Beyond Black and White

May 10, 1992|By ANDREW LAM

The old black-white dialogues explaining American racial tension in Los Angeles are sadly inadequate. The truer racial landscape is self evident at the Los Angeles morgue in the wake of the riots: Latino and Asian bodies lying next to dead black and whites.

We remain wedded, however, to the romantic notion that the American identity is being forged out of the tumultuous black-white embrace. American movies such as "48 Hours" offer us images of black-white bonding stories. But watching Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte brawling it out in San Francisco, I am more intrigued by what's not told. The black man and white man fight in an alley of this predominantly Asian city whose population is conveniently omitted from the silver screen.

Indeed it's the black-Asian story, among other inter-ethnic stories, that demands attention. From that perspective, the Rodney King trial was preceded by long simmering Asian-black tension in L.A. Some five Korean shop owners were killed by robbers last year, and a Korean shop owner, Soon Ja Du, shot a black teen-ager, Latasha Harlins, and managed to avoid serving jail time.

"When the TV reporters kept talking about black-white relations after the riot, they only talk about half of L.A.," remarks a Vietnamese American who lives near Koreatown. He saw from his window the stores that many blacks frequented going up in smoke. He offered a more intriguing piece of Americana: "For a while I was worried. I seriously thought about putting on shoe polish and going out to search for my black roommate."

Ah, poor myopic America! She is too close to Hollywood, too far from the world of the streets, where our future lies. For the sake of convenience, the real stories of ethnic and race relations are lost.

Even as the camera records images of armed Korean grocers fighting off black and Hispanic looters from their businesses' roof tops (and, later, heart-warming images of black and Hispanic neighbors who volunteer to clean up the same area) television broadcasters and analysts echoed instead the old Kerner commission's vision of a country divided between black and white.

The CNN-Time magazine poll, typifying American journalism, asks what blacks and whites think of each other -- as if the NTC answers will somehow explain away Los Angeles, the largest Mexican city in the United States. The poll betrays no knowledge of the colorful and heated relationships that long exist here in the now weeping rainbow state.

As a newcomer to America, I can tell you that we immigrants from the South and the Far East add more to the Californian cultures and economic lives in the inner cities than the white middle class that fled them. Nor is it by coincidence that San Francisco, which has ridden out the recession relatively unscathed, has the highest success rate of new small businesses and the highest immigrant population per capita.

And I can also tell you that rage is not an exclusive African American characteristic. Anyone publicly ignored and dismissed naturally feels anger and pain. What the CNN-Time poll tells me and other non-black ethnic minorities is that we are not American enough to have opinions, the various shades of our skin are not significant enough to count in the American consciousness, which craves simplicity.

We non-black, non-white Americans have hurled through the American streets like wandering ghosts, casting no reflections. Oh, we console ourselves that the richness of our private lives compensates for what the blond-and-ebony billboards above us dare not describe.

But we grow impatient for the day America will tell the real race relation stories of the inner cities where Asians, Hispanics and blacks increasingly play central roles, while the white man and his white government are but a minor character.

As for Hollywood, were it to look, it would find wonderful and refreshing stories. The black children who speak Cantonese in San Francisco Chinatown, the Korean grocers who speak eloquent Spanish in L.A., the black and Latino dragon dancers at the Chinese festivals and the Vietnamese and Filipino kids who rap in Orange County, have become something with more shades and passions than those elicited by the black-white embrace.

It's not easy, but we ought to try.

A white man was photographed during the Los Angeles riots on his knees screaming to a standing Latino man, "This is not my America!" No one had bothered to inform the frightened man that the America of movie sequels and rehashed ideas belongs to a simplistic fantasy. The new multi-racial America, dramatized in the Los Angeles riots, waits to be described.

Andrew Lam is associate editor of Pacific News Service.

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