An Interview with Brenda Stevenson
Professor Brenda E. Stevenson is a historian at the University of California Los Angeles. Her work focuses on African American history, particularly that of women enslaved during the antebellum period in the U.S. Her most recent publication, however, is The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, published by Oxford University Press in 2013. The book is a timely contribution: the debate around stop-and-frisk arrests in New York, as well as police violence in New York, Los Angeles, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, have once again brought national attention to the continual threat of targeting and marginalization of African Americans. Stevenson's powerful work, by focusing in detail on the murder of a teenaged African American woman by a Korean store owner tried in front of a Jewish American judge, paints a picture of American racial and ethnic conflict influenced by multiple factors, including race, class, and gender.
We tend to look at the Los Angeles riots of the early 1990s as an issue of white and black. People remember Rodney King, and they remember Reginald Denny. Many people, though, will remember the murder of Latasha Harlins only if reminded, or perhaps not at all. Why was it so overshadowed by the other events?
Brenda E. Stevenson: We often remember the events of late April and early May 1992 in Los Angeles as an issue of black and white with Rodney King, four LAPD officers, and Reginald Denny as particularly important persons involved because this nation tends to only see racial conflict in terms of black, white, and male. The typical racialized scenario involving the criminal justice system is one in which a white member of a police force brutally attacks or murders a black male. This scenario has played out repeatedly in the nation’s history and especially recently with events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the nation also has a history of racialized oppression that involves and affects women of color at the hands of white women. In Los Angeles, Latasha Harlins is hardly forgotten. She is remembered in South Central and in other corridors of the city as well. Although the two cases worked themselves through the court system in a parallel fashion, the Harlins case received only limited national and international attention because it did not fit the typical black/white/male problematic. Nonetheless, the national media coverage of the Los Angeles riots/rebellions in 1992 closely tied the Harlins case to the destruction of Koreatown. And for good reason—that section of Los Angeles was targeted in an attempt at retaliation for the no-jail time sentence of the Korean shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du, who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of 15-year-old Latasha.
Could you talk a bit more about the way that gender intersects with race and ethnicity in American politics? It seems that was one of the more provocative points in your research. The question of who is victimizing whom looms large: the common perception of oppression is of large groups victimizing other large groups, but from your work, it seems that the real picture is much more fragmented than that.
Stevenson: The United States, like other western societies of the 20th and 21st centuries, is hierarchically structured. Race/ethnicity, gender, class and generation are significant variables that determine this hierarchy. All, or a combination of some of these variables, regularly intersect in our society to determine our social location and the power and privilege we exercise vis à vis others. As such, they determine our “place” in relationship to important societal institutions, such as the criminal justice system. In this particular case, Soon Ja Du (a 49-year-old naturalized Korean citizen, shopkeeper, wife, and mother) and Latasha Harlins (a 15-year-old African American high school freshman from a working poor family) are “judged” by Joyce Karlin (a wealthy, 40-year-;old Jewish American woman). The long or ancestral “histories” of these women, determined by their race/ethnicity, gender, and class establishes how they interacted with each other and how justice was or was not served when one of them was killed. Gender combined with class, generation, and race in this case to influence the Court (Judge Karlin) that Soon Ja Du was the actual victim, not the deceased African American teenager. Gender convention, in particular, influenced the judge that Soon Ja Du was a feminized victim and that Latasha Harlins was a masculinized, violent perpetrator.
One of the more fascinating elements of the book was the detailed explanation and reconstruction of the backgrounds of these three women—Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin. We’ve discussed race and ethnicity and gender, but these women were clearly of different economic (class) backgrounds as well. How does class intersect?
Stevenson: Class operates in this case to help convince Judge Karlin that Latasha, who is a poor urban youth, is a violent, dangerous gangbanger who attacked a law-abiding member of the merchant class. Latasha’s status as a teenage youth in a working poor community situates her, in the eyes of the Court, as a “typical” troublemaker. Despite the fact that Latasha had no gang affiliation and did not steal from Mrs. Du, Judge Karlin—whose own background includes small business owners—seems to operate from a class bias that privileges Mrs. Du at the expense of Miss Harlins.
As a follow-up to the previous questions, is there anything else we’re not noticing? In your work as a historian, have you come across other well-known instances of racial tension in which a large piece of the story has disappeared from many popular recollections of it?
Stevenson: There are many important historical events that we remember only partially. We think of African Americans fighting on the side of the patriots during the American Revolution, for example, easily forgetting that twice as many enslaved blacks fought for the British because the British, not General Washington, were the first to offer them freedom for so doing. We also think of in 1848 as an initial hallmark of women’s rights in this nation, but between 1831 and 1833, Maria Stewart, a self-taught free black servant gave four lectures in Boston declaring, in part, her right to serve as a political leader of her community. She was not only the first black woman, but the first woman, to give a series of lectures before male and female audiences in the U.S. And the list goes on. The fact is, our public memory, even of extremely important historical events, often becomes mythologized, sometimes romanticized and rarely is complete. Unfortunately, the portions of our history that are vacated often includes socially marginalized persons—women, racial/ethnic minorities, the poor and the oppressed.
Different theories try to explain inter-ethnic and interracial strife. We’ve heard of segmented labor markets, dual labor markets, conflict theory, and so on. Has your ethnographic research led you to accept or reject any of these?
Stevenson: I work across the racial spectrum, trying to understand the experiences of racialized groups internally and dynamically with others. I am particularly interested in racial conflict—its origins, manifestations, evolution and amelioration. I do not typically try to find a theory that “fits” what I uncover through copious research. I do try to let the members of these communities speak for themselves and allow my audience to clearly hear their voices. It is important for me that my readers be allowed to draw their own conclusions after being treated to detailed descriptions and analyses from varied perspectives.
This interview takes place in the aftermath of Ferguson and other recent incidents of police violence. At the same time, there are indications that Americans’ attitudes on racial issues have changed for the better. How different are things now? What insights can the full events of LA 1992 provide for now?
Stevenson: Racial attitudes do change over time, but the process of racialization and its impact on those who bear the label of the racial other do not. African Americans have never been the sole racial other in U.S. society. Native peoples, and immigrants—Irish, Chinese, Jewish, Central American, and Middle Eastern—have all been racialized. Some still are regarded as cultural and social outsiders who pose an economic, cultural or criminal threat to society. African Americans have been regarded in this manner since enslavement in the early seventeenth century. Despite political and legal gains, African Americans remain stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized and unequal in the criminal justice system. This inequality sparked the L.A. riots of 1992 and underscores the racial conflict we see in our society today.