“Oriental one-penny countin’ motherfuckers / that make a nigga made enough to cause a little ruckus / Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take / So they watch every damn move that I make,” says Ice Cube’s first verse in his incendiary 1991 song “Black Korea.” In Spike Lee’s wildly heralded 1989 film Do the Right Thing, the black Radio Raheem gets into an argument with Korean shop owner Sonny, in which he says “Look you little Chinese motherfucker / I ain’t tryin to steal none of yo’ shit, leave me alone!” to which Sonny replies “Mother-fuck you!”
Both examples illustrate a Central Los Angeles in the early 1990s rife with racial tensions between blacks and Koreans — tensions that culminated in the 1992 LA Riots, which occurred after the acquittal of four police officers for the beating of Rodney King. During the outbreak of violence, Korean shops were specifically targeted and burned down, inflicting a grotesque collective trauma on the LA Korean and Korean American community. (For the sake of this article, I will refer to both communities as Korean from now on). Media narratives only exacerbated this conflict by depicting it as a minority-minority ring fight rather than acknowledging the larger struggle of minorities against a hegemonic majority. The collective trauma of the LA Riots thus became formative in the Korean consciousness, allowing for an emergence of Korean political identity within a highly racialized America.
Koreans first began moving into Los Angeles in the early 1900’s, settling into the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Downtown LA, an area where non-whites could legally purchase homes. The Korean presence in Los Angeles then skyrocketed after the Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 eased immigration restrictions from Asia. Simultaneously, the Watts Riots of 1965 caused an exodus of Jewish business owners from South Central LA, which led to Korean merchants occupying the predominantly black region. By 1990, there were over 2,800 Korean owned liquor and grocery stores in Los Angeles, comprising 25 percent of all such stores in the area. By no means were these Koreans emblematic of the “model minority” stereotype attributed to Asian-Americans — most were low-income immigrants whose vocational skills did not transfer cleanly into the United States labor market. Racial tensions in these communities ensued, exacerbated by a lack of Korean investment and hiring in black communities, language barriers, black perceptions of Korean exploitation, and violent shop owner-customer interactions. As a result, Los Angeles became a dangerous breeding ground of black-Korean tension, which exploded in the early 1990s.
A pivotal moment in black-Korean relations occurred on March 16, 1991, at Empire Liquor in South Los Angeles. Sixteen-year-old Latasha Harlins placed a gallon of orange juice in her bag while walking to the register, cash in her hand. The Korean female shop owner, Soon Ja Du, assuming theft, grabbed Harlins by the sweater, after which Harlins struck Du and an altercation began. The incident culminated in Du shooting Harlins from the back at point blank range. Du eventually was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced by Judge Joyce A. Karlin to five years probation, community service, and a fine, a sentence that incensed the black community.
Judge Karlin’s sentencing colloquy (the statement explaining a sentence) exalted Du as a loyal wife and loving mother and pitted Harlins as a juvenile delinquent associated with gang violence, furthering the imposed stratification of minorities and reinforcing racial stereotypes exacerbating minority-minority tension. In the year following the shooting, 48 murders and 2,500 robberies were reported in Koreatown, and the number of hate crimes against Koreans topped that of all anti-Asian incidents. Overall, an racially biased sentence further ignited tensions between blacks and Koreans, tensions which skyrocketed a year later after the trial of the policemen who brutalized Rodney King.
The 1992 Rodney King Riots in LA — or to Koreans, Sa-I-Gu, literally translating to 4-29, the riot’s starting date — began after a predominantly white, Simi Valley jury acquitted four police officers for using excessive force in beating the of Rodney King, a black man. The damage from the riots specifically against the Korean community was unparalleled: 2,300 Korean-owned stores were looted or burned in the city’s South Central and Koreatown neighborhoods, and Koreans incurred about $350 million in damages, about 45 percent of the total costs.
One Korean, Edward Song Lee, was killed, and forty-six others were injured. According to the Asian and Pacific American Counseling and Prevention center, 730 Koreans were treated for post-traumatic stress after the rioting. Overall, this suffering was unparalleled in the Korean American consciousness, an event frequently compared to the Japanese internment in affecting the collective psyche. Koreans were forced to confront race head-on in America, a concept irrelevant in the homogenous homeland — Sa-I-Gu overturned conceptions of Korean identity in America.
Mass media played a pivotal role in spinning both nationwide and local perceptions of the racial tensions as one of black-Korean conflict rather than police brutality. The Korean American journalist C.W. Lee, then the editor of the English edition of the Korea Times, called the LA Riots “our Warsaw” — a communal trauma he described as a “textbook case history of media scapegoating in these hard times, pitting a politically powerful but economically frustrated minority against a seemingly thriving tribe of strangers.” Warsaw or not, news networks were quick to barrage viewers with images of Korean store owners shooting at rioters; in reality, according to Edward Chang in Frontline Episode, the vast majority of Korean store owners did not even own guns. Shop owners Richard Park and David Joo, who were famously depicted shooting at looters, only did so because the LAPD had disappeared when they had asked for assistance.
The image of Edward Song Lee, an 18-year-old Korean presumably killed by a black mob, was splattered across television networks and quickly became a defining visual icon of the riots. However, Lee was actually killed by Korean shop owners mistaking him for a looter, and he was but one of the 63 casualties during the conflict, and the only Korean casualty. In Lee’s case and throughout the riots, the media narrative was key in pitting blacks and Koreans against each other. Actual Koreans living in Los Angeles were voiceless, but depicted stereotypically as greedy business owners, while blacks were seen as barbaric criminals destroying the city. As Bong Hwan Kim, a co-chair of the Black-Korean Alliance, points out, “Reporters seemed satisfied to portray the matter as race hatred between two communities of color, rather than looking at the forces that brought them into conflict,” namely police brutality and poverty.
Conveniently left out of the riot narratives were the structural forces at play behind the duress felt by South Central LA. The federal and city government’s divestment from South Central LA led to decades of community deterioration and degradation. The long, ghastly history of police brutality and incarceration within Central LA served as a vitriolic undercurrent exacerbating this process of gentrification. The propagation of the mythic “model minority” label was a pernicious stereotype that further plagued LA Koreans, many of whom were lower and working class. It was a label that screamed respectability and accountability politics, which falsely stated that if Asian Americans could become successful by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, other minorities could too, contributing to the political justification for further divestment. Overall, through these constructed mass media narratives, white accountability was lost and Koreans became a scapegoat to the black community for economic and social oppression. Minority-minority relations were concocted as a zero-sum game.
The Korean response to the LA Riots, especially on the part of the younger generation, transcended the negative depictions and collective trauma faced by the Korean Los Angeles Community. About a week after the riots, on May 2, about 30,000 Koreans marched in Koreatown, calling for interracial peace and decrying police brutality. Numerous films, such as the award winning documentary Sa-I-Gu by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, explored the true oppressive underpinnings of the general unrest within Los Angeles. The Korean community underwent a political paradigm shift, as those who pushed for interethnic solidarity rejected others seeking to emphasize the superiority of Koreans in relation to other minorities. Through the experience of collective trauma, the Korean community began organizing politically, beginning to understanding its place as a minority in America. This understanding continues today: The children of the immigrants directly impacted by the riots have given voice to their trauma, effectively challenging the erasure of minority voices.
At the end of Do the Right Thing, Sonny, the Korean shop owner, viciously attempts to ward off black rioters reeling from the police killing of the black Radio Raheem by screaming “I no white! I black! You, me, same!” Although his statement is blatantly untrue — he is most definitely not black — Sonny’s first exclamation carries heavy weight: “I no white.” Viscerally, Sonny realizes the profound inadequacy in minorities tearing down each other, understanding that it ultimately wipes the hands of white America clean. The rioters realize this too, and they ended up laying off of Sonny’s store. With this tacit acknowledgement between minorities that they would be better off working together, not pushing each other down, today’s multi-ethnic communities may be given a fighting chance in using their combined leverage to gain resources and decimate misconstrued racial narratives. As the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King Riots approaches, the need for this interracial solidarity cannot be understated.