26 Years After the Murder of Latasha Harlins, Asian Americans Still Have a Lot of Work to do Around Anti-Blackness

March 15, 2017
A screen capture of cellphone footage showing violence that erupted between an unidentified customer and the owner of Missha Beauty in North Carolina.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, the Black community is calling for a boycott of Missha Beauty  after the owner Sung Ho Lim and another female employee were caught on cellphone video physically assaulting an unidentified female customer, who appears Black. Both Lim and the unidentified female employee appear to be Asian American.

The confrontation apparently began when store employees accused the unidentified customer of shoplifting. However, the customer is heard in unedited videotape footage immediately denying the charge, and inviting employees to check her purse. Less than a minute later, Lim and the other store employee again confronted the customer which devolved into a shoving match. Lim then escalated the confrontation by shoving the customer in the throat, kicking her multiple times, and eventually placing her in a chokehold — a potentially life-threatening maneuver — while the customer pleads for him to get off of her. Indeed, eyewitnesses say that the customer was gasping for air while Lim was on top of her. Reports The Root:

“When he was choking her, he was almost choking her to death. She was gasping for breath, and he was continually choking her,” Teresa Mosely, a customer who buys from Missha Beauty three times a week but says that she won’t continue doing so, told the news station.

Lim later took full responsibility for the attack.

“I don’t know; it just happened. I went crazy,” Lim said. “No matter what the reason, I feel very sorry to her and to them.

“This is my fault,” he added, saying that he would give the store’s security footage to the local police. “I have to take the whole video and give it to the police.”

Lim continues to allege that the customer was attempting to shoplift some items, and says that security camera footage will corroborate his story. But, even if true, that does not even come close to justifying Lim’s vigilante violence which might have taken this unnamed customer’s life.

Last week’s attack in Charlotte cannot help but remind us of the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, twenty-six years ago almost to the day. On March 16, 1991, Harlins was shot and killed by 51-year-old Soon Ja Du, who erroneously accused Harlins of trying to shoplift a bottle of orange juice. Du physically grabbed Harlins by the sweater and attempted to take her backpack. When Harlins struck Du multiple times and pushed her away, Du threw a stool at her. Harlins then threw the orange juice on the counter and turned to leave the store when Du pulled out a handgun and shot Harlins in the back of the head, killing the teenaged girl instantly. Du was charged with voluntary manslaughter, and was found guilty of the charge by jurors. However, although jurors recommended that Du receive the maximum sentence of 16 years in prison for the crime, the judge instead sentenced Du to five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.

During her trial, Du claimed self-defense and said she believed her life was in danger. This is all too common a defense invoked by those who assault Black bodies and who take Black lives. In the killing of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman claimed he was in fear for his life. In the killing of Michael Brown, ex-cop Darren Wilson claimed he was in fear for his life. In the killing of Rekia Boyd, ex-detective Dante Servin claimed he was in fear for his life. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that study participants perceived young Black men as larger and more physically threatening than young White men of equal size and shape. More importantly, participants also believed that police were more justified in using physical force to subdue young Black men compared to young White men of equal build. Fear,  it seems, is invoked more by skin colour than by body size.

When non-Black people rush to exercise physical — and too often, lethal — force against Black folks, this is anti-blackness in among its purest forms. When we pre-emptively justify assault against Black bodies based on the imagined threat of Black dangerousness, we deny the possibility of Black innocence and we commit violent erasure of Black humanity.

Inevitably, there will be those in the Asian American community who will defend Sung Ho Lim’s actions. They will point out that Asian American store owners are often the victims of strong-arm robbery. They will cite examples — of which there are many — of Chinese food deliverymen being robbed and assaulted for the petty cash they carry. Some might even see Lim’s actions as payback for the rash of random assaults that have taken the lives of Asian American victims, such as the fatal beating of 77-year-old Lin Leung in San Francisco last year. Many have rightfully pointed out that this may be evidence of a pattern of racially-influenced violence targeting Asian American victims of opportunity. This is likely true, and a serious problem of rising hate crime violence targeting our community that Asian Americans must work to highlight and end. (Incidentally, Advancing Justice recently launched the first-ever tracker of hate crimes against Asian Americans.)

But, violence does not rationalize violence. To argue that those who commit acts of violence against Asian Americans justify the commission of violence against others who may (or may not) share the same race as those original attackers is to give in to racist logic. And, it should go without saying: racism cannot be used as a tool to end racism.

Many Asian American families have built wealth in America by creating small businesses that service predominantly Black communities. For decades,  the cultural residue of redlining also excluded Asian Americans from living in (or establishing businesses in) other urban areas, but Asian Americans were also not subject to the same institutionalized racism and classism that denied business loans to Black aspiring entrepreneurs. As a result, an entire generation of Asian Americans store owners arose that supported themselves and their families by servicing predominantly Black customers.

And so, it is all the more damaging if an Asian American store owner shows nothing but contempt, disrespect and violence for the customers whose patronage they rely upon. When Soon Ja Du would sooner shoot Latasha Harlins over a bottle of orange juice; when Sung Ho Lim would sooner place a customer in a chokehold over an accusation of shoplifting; when anti-blackness forms the basis of the interaction between shopkeeper and customer, this is when entrepreneurship becomes exploitation.

Asian Americans occupy a precarious space in America’s racial landscape (recently commented on in Jordan Peele’s Get Out) wherein we are simultaneously proximal to Whiteness while excluded from it. The Model Minority Myth, which influences much of Asian America’s racial positionality, remains a construct of anti-blackness and was historically popularized as a condemnation of Black civil rights. So, it is all the more important that we do the work of fighting our own internalized racism. This begins by confronting the outright fear and disdain of Black folks that is too often found within the Asian American community. We must do more to push back against the alt-right mythos of Black cultural and intellectual inferiority that is too often repeated within Asian American circles. We must do more to view the taking of a Black life as an unforgivable act.

It is up to us to challenge the anti-blackness in our midst. Sadly, it is also clear that there is still so much work for us to do.

 

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