Anti-Blackness, Civil Rights, and Model Minority
Reflection on the 1992 L.A. Riots by Averi Suk (Columbia ‘22)
During the 1960s in the United States of America, people began to organize in order to fight for important civil rights. More famously, this national movement is called the Civil Rights Movement. In high schools, teachers relay stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks; in other words, a very limited scope of the movement’s true nature. Firstly, MLK’s nonviolent approach was not the only way people protested. The Black Panther movement included many controversies of violent, more radical approaches. Not only were there violent black movements, but other people of color have been completely erased from this narrative, despite the overwhelming contribution from the Latinx community and the Asian-American community.
Specifically, in the 1960s, the Yellow Power movement played a significant role in fighting for Asian American Civil Rights. As Asian-American college students witnessed the success and strength of black solidarity as their movement began to take off, these students came together to form their own party. Groups such as the Red Guard worked closely with the Black Panther Party after witnessing the revolutionary movements in China due to the Cultural Revolution. As counter-culture revolutions, the Red Guard utilized contemporary Asian political issues with black-power events in order to spark their own revolution for the issues Asian-Americans faced. Yellow Power was not only inspired by Black Power, but also influenced their movement. The relationship between the black movement and the yellow movement was closely knit and significant to the successes that both groups achieved.
However, this narrative rarely gets taught to students. Until college, I was unaware of the extent and important role Asians played in advancing civil rights. How did Asians become erased from such a pivotal moment in our history? Though the answer is complex, one of the main reasons as to why Asians are often forgotten or erased from this history is to create a wedge between different communities of color. The racialization of Asians in America has been used to minimize the black struggle. Often, citing specific success stories and stereotypes, media and politics portrays Asians as a “model minority.” The first use of this term in regards to the Asian-American community was in a New York Times article published in 1966, simultaneous to Asian radical movements. Though in reality Asian-Americans were working with the black community to advance civil rights and fight for progress of all, in media and written works, Asian-Americans were being painted as the “successful” minority because of generalizations regarding Asian culture.
By the 1980s, this concept of Asians as a “model minority” was popularized by most media. Stories regarding East Asian “whiz kids” and other harmful stereotypes permeated mainstream media and created a wedge between the Asian-American community and the black community. As a result, tensions between the black and Asian communities rose. This truncated version of a complex history is vital in understanding the true nature of the LA riots. Starting in April 1992, a series of riots took over South Los Angeles. As Korean-Americans opened businesses in a predominantly black neighborhood, tensions increased between the two racial groups. After the media spent three decades minimizing black oppression through inaccurately portraying Asians as a “success,” the wedge between the communities was cemented. After Korean-Americans started to gentrify South L.A., these racial tensions imploded and resulted in riots that devastated both communities. There were not only physical damages, but psychological trauma that further cemented the wedge between the communities and led to anti-blackness in the Korean-American community in certain generations.
Though 28 years have passed, anti-blackness still persists in Asian-American communities. Despite efforts by community leaders to try to remedy the deep scars and the significant gap between the two groups, there is still a long way to go. The little to no education regarding the true nature of the Civil Rights movements and more recent race issues in classrooms contributes to the lack of solidarity. To combat against the oppressive structures of institutional racism, it is vital that as we remember the 1992 L.A. Riots, we must recognize how these structures have actively tried to separate us and that we must stand together. Not only do we have to recognize the institutional separation, we must actively combat against these narratives and educate ourselves and others in order to stand in solidarity.
So I urge all my family and friends to start speaking up for ourselves and those without a voice. Advocacy is in the hands of our own selves, and no one else’s.
Averi is a sophomore at Columbia University, where she studies Political Science and East Asian Languages and Culture. Averi served as a 2019 KAGC Congressional Fellow in the office of Rep. Jimmy Gomez, whose district encompasses Koreatown L.A. and is home to the largest Korean American population among all House districts, including Averi’s family. Averi also serves as a member of the 2020 KAGC Student Leadership Committee, through which she helps organize advocacy efforts and discussions on the history of our community, as well as the impact of public policy on our daily lives.
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:
- “Returning to Yellow Peril During Times of Panic and the Importance of Building Solidarity Beyond the Contemporary” by Minnie Jung (Cornell ‘20)
- “Reflections on pre- and post-1992 L.A. Riots” by Joseph Jung (Clark ‘20)
- “Learning about My Family through History” by Angela Shin (University of Washington ‘21)
- “28 Years Later: Are we there yet?” by Sungkwan Jang (Program Director, KAGC)
- Interview with K.W. Lee, pioneer Asian American journalist, on the lack of voice for and of our community in 1992 and 2020 (coming up soon)
- Fast Facts on the 1992 L.A. Riots