Reflections on pre- and post-1992 L.A. Riots

Reflection on the 1992 L.A. Riots by Joseph Jung (Clark ‘20)

My dad immigrated to Los Angeles from Seoul in 1979, and he began his life in America by working two banking jobs. After a couple years of this, he saved enough money to run a grocery store, which was a more profitable job for immigrants at the time. My dad was one of many Korean and Asian Americans in Los Angeles who made their living off of running grocery and liquor stores, and this came to be their point of interaction with other ethnic minorities in the neighborhoods of their stores. But this also meant that these stores were conduits of skepticism, miscommunication, and misunderstanding between Korean Americans and their surrounding community.

Joseph with his dad at his childhood home in southern California

Given the number of Korean store owners in diverse areas of Los Angeles and other parts of the country such as New York, there were numerous incidents that revealed a thread of racial tension in the years leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which we are all reflecting on this week. The events of 1992 undoubtedly demand the attention of this last week of April, but in remembering 1992 as a historical turning point for our Korean American community, what was happening before that year that led to such a climax?

My answer begins with my dad. When he told me the stories of his South Central L.A. grocery store that he ran in the 1980s, a decade before the 1992 Riots, I never thought of his experience as tied to such a famous and troubling historical event, partly because I didn’t even learn about the 1992 L.A. riots in high school. It was only when I got involved with other Korean American college students through the Korean American Grassroots Conference (KAGC), and when I had the opportunity to study Asian American history and literature at Clark University, that I got to speak about this historical period that has deeply affected my dad and my Korean American community.

What I learned about the 1992 L.A. riots — the deep injustice felt by the African American community because of wrongful acquittals in the criminal justice system, Korean Americans who worsened that injustice by treating African Americans and other people of color with mistrust and heightened skepticism, and then those feelings of injustice taken out Korean American businesses who had to fend for themselves without law enforcement response — all of it sounded like what my own dad experienced ten years prior. But my dad can only share his side as a Korean-American, of him feeling racial prejudice and pessimism towards others in a neighborhood, city, and maybe even country that did not make him feel fully welcome at first. He can only share his experiences, of being robbed and choosing to have his stereotypes be selectively confirmed, and then of lacking the presence of law enforcement. I’ve grown up hearing and being part of just this one side, but isn’t that the very problem that led to such a climax of 1992 — the choosing of sides?

There were many incidents and tensions between Korean Americans and various groups of people of color sharing the same neighborhoods and spaces in the years leading up to 1992, some covered in the news and some not, some situations diffused and others with tragic and unnecessary ends. There was the Family Red Apple and Church Avenue Fruit in Brooklyn, New York in 1990, and then there was Empire Liquor and the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins in South L.A. These places and names, along with the stories that didn’t make it to the news, are all important to understand as factors to the 1992 Riots before it became a national story, and before it became the memorialized historical event of this week.

1992 did not happen by accident, and the remembering of it should not be a simple story. It surely was a historical turning point, but that turning of the tides is not over, either. Many people think of 1992 as the moment when Korean Americans had to start advocating for themselves and engaging with the community to call attention to the tragedy and prevent such a recurrence in the future. There is much to be said about the progress of the past nearly three decades in American life, but have we really been sticking to our word? Are we all engaged to greater levels today, and are we continuing to reach out our hand in understanding and compassion to the communities around us? Or are we still sticking to our own side that defined the history leading up to 1992, the history that is not as often discussed?

We have to look inward, and we can’t claim that history is over, or that we have made it. If the racial prejudices we as a Korean American community were holding in the years before 1992 weren’t a red flag and harbinger of what was to come, then in that same manner our lack of political participation and community building today, and the continued prejudices I still hear from my community call to question, have we really learned from our past? As Chang-rae Lee wrote in his 1995 debut novel Native Speaker, “[t]he problem is our acceptance of what we loathe and fear in ourselves.” It starts with us, and with the healing of our own hearts turning against others we stereotype. We cannot continue taking a side and blaming the other, for it is only when we stop in our tracks and reach out a hand that we can truly work with the communities around us.

We cannot stand idly by and spectate on the sideline, for we are Americans and this is our community. We must go into advocacy and public life side by side with other communities, and not alone. That is the only way we will improve upon our history.

Joseph is a senior at Clark University, where he will be graduating this summer with a degree in Political Science and a minor in English. Joseph joined the 2018 KAGC U Leadership Summit, where he connected with 58 other students representing 32 universities across the U.S. to learn about the history and status of the Korean American community. Joseph will be beginning as a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School this fall. 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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