Media Misrepresentation of the LA Race Riots from a Korean American Perspective
April 29, 1992, is known as "sa-i-gu" to Korean Americans. It was the day that four white police officers were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King. As a result, violence erupted in Los Angeles, affecting the nearby Koreatown. Rather than being simply a riot between blacks and whites, it involved Korean Americans who, while trying to achieve the American dream, found these dreams consumed in fire as their stores were burnt down to the ground and looted. The governor, in an attempt to squelch the riots, sent in 6,000 National Guard troops, with the riots' ending on May 1.
There had always been hostility between the African Americans and Korean Americans that resulted from stereotypes that each group had of the other. The African Americans believed that the Koreans were exploitative and would not hire blacks, as well as viewing them as unfriendly and rude. Koreans, on the other hand, believed that the blacks were poor, violent, and lazy. It was these misconceptions that they had of each other that resulted in uneasy tensions between the two groups. The blacks failed to recognize that the Korean businesses were often a family business and that it was cultural customs that prevented them from being overtly friendly, while the Koreans failed to realize the economic and social problems that the blacks had to face living in inner city areas.
An event that helped precipitate the violence against the Koreans was the killing of a fifteen-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins, who had been killed by Soon Ja Du in 1991. The blacks had already been outraged when Du was only put on probation, but now with the verdict in the Rodney King case, one said: "First that 15-year-old was killed and they got away with it. Then they beat Rodeny King like a dog and the jury sets them free. The black people don't get no justice, nowhere, no time" (Takaki, 495). The resulting consequence was violence towards Koreans and their stores.
Korean Americans largely were not given a voice, but one who did write about her perspective of the race riots was Elaine Kim. Newsweek magazine had asked her for a personal essay, which she wrote on her own terms. She largely believed that the "media played a major role in exacerbating the damage and ill will toward Korean Americans, first by spotlighting tensions between African Americans and Koreans above all efforts to work together…and second by exploiting racist stereotypes of Koreans as unfathomable aliens, this time wielding guns on rooftops and allegedly firing wildly into crowds" (Kim, 275). Her essay accused the media of using the tensions that existed between the two groups as a way of avoiding the true roots of the riots, which she believed was a result of corporate and government offices and of institutions and the media that tried to keep the two groups ignorant about the other by the lack of appropriate education and the distortion of their experiences. Despite the editor's attempts to change the essay, it was published as she had written it, following which she received hate mail.
I chose the Elaine Kim piece because I think she stayed true to her beliefs as to her perspective of the race riots. Despite the hate mail and the attempts to have her writing changed, she was adamant that her essay would be published as it was. I feel like she largely places the blame upon the media of misrepresenting the Korean and African American relationship, which leads the American public to believe that the roots of the riots were based upon these ethnic tensions.
Part of this misrepresentation was the fact that society in general had misconceptions about the Korean community. Many saw the Korean community as being aliens. These ethnic communities originally formed because they needed a support system, due to the cruelty they faced when the immigrants first arrived. If one knows that he cannot get any opportunities in white America but must find a way to survive, then it is only natural to turn to people who can offer aid. Because this is a common stereotype that is shown in the media, this just adds to the blacks' anger because the Koreans are presumed to be too clannish, without hiring people from the communities in their stores.
The media has seemed to always perpetuate the stereotypes with its sensationalism. Kim believed that the media is used "to divert attention from the roots of racial violence in the U.S." (Kim, 276). I think that this statement is very true because we try to blame bad occurrences on outside factors that do not implicate the US's own wrongdoing. Some believe that the incident was not a race riot between the two groups, but that there was a history of racism within the US itself that contributed to this outpouring of anger. Yet, America never wants to admit its wrongs. The media definitely plays a role in determining what information it provides, and one thing that the media did not focus on was the attempts for the two groups to improve their relations. The media did not write of the joint church services and musical services; it did not write that the Korean merchants were making donations to the black community and youth programs, or that the blacks were volunteering to help the Korean immigrants study for their citizenship exams.
I think that the influence of the media is evident in the hate mail that Kim received. Kim points this out as she writes, "The letters also provided some evidence of the dilemma Korean Americans are placed in by those who assume that we are aliens who should 'go back' and at the same time berate us for not rejecting 'Korean-American identity' for 'American identity'" (Kim, 223). Following the publication of her essay, Kim received a lot of hate mail, in which people made these kinds of comments. Society does not want the Koreans here, yet at the same time, they think that the Koreans should be Americans. It does not make sense because it is not possible to do both. It just shows the illogical thinking that the Americans have, which then illustrates how preposterous people can be in their attempt to maintain their status and justify their beliefs. Rather than placing the blame upon the history of racial tensions that existed in America, the Americans believed the media, and the unfortunate result of the media's failure to appropriately represent the African American and Korean American communities led to misconceptions about the true roots of the riots.
Kim, Elaine. "Home is Where the Han Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals". Asian American Studies. Ed. Jean Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Min Song. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
Chapter 10 The Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and the Remaking of Korean American Ethnic Identity
Burned out car on Florence Avenue west of Normandie, April 30, 1992 (Photo from the Los Angeles Times)
On April 29, 1992, Americans across the nation eyewitnessed the shocking pictures of racial violence in Los Angeles. Korean Americans‟ hopes and dreams were burned to the ground and their desperate pleas for help were neglected and ignored. This was the day a jury rendered their verdict on the case involving Rodney King, an African American, and four LAPD officers. Rodney King was seriously beaten by the police officers on March 3, 1991 and the entire incident was caught on tape. When the jury decided that they were not guilty, Los Angeles streets including Pico-Union, South Central Los Angeles, and other parts of Koreatown were soon stormed by violent insurgence. Stores were robbed and destroyed by looters, the streets were filled with fire and smoke, and innocent bystanders were injured and killed.
As a result of the riots, 52 lives were lost and 2,239 people were injured. About one billion dollars in damages were done to residences and businesses, and over 14,000 people were arrested. Korean immigrants were the major victim of the riots, and many store owners watched in disbelief as their stores burned. During the three day riots, 2,300 stores owned by Korean Americans were looted and/or burned in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown. One Korean was killed and 46 Koreans were injured. The damages suffered by Koreans accounted for about 45 percent of the total loss of the riots.
There are competing explanations about what caused the riots. When mainstream reporters wrote about the riots, Korean immigrant views were left out and the media portrayed the riots as if they were caused exclusively by conflicts between the African American community and the Korean American community. However, it is crucial to fully understand the historical context of the incident. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were caused by three factors: firstly, the explosion of anger against the American power structure that produces racial and economic inequality in the United States; secondly, a lack of multiethnic education that prevented Korean Americans and other minorities from understanding each other; and lastly, Korean Americans‟ lack of political representation.
Los Angeles experienced a massive economic change in the 1970s and 1980s. Due to the deindustrialization which means “a widespread, systematic disinvestment in the nation‟s basic productive capacity,” a number of mainstream capital and corporations moved to other areas or developing countries to abandon South Central Los Angeles that had been a predominantly African American residential area. Along with the mainstream capital, many African American middle class also left the area for more affluent neighborhoods. In the process of deindustrialization, according to Edward W. Soja, more than 70,000 jobs disappeared in Los Angeles between 1978 and 1982. The residents of South Central Los Angeles were one of the most severely hit victims by the plant closings and massive lay-offs. They were “deproletarianized” to be abandoned as an urban underclass.
Moreover, African Americans in South Central Los Angeles have been a victim of police brutality. Long before the Rodney King incident, a thirty nine year old African American woman, Eula M. Love was killed by two LAPD officers in 1979. Despite the fact that she didn‟t injure anybody, the officers shot her a dozen times. At least fifteen people were killed by LAPD officers in 1982. About 1,500 young African Americans in South Central Los Angeles were arrested in 1988 simply because of “looking suspicious” after LAPD introduced “Operation Hammer” in the name of anti-gang sweeps in the area.
As a number of Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central American countries, particularly from El Salvador and Guatemala, entered South Central Los Angeles, the area also experienced a dramatic change in demographic composition. A report found Latinos comprised 31 percent of the residents of South Central Los Angeles in 1980, but this figure reached 46 percent in 1990. However, more than 60 percent of these Latinos lived under the poverty line. They also competed with African Americans over increasingly scarce resources.
The abandonment of South Central Los Angeles by mainstream supermarkets and retail chains created an opening for Korean immigrants who faced discrimination in the mainstream labor market. Liquor stores and indoor swap meets were the two most conspicuous institutions that Korean immigrants invested in. A report estimated that there were 728 liquor stores in South Central Los Angeles. The ratio of liquor stores per resident in the area was three or four times higher than the ratio for the rest of Los Angeles. Even though they were designated as “liquor stores,” however, as Nancy Abelmann and John Lie pointed out, most of Korean liquor stores served as a neighborhood supermarket that sold groceries and offered check cashing services to the residents. Korean immigrants also helped reconstruct the local economy by innovating new forms of business establishment such as indoor swap meets. Similar to open-air markets in Korea, these indoor swap meets functioned as department stores by selling a variety of consumer goods from low-cost clothing, shoes, and electronics to jewelry.
With a strong belief in the American dream, Korean immigrants viewed America as a land of milk and honey. They worked hard day and night to accomplish the dream. By opening small businesses in South Central Los Angeles and reshaping the local economy as active agents, they filled the gap caused by the flight of supermarkets and retail chains. Unfortunately, however, Korean immigrants did not have enough opportunities to learn about other minorities who were their primary customers. Schools never taught Korean immigrants about the African American Civil Rights Movement that eventually gave more rights to minorities including Korean Americans.
To make matters worse, many Korean immigrants showed racial prejudice toward African Americans and Latinos. Before coming to the United States, Koreans absorbed the racist ideology disseminated by the U.S. cultural dominance in their homeland. By emphasizing their position as the “model minority,” Korean immigrants also attempted to dissociate themselves from African Americans and Latinos as a means of upward mobility within the racial hierarchy of the United States.
The absence of multicultural education also prevented other minorities from understanding the communication barrier that Korean immigrants faced. Due to their lack of verbal communication skills, Korean immigrants had difficulty in engaging in informal conversation with non-Koreans. A lack of knowledge of Korean immigrant hardship reinforced the notion among African Americans that Korean Americans were foreign intruders deliberately trying to take over their community.
“Walkathon”: The 15th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots of 1992, Los Angeles, April 21, 2007 (Photograph by Chanhaeng Lee)
It was Korean Americans‟ lack of political power that exacerbated their helplessness. Before the riots, as Edward J. W. Park pointed out, Korean Americans reproduced homeland politics within their own community. Political ties to homeland politics was political capital for Korean American community leaders. As is evident in the case of the Korean American Grocers Association, Korean Americans‟ participation in local politics was limited to protecting their economic interests by contributing their financial resources to politicians. However, the riots brought to an end the “politics of ethnic insularity” of Korean Americans. During and after the riots, Korean Americans did not receive any substantial help from politicians and came to believe that their lack of political power was responsible for their victimhood. In this sense, the riots awakened a political consciousness among Korean Americans. They realized that it would be necessary to improve the political power of Korean Americans and to articulate their interests in the politics of post-riots for the future of their community.
Unlike the mainstream media‟s portrayal, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 were not simply a conflict between African Americans and Korean Americans. Rather, the riots were an “over- determined” multiethnic clash caused by economic injustice, racial discrimination, police brutality, demographic change, cultural difference, and political imbalance.
The lessons are clear. Korean Americans who endured discrimination in the “land of opportunity” need to gain political representation to protect themselves. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 were a wake up call for many Korean Americans. On May 3, 1992, more than 30,000 Korean Americans gathered in Los Angeles for a Peace March. There was a clear message behind the march: Korean Americans would be willing to take part in making an America that allows people to have dignity, basic freedom, and common respect. The riots gave Korean Americans an opportunity to rethink their American dream in a multiethnic society. More importantly, the 1.5 and second generation Korean Americans began to play a critical role in representing the community and serving as a voice for the voiceless immigrants.
1. Bluestone, Barry, and Harrison, Bennett (1982). The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. New York: Basic Books.
2. Chang, Edward T. (1999). “The Post-Los Angeles Riot Korean American Community: Challenges and Prospects.” Korean and Korean American Studies Bulletin, 10: 6-26.
3. Kang, Connie. “Korean Americans Still Plagued by Riots‟ Effects.” Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1994.
4. Kelly, Robin D. G. (2000). “Slangin‟ Rocks...Palestinian Style: Dispatches from the Occupied Zones of North America.” In Jill Nelson (Ed.), Police Brutality: An Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
5. Kim, Elaine (1993). “Home is Where the Han is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals.” Social Justice, 20: 1-21.
6. Kim, Nadia (2004). “A View from Below: An Analysis of Korean Americans‟ Racial Attitude.” Amerasia Journal, 30(1): 1-24.
7. Min, Pyong Gap (1996). Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California Press.
8. Navarro, Armando (1994). “The South Central Los Angeles Eruption: A Latino Perspective.” In Edward T. Chang and Russell C. Leong (Eds.), Los Angeles-Struggle toward Multiethnic Community: Asian American, African American, and Latino Perspectives. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
9. Ong, Paul, and Hee, Suzanne (1992). Losses in the Los Angeles Civil Unrest, April 29- May 1, 1992. UCLA Center for Pacific Rim Studies.
10. Ong, Paul, Park, Kyeyoung, and Tong, Yasmin (1994). “The Korean-Black Conflict and the State.” In Paul Ong, Edna Bonacich, and Lucie Cheng (Eds.), The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
11. Park, Edward J. W. (1998). “Competing Visions: Political Formation of Korean Americans in Los Angeles, 1992-1997.” Amerasia Journal, 24(1): 41-57.
12. Park, Edward J. W. (1996). “Our L.A.? Korean Americans in Los Angeles after the Civil Unrest.” In Michael J. Dear, H. Eric Schockman, and Greg Hise (Eds.), Rethinking Los Angeles. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
13. Soja, Edward W. (1989). Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso.
14. Sugrue, Thomas J. (1996). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.