When I was 10 years old I watched on the news Rodney King get pulled over and beaten by Los Angeles police officers. I recalled two things about this event: 1) this was so violent: so many officers and one defenseless man, and 2) this beating took place in my town, by police officers whose patrol cars were emblazoned with the LAPD motto, “to protect and to serve.”
I heard about the trial, which took place in the town where my dentist was—which I didn’t even think was part of LA County it was so far away—then watched the verdict on breaking news. My eyes were glued to the television as parts of a city I visited every weekend with my parents to see our family were burned and looted. My cousins had to be escorted home from school by the police. There were images of armed people standing on the roofs of their stores to guard against looters. Newscasters spoke of the escalation of existing tensions between the Korean and Black communities in Los Angeles. We stayed away from downtown for a few months.
Three years later I again watched on tv the the most boring car chase ever: what was the big deal about this white Bronco? And wasn’t OJ Simpson a football player? What was going on with his girlfriend and why were we still watching this car chase? Then OJ Simpson went to trial, and I’m not sure how, but it became part of my 7th grade social studies education. Then, again, on breaking news, I watched the verdict.
I did a lot of watching in those days, watching these events unfold, watching trials come and go, watching riots and celebrations. Throughout it all I had such an incomplete understanding of the events, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to me, a little Asian kid in the Valley.
As an adult, when I asked my brother what he remembered about Rodney King, he said, “can’t we all just get along?” Thrust into the national spotlight to make a statement about “race relations” in Los Angeles, King asked the simple question. In a similarly naive way, I have continued, since I was a kid and watching how people of different races interacted in Los Angeles, to ask myself,
how in the world does racism continue to persist in our society?
How is it that our schools are still separate and unequal, segregated more today than before Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas? How is it that violence continues disproportionately against Black bodies? How is it that difference in infant mortality rates between Black babies and White babies is larger now than in 1850? 1850, folks.
I have a variety of answers and responses to how racism continues, but they don’t often get me anywhere. So instead I have started to ask myself
how am I perpetuating racism?
My parents and I were visiting the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice when I came across a 1963 newspaper ad asking readers what they had done “personally” to “maintain segregation.” I was a little bit horrified, but then curious. This ad was trying to convince its readers that they should be maintaining segregation, but if they hadn’t done anything to keep the status quo, like, you know, making sure Black people were staying on their side of the bus and using their own drinking fountains, they could donate to an organization that would help them to do so. Nothing more you had to do! Just give us some money! We’ll make sure the races never mix!
As I thought about that question I turned it on myself: what had I done to maintain segregation, to perpetuate racism? What choices had I made about where I live, or where I would send my children to school? What would be the downstream consequences of these choices, particularly as they reinforced existing systemic problems? What considerations should I be taking into account as I made decisions? What had I personally done to maintain segregation? What was I continuing to do? And then a new question came to mind:
what is involved in stopping my perpetuation of racism and could I teach others to do the same?
What do I need to know to stop perpetuating racism? How do I need to think in order to stop perpetuating racism, especially when I don’t realize I’m doing it?
Racism pisses me off. It annoys me. It frustrates the hell out of me. How in the world can we be a society that claims to value equality and justice when we don’t offer that protection and safety for everyone? It has become really important for me to figure out some answers to these questions.