Reflections on the 1992 L.A. Riots by Sungkwan Jang (KAGC Program Director)

Twenty-eight years ago today, riots erupted in Los Angeles and continued for 6 days. The series of civil disturbances brought $1,000,000,000 worth of damage, hurt more than 2,000 businesses across the city, and left a deep imprint in the Korean American community in L.A. and beyond.

Of the one-billion-dollars’ worth of material and property damage, it is estimated that Korean American businesses account for nearly 45%. Much of the damage was concentrated in Koreatown, where over 1,700 businesses were destroyed. Although the riots erupted largely as the African American community’s objection to police brutality and expression of frustration towards the government, the Korean American community was a major target of the violence: in part due to years of racial tensions and to negligence of the government. At least sixty people died, and thousands were injured from the riots.

In addition to the physical and financial damage, the Korean American community suffered from the lack of agency, representation, and voice. The law enforcement and first responders were pulled out and away from Koreatown and South Central. Even after the riots, the Korean store owners were left out of the recovery and compensation processes by both the federal and city governments from a systemic condescension upon and blocking liquor stores, 45% of which were operated by Korean Americans before the riots.

The multiple layers of pain experienced in our community are not unlike those of today, in times of COVID-19.

While the threat of the public health crisis and the anxiety rooted in its uncertainty affect all Americans, those of us with Asian ancestry have particularly suffered both physically and financially due to false vilification and bigotry. There is no shortage of recent incidents that demonstrate the rapid rise of hate crimes, violence, and discrimination against Asian Americans — one that ironically does not distinguish the ethnicity or nation of origin of the victims.

People have been severely hurt, simply for looking Asian. For example, on March 14th in Midland, Texas, three Asian Americans were stabbed by a perpetrator who perceived them as transmitters of the coronavirus disease, merely based on their ethnicity. Designating the event as a hate crime, FBI shortly released a warning on the surge on similar incidents against Asian Americans. Later in March, a Minnesota couple came home with a written threat on their door. Earlier in April, a woman was doused with a substance that gave her chemical burns while taking out trash in New York. The sharp increase in anti-Asian sentiment and similar violence is observed in all corners of the United States. Likewise, Asian owned and operated small businesses have disproportionately experienced financial damages from the sharp drop in patronage by those affiliating the Asian ethnicity with COVID-19.

Twenty-eight years since 1992, have we really come a long way?

We certainly have more Asian Americans in elected offices in all levels of government. We see a better and greater representation in the media, too. From a handful members of Congress of Asian descent in the early 1990s, today there are 20 such members. Back then, virtually all Asian actors consisted of comedians who poked fun at the expense of our own people: Today, we have actors like John Cho, who not only portrays positive male roles but also pens op-eds like “Coronavirus reminds Asian Americans like me that our belonging is conditional.”

However, advancement in social stature or economic success do not protect anyone from racism and bigotry. The first Chinese American ever to be elected a governor, Gary Locke was portrayed as an agent of China in a recent campaign advertisement. Peter Koo, an immigrant member of NYC Council who represents Flushing, Queens, is often subject to racially-charged harassment and recently been assaulted. Andy Kim, a sole Korean-American member of Congress and a career diplomat, witnessed a campaign flyer that described him as “not one of us” with fonts that evoke a sense of Orientalism.

That being said, the way to uplift our community is not through the advancement of select few; but rather, through the consistent and repeated efforts by each and every one of us. Simply having more of those who look like us elected to public office or appearing in the media does not get our voices heard, counted, and reflected.

We at the Korean American Grassroots Conference are building this movement from the grassroots up, empowering and equipping community members the information and means to be vocal Americans. In commemoration of the 28th anniversary of the L.A. Riots — or sa-i-gu as colloquially called in Korean — we would like to share with you the reflections of some of our students.

Angela, president of the Korean Student Association at the University of Washington, shared the story of his father’s immigration and first-hand experience of the 1992 L.A. Riots. Reflecting on the lessons she took away from KAGC programs, Angela connects the dots between the American Dream of hers and her father’s. Joseph, whose parents ran grocery stores in Los Angeles in the 1980s, compares the America that his father learned with that he is living in. A native of Los Angeles, 2019 KAGC Congressional Fellow Averi points out that model minority myth minimizes our community’s long-standing history of activism. Minnie, a student of Asian American history, echoes the need for solidarity in times of crisis that frame us as Yellow Peril. The four different perspectives, however, share one common theme: There has not been an adequate amount of resources or guidance in learning about our community, and that we as a community need to take action for ourselves.

In the words of Professor Kornel Chang, who spoke at the 2017 KAGC National Conference, “public policy and cultural ideas are mutually reinforcing.” It was true in the times leading up to the 1992 L.A. Riots and today in the face of the global pandemic that leads to the rise of anti-Asian sentiment. To explore the interconnection between public policy, media, and culture, in the upcoming weeks, we will also feature an interview with K.W. Lee, the first Asian immigrant to report for a mainstream American daily publication and founding president of the Korean American Journalists Association.

In the global pandemic, we face the unprecedented challenge of anxiety and uncertainty. But one thing is certain: for us to claim the ownership of our narrative, for us to get a seat at the table, and for us to uplift our community, all of us need to advocate for ourselves. Because if we don’t, who will speak up for us?

In the words of Ms. Angela Oh, whose voice was featured in the New York Times reflection in 1993, “[t]he place of Koreans in American society is lonely and precarious,” and we Korean-Americans “need to begin to participate in other aspects of American life, other than the material.” We hope you would take this occasion to join the collective mission for the greater good of our community by deciding to get involved in civic education and advocacy efforts.

Click here to learn more about KAGC, the largest nationwide network of Korean American voters, and its upcoming 2020 National Conference, for a rare opportunity to share the Korean American identity, discuss the key issues of our community, and get our voices heard, counted, and reflected in public policy.

Read the rest of the series of the reflections on the 1992 L.A. Riots after 28 years, in times of COVID-19:

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