial discourse in America with specific focus on black boycotts of Korean immigrant-owned stores in New York. Rejecting "conventional storytelling" of black-Korean conflict in New York, Kim argues that racial power and order in the U.S shaped the black-Korean conflict. According to Kim, racial power is "a systemic tendency that expresses itself through myriad processes, some of which involve intentional domination and some of which do not." (9) Therefore, racial power is the key to understanding why black-Korean conflict occurs, why it looks the way it does, and why it gets resolved in the way that it does. She argues that racial power in America produces racial ordering that provides the parameters for group interaction and conflict. According to Kim, racial power reproduces itself to create racial order in America.
Kim conducted extensive, in-depth interviews of black activists including December 12th movement leader Sonny Carson. By placing black protest against two Korean stores in the context of the Black Power movement, Kim provides an in-depth understanding of how and why Blacks participated in the protest. With extensive quotes from African American activists and protestors Kim challenges the silencing of the black voice by the media, politicians, and the dominant racial discourse in America.
However, I have several serious reservations about Kim's theory construction, methodology, and conclusion. Although the concept of racial power and racial order is critical in her analysis of black-Korean conflict, Kim does not clearly define what racial power is and how it is connected to the black-Korean conflict in America. She tries to explain and define racial power and racial order in three pages (9-12), but it is grossly inadequate and incomplete. To successfully articulate her theory, Kim must elaborate and expand these concepts and link how and why the notion of racial power is the key to understanding the nature of Korean-black [End Page 295] conflicts in America. Dismissing more than 100 years of history of exclusion, discrimination, and demonization of Asian Americans in California and elsewhere, Kim places the black-Korean conflict within the traditional black-white paradigm. I would argue that it is important to construct a theoretical paradigm that goes beyond the black-white paradigm to engage in the multiracial and multiethnic discourse of twenty-first century America.
One of the major shortcomings of the book is the lack of equal voice for Korean American merchants. Although she claims that she interviewed both African American activists and Korean Americans, it is incomprehensible why she chose not to interview a single Korean merchant. In her conclusion, Kim argues that it...