Ethnicity brings an unwelcome focus

Times Staff Writer

The sense of shock and shame that has engulfed the Korean American community in the wake of the murderous Virginia Tech rampage may seem overdone to some, but its roots are familiar to many minorities.

“My first thought when I heard initial reports [of the shootings] was ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s not a black person,’ ” African American commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson said. “It’s a visceral reaction, a reflection of this country’s long history of typecasting all minorities.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 28, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Virginia Tech: An article in the A Section on April 19 about the reaction of ethnic communities to the Virginia Tech massacre said the Oklahoma City bombing occurred in April 1993. The bombing occurred April 19, 1995.

When the spotlight settled on Seung-hui Cho on Tuesday, Korean Americans in Los Angeles wasted no time denouncing the crime, holding a candlelight vigil and prayer service -- extending, in effect, a collective olive branch to a society they worried might judge them harshly.

“It is during these times that we need to remind each other how far we have come as a multicultural nation and continue to help each other heal past wounds,” said Grace Yoo of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.


That kind of response prompted confusion, even derision, in some quarters. “It’s a lack of intelligence to think that one lunatic shoots up a university and we’re going to go after all the Koreans,” John Kobylt of “The John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640) told his audience Tuesday afternoon. He poked fun at Korean Americans’ self-blame, accusing them of “playing the race card.... Now look who’s stereotyping.”

But the sensitivity of Korean Americans -- and that of other minorities -- is rooted in culture and history, and reflects the reality that distinctive events, with distinctive players, tend to leave a unique mark on our collective psyche, bolstering innate tendencies toward bias and stereotyping.

“People will never forget that it was a Korean that committed the crime,” said social psychologist Joel D. Lieberman, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“When you’ve got a white guy going crazy, [his ethnicity] doesn’t stand out because most mass killings are done by whites. But when you have two rare things occurring like this, people tend to overestimate the frequency of the occurrence” and make a connection between group membership and behavior that doesn’t exist.


Lieberman said he couldn’t can’t imagine people holding the Korean American community accountable.

But the impulse toward a public display of contrition is also rooted in psychology, he said. “People’s sense of identity rests not just on your own accomplishments, but the failures and accomplishments of your group. If you’re a Mets fan and the Mets are doing well, you feel good about yourself. When a person from your group does something that reflects negatively, you feel bad about yourself. You have a desire to distance yourself from the person.”

The feeling may be especially pronounced among minorities who feel more vulnerable to being judged by society. Each group nurses its own concerns that are specific to its history and place in society.

Blacks might fear that events like this would bolster stereotypes that they are prone to violence. Jews’ fears might reflect a history of being scapegoats for society’s ills. The focus on immigration causes many Latinos unease. And hate crimes against Muslims in America have risen since the World Trade Center attacks cast them as terrorists.


Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he waited with dread Tuesday to find out whether the Virginia Tech killer might be Muslim or Middle Eastern. When the gunman was identified as a South Korean national, Al-Marayati said, he felt overwhelming relief, quickly replaced by guilt, and then by sadness that another immigrant community would be in the spotlight.

“It’s a sad commentary that we have to be relieved when the story is not going to be one about our religion or ethnicity or race,” he said, noting that no group should be held responsible for the problematic behavior of an individual.

Al-Marayati expressed similar sentiments immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1993, when little was known about the perpetrators but suspicions were rampant that they might be Middle Eastern men. At the time he said, “The first trauma is in witnessing with everyone else the suffering inflicted on innocent ... people,” he said. The second, he added, is when Muslims are unfairly targeted.

Former Huntington Park Mayor Ric Loya said he experienced a sense of relief when he learned the gunman was not a Latino. “It’s horrible, but I found myself thinking, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t us. We’re in the spotlight enough.’ It’s weird; I don’t know why I’d think that. You look back at all these mass shootings and it’s never a Latino.”


For Korean Americans, the sense of shame may be particularly acute because of their cultural commitment to interdependence. “Here in America, we think of ourselves as much more separate and autonomous,” said Stanford University professor Hazel Rose Markus, an expert in cultural psychology.

“Foundational to Korean thinking is the sense that you need to ... adjust yourself to expectations. It’s very, very important that you protect your family face and reputation, recognize that whatever you do has consequences not just for you, but for others as well.”

Their concerns are compounded by the feeling that they haven’t yet made it into America’s mainstream, Markus said. “Koreans are very aware, especially in Los Angeles, that they are sort of looked at as Koreans first. They worry that they’ll be stigmatized.”

Asian Americans of many nationalities are sensitive to the possibility of repercussions, said Rene Astudillo, executive director of the Asian American Journalists’ Assn. His group sent out an advisory to media outlets as coverage unfolded Tuesday, urging them to “avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason.”


In early reports of the shooting, “the only identifier put out there was that he was Asian,” Astudillo said. “That was premature as far as we are concerned, and it cast a cloud on the entire race.”

But the Korean American community is by no means of one mind on the issue. “Many Koreans are upset that some members of their community are accepting this as a collective guilt,” Astudillo said. “They are saying: ‘This is an act of one person who may have some mental issues who may happen to be from South Korea. There is no reason for us to say we are sorry for that.’ ”

But Hutchinson, head of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, commended Korean American leaders for stepping up to offer apologies and prayers.

“They know there’s a rush to judgment about foreigners,” he said. “This sent a warning signal to them: ‘We’d better get out in front of this fast.’


“Is that fair? No. But the reality is there’s a long history of stereotyping Asians in this country.

“I don’t think it’s playing the race card,” Hutchinson continued. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have a fear and a worry on the part of any minority group when a heinous act like this is done by one of your own. It’s not so much collective guilt, but collective concern and worry about the impact of stereotypes on the public mind.

“None of us want to be scapegoats for the deranged act of a single man.”



Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson contributed to this report.