washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Ombudsman
Ombudsman

Readers Tee Off on T-Shirts

By Michael Getler
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page B06

On the front page of the Aug. 10 Style section, a Korean American businessman, Jung Won Kang, is pictured at the Springfield factory where he manufactures a popular brand of high-end, embroidered T-shirts, warm-up gear and other "urbanwear" that he created and produces under the "Visionz" logo.

The picture is over a long story by staff writer Natalie Hopkinson, headlined "Tempest in a T-Shirt; the Visionz Line of Urbanwear Sews Discontent, and Activism, Among Rivals." It reports on the efforts of the Unity Clothing Association, a group formed by local, independent, African American-owned clothing stores to "educate" the public about the "true" ownership -- meaning Korean, not black -- of the Visionz line. It does this in part through a flood of fliers handed out at clubs, basketball courts and shopping malls. The story was accompanied by images from two of those fliers, one of which is starkly racist.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

Add Ombudsman to your personal home page.

_____Free E-mail Newsletters_____
• News Headlines
• News Alert

This article generated much critical comment from readers.

"I wonder how The Post would have reported if a group of 30 white businessmen joined together in an effort to drive an African American, Korean or Hispanic person out of business simply because he or she was offering a similar product less expensively. Or how the district attorney or elected officials would have responded to the clearly racist leaflet like the one targeting the Korean businessman being distributed by the Unity Clothing Association," one reader said.

"Did the Washington Post editors not see anything racist about the fliers used by the Unity Clothing Association in promoting their cause?" asked another reader whose comments also appeared on Saturday's Free for All page. "Apparently not, as there is absolutely no criticism of the actions of the Unity Clothing Association and The Post saw fit to print the disgusting images in full color accompanying the article, also with no commentary on the inflammatory images used. Furthermore, the Unity Clothing Association is portrayed as effective grass-roots activists. The only thing they have been effective in doing is promoting racism and damaging an honest business."

"How could Natalie Hopkinson's article completely skirt the issue at hand: racism? Seems to me that's the underlying situation, yet none of the people quoted in the article appear to have been challenged by the reporter on what seems to be blatantly racist behavior," says another.

Another reader said she thought using the fliers in the story was important "but it was painful for me to look at and I was looking for someone in the story who had that same pang I did. There are plenty of Asians out there who probably did, or perhaps the local Korean American organizations might have been contacted for some reaction."

This was a powerful story with a lot of reporting that captured very well the language, frustrations and determination of this segment of the black business community. And it documented another facet of a racially tinged economic battle that has flared before between some blacks and some Koreans. In one sense, this was pure reporting because the racism seemed unmistakable and spoke for itself. So readers could draw their own conclusions from it.

Yet I think those who complained raised valid criticisms. The racism invoked in this campaign is allowed to just stand there. No member of the Unity Clothing Association, and no one in the story, was questioned about the racist content of the campaign and the fliers. What do they think about it -- the merchants, the customers, the pitchmen, the recipients of the fliers? And what about the Korean Americans? Beyond some brief comments from Jung Won Kang, there is no Korean American reaction, and the story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of the black community.

This was a long piece on a volatile topic that provided valuable insights into a struggle that many readers would otherwise know nothing about. But it could have used more context, comment and reportorial questioning.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company