James Kim — Tragedy By Racism?

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Here’s one question no one dares to ask about the tragic death in the Oregon backcountry of CNET editor James Kim:

Did Kim’s heritage play any role in the tragedy?

That’s right — was race a factor in any part of this tragic snafu?

It’s worth mentioning if you read over the Oregon Sheriff’s Report that was released last week.

The report not only has information from Kim’s wife Kati about what the family went through before and during their time in their stranded Saab. The 23-page document also contains information from interviews from the clashing factions that were in charge at a critical phase of the search effort.

It reveals the petty details of how a bumpkin bureaucracy badly bungled the entire affair.

And it leads one to a general conclusion that it wasn’t just the elements that led to the hypothermia that eventually killed James Kim.

The report talks of two neighboring Oregon counties — Josephine and Jackson — and how one had elected a new sheriff over the presiding under-sheriff who was about to lose his job. Then there was also the threat of layoffs in the overall department. And there was a conflict between the search managers of the two counties. The report concludes: “Some notable personality conflicts may have affected communication.”

There was a lot of ignorant pettiness that contributed to a lack of urgency that marred the search for the Kims.

It was all stupid, avoidable stuff.

About the only thing that would excuse it is the presence of an even more stupid, ignorant force: racism.

After reading the report, a revealing detail from Kati Kim suggests it may have been present right at the start — and could have been the key factor that began the family’s downward spiral.

THE GAS STATION ATTENDANT

Picture yourself as the Kims of San Francisco.

You’re ultra-hip. You’re on the cutting edge of tech and social trends. You’re an Asian male-white female couple with biracial children.

And now on the tail end of the Thanksgiving holiday, you’re a hip, upscale family in the Oregon backwoods.

Emphasis on “back.”

You’re the Kims. You might as well be on the moon.

No doubt, the Kims were lost. They left Portland on Nov. 25 and were headed to the Tu Tu Tun Lodge in Gold Beach on the Oregon coast south of Portland.

It was late. Kati told the Sheriff’s investigator they made three cell phone calls to the lodge, the last one a notice that they would be arriving late.

They had stopped in a town called Merlin.

Here’s what the official Sheriff’s Report said:

Kati and her husband, James, did not see any indication that the roads to the coast from Merlin were not being traveled. There were several indicators that led them to just the opposite conclusion.

The Kims stopped at a gas station in Merlin after exiting Interstate 5. After missing their exit near Roseburg, they pulled out an Oregon map that they carried in the car that showed a straight shot to the coast. James went into the gas station with his map to get some clarifications about directions while Kati stayed in the Saab with the girls. James came back to the car frustrated. He thought that the attendant gave “strange directions” and that the man was acting like he didn’t understand what James was asking. Kati felt that he definitely didn’t communicate that it was a dangerous route.”

It’s a passage that didn’t get much play in any of the press accounts on the Sheriff’s report.

Most stories concentrated on the “Swiss Family Robinson” part of the story, how the family rationed food, fuel and set rules about not getting wet, hurt or sick while trying to save themselves.

That’s compelling stuff.

Most stories to date also concentrate on a gate to a logging road that should have been locked.

But the Kims never would have been close to that road had a simple communication been made at the gas station.

The report doesn’t go into further detail. Kati was in the car and only saw James’s confusion.

But what was the communication between the attendant and James?

From Kati’s description, it seems to have been the kind of communication that takes place between a “local” and a “person from somewhere else.”

But throw in the Asian face of James Kim, and what do you get? A form of xenophobia that touches on racism?

Oh, there you go race-baiting again, Emil.

OK. Take away race. Was it just parochial ignorance rearing its ugly head? That’s inexcusable, but perhaps more politically correct than to conjure the thought of racism in Merlin, Ore.

So, ask yourself what if Kati had gone in and asked for directions? Would questions from a white woman garner a more sympathetic, more detailed and helpful response from the gas station attendant?

Or, perhaps the attendant just didn’t care about anything, was surprised to see someone driving in the area, and was still recovering from his Thanksgiving dinner?

From my experience, an Asian American man seeking directions in the burly backwoods of Oregon is a communications breakdown waiting to happen.

Sadly, that appears to be what sent the Kims down the wrong road.

About the Author

For almost 15 years, Emil Guillermo wrote his "Amok" column for AsianWeek, which was the largest English language Asian American newsweekly in the nation. "Amok" was considered the most widely-read column on Asian American issues in the U.S. His thoughtful and provocative social commentaries have appeared in print in the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, San Francisco Examiner, USA Today, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and in syndication throughout the country. His early columns are compiled in a book "Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective," which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000. Guillermo's journalistic career began in television and radio broadcasting. At National Public Radio, he was the first Asian American male to anchor a regularly scheduled national news broadcast when he hosted "All Things Considered" from 1989-1991. During his watch, major news broke, including the violence in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of dictatorships in Romania and Panama. From Washington, Guillermo hosted the shows that broke the news. As a television journalist, his award-winning reports and commentaries have appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS. He was a reporter in San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. After NPR, Guillermo became a press secretary and speechwriter for then Congressman Norman Mineta, the former cabinet member in the Bush and Clinton Administrations. After his Hill experience, Guillermo returned to the media, hosting his own talk show in Washington, D.C. on WRC Radio. He returned to California where he hosted talk shows in San Francisco at KSFO/KGO, and in Sacramento at KSTE/KFBK. Guillermo's columns in the ethnic press inspired a roundtable discussion program that he created, hosted, executive produced, resulting in more than 100 original half-hour programs. "NCM-TV: New California Media" was seen on PBS stations in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and throughout the state on cable. Guillermo also spent time as a newspaper reporter covering the poor and the minority communities of California's Central Valley. His writing and reporting on California's sterilization program on the poor and minorities won him statewide and national journalism awards. Guillermo, a native San Franciscan, went to Lowell High School, and graduated from Harvard College, where he was an Ivy Orator and class humorist, a distinction shared by fellow Lampoon members like James Downey (Saturday Night Live) and Conan O'Brien. Find out what he's up to at www.amok.com.