In light of the events of S-I-Gu, Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing seems remarkably prescient. The film depicts racial tension in an inner-city neighborhood and although the central drama focuses on Mookie, an African-American, and Sal, an Italian-American, a Korean-American grocery store is featured and does become a point of conflict. The issue of police brutality and the issue racial hegemony of white society are explored in Lee’s film, which was produced years before Los Angeles police killed Rodney King. Ironically, Spike Lee’s name could easily be Korean. The filmmaker shows remarkable sensitivity to the social, cultural, political, linguistic, and economic class circumstances that divide the African-American from the Korean-American communities. Do the Right Thing depicts some immigrant groups, like Korean-Americans, as having access to the means by which to start small businesses and become self-employed. Those businesses happen to be frequently located in poor black neighborhoods.
The moment in the film where Sonny, the Korean store owner, cries out, “I no white! I black! You, me, same! We same!” is one of the saddest in the film. Sonny is trying to say, “I’m a minority. Like you, I am oppressed. I am ridiculed, I am ignored. I am viewed as inferior. We are in this together. We both want the same things. We both want the American Dream. We both want equality.” His words touch a chord. Most Americans would have hoped that chord could have been heard in South Central Los Angeles in 1992.
The date is called Sa-I-Gu in Korean. Sa-I-Gu is a point of deep sorrow in the Korean-American community for several reasons. Elaine H. Kim describes the pain of Sa-I-Gu by using another Korean term, han. Han, says Kim, is “the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression (270).
Kim reminds readers that Sa-I-Gu was not an isolated incident. Korean-Americans have been ignored at best or at worst, blatantly discriminated against. Koreans are either the “model minority” because of their upward social mobility and business acumen; or Koreans are “foreign intruders deliberately trying to stifle African-American economic development,” (Kim 271).
Koreans have had a unique immigrant experience. According to Jennifer Lee, about 30% of Korean immigrants over the age of 25 had college degrees. Many had held white collar jobs by the time they emigrated. Reasons for emigration were that the domestic labor market in Korea was overflowing. The United States seemed an opportune place to find good jobs, raise a family, and experience the promised freedoms and liberties that most immigrants expect.
However, when Koreans came to the United States they found they could not readily assimilate. Transferring the college degrees and job skills proved difficult and this drove many Korean-Americans to open shops like the grocery store in Do the Right Thing, or the liquor store that Soon Ja Du owned in South Central Los Angeles. Self-employment became the hallmark of the Korean-American immigrant profile. It was the proliferation of Korean-American small businesses that earned the ethnic group the title of “model minority,” (Lee).
The perception of Koreans as a model minority clashed completely with the image of African-Americans as anything but that. As Stevenson points out in “Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin: A Case Study of Multicultural Female Violence and Justice on the Urban Frontier,” a white American judge exhibited overt bias in favor of Soon Ja Du. Soon Ja Du was the Korean-American owner of a liquor store in South Central Los Angeles. As if by fate, African-American Latasha Harlins walked into Soon Ja Du’s store a few weeks before the Rodney King beatings. Like King, Latasha Harlins became a victim of white hegemony.
Soon Ja Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins. Like the five police officers who were acquitted for their brutalizing Rodney King, the white judge in the case also gave Soon Ja Du a unjustly lenient sentence. The situation added fuel to an already robust fire over the Rodney King trial. The two issues brought to a head the conflicts that had been brewing under the surface in South-Central Los Angeles. In South-Central Los Angeles, about 30% of the liquor stores were owned by Korean-Americans. Many of those Korean-Americans like Soon Ja Du and her family did not actually live in the communities surrounding their stores. Nor did they employ local black workers as a rule. Korean store owners found themselves in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, the Korean-Americans were self-employed and finding viable means to support themselves. On the other hand, their presence in a predominantly black community caused racial tensions.
The Rodney King verdict and the Soon Ja Du verdict both climaxed in rioting that caused the deaths of 52 people. Most of the financial burdens of Sa-I-Gu were borne by the Korean-American store owners, who saw their livelihoods go up in flames. The Rodney King riots would go down as the “worst domestic uprising in the 20th century” (Lee 244).
Unfortunately it took a tragedy, a horrific crisis in the American consciousness itself, to clarify the Korean-American experience. Sa-I-Gu brought to light the uniqueness of the Korean immigrant experience, even if by way of violence and ethnic tension. The riots made it possible to view the Korean-American experience in a more honest and thoughtful light. If anything good came out of Sa-I-Gu it was that Korean-Americans were more visible than they were before 1992.
Elaine Kim claims that Korean-Americans occupy a special position in the American ethnic spectrum. Sonny in Do the Right Thing seemed to understand that Korean-Americans occupy an “interstitial position in the American discourse on race,” (Kim 270). On the one hand, Korean-Americans and African-Americans could come together in a shared experience of oppression. Kim notes that “centuries of extreme suffering from invasion colonization, war, and national division had smuggled itself into the United States with our baggage,” and that the Korean immigrant experience was filled with han (271).
On the other hand, Sa-I-Gu showed that class and socio-economic status issues may trump the race card in America. Korean-Americans occupied a higher position on the social ladder than African-Americans. When Judge Joyce Karlin slapped Soon Ja Du on the wrist, she was reinforcing the racial, ethnic, and class barriers that define the American minority experience. As self-employed store owners, Korean-Americans are viewed more as “model minorities” than blacks are; in fact, the phrase model minority is almost used in a way that deliberately denies African-Americans the opportunity to explain that systematic racism, institutionalized racism, has prevented the empowerment of the black community.
Kim, Elaine H. “Home is Where the Han Is.”
Lee, Jennifer. “Striving for the American Dream.” Chapter 10.
Lee, Spike. Do the Right Thing. Feature Film.
Stevenson, Brenda E. “Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin: A Case Study of Multicultural Female Violence and Justice on the Urban Frontier.”