Author defines LA riots as multi-ethnic incident

Koreans in LA stage a protest in LA during the racial unrest in this May 2, 1992 file photo. / Korea Times file

'LA Rising' puts forth US racial debate to overcome binary white-black tension

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Korean American author Kyeyoung Park's "LA Rising: Korean Relations with Blacks and Latinos after Civil Unrest" is a critical review of the dominant discourse in the U.S. about the 1992 social unrest that burned down Koreatown and left Korean immigrants helpless.

Her analytic piece, published by Lexington Books in August 2019, and its findings are timely as the book was released months before the Black Lives Matter protests that gained traction in May following the death of George Floyd. He was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill.

In 1991, Rodney King was beaten mercilessly by Los Angeles Police Department officers. Videos of police brutality in both cases that aired on TV created rage among black communities.

Unlike Floyd, however, King survived his brutal beating.

Revealing vividly systematic racism, the two tragic incidents created tipping points for massive protests, although their scales are different. Floyd's death drove the racial protests global.

Park indicates the 1992 civil unrest was not fully untangled as seen in the current racial discourse still stuck in traditional white-black tensions.

Park challenges the U.S. mainstream media's narrative that the Korean-African American tensions in South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central, were cemented by Korean American liquor shop owner Soon Ja Du's killing of a black teenage girl and judge's light sentencing of Du, and this latent tension exploded into the LA riots the next year.

The author, however, claims the Rodney King verdict precipitated the riots.

Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, claims the dominant narrative of the Los Angeles riots is incomplete because it fails to provide an explanation of the critical role played by Latino rioters. Latinos accounted for over 50 percent of those arrested during and after the looting, burning and destruction of shops mostly owned by Korean immigrants.

"The 1992 unrest was widely characterized as a Black-Korean conflict, where African Americans demanded economic and social justice and protested punitive policing and the unfair distribution of development projects by damaging Korean-owned businesses and treating Koreans as a proxy for White power," her book reads.

"However, the unrest and its aftermath were more complicated, involving not only Blacks, Koreans and Whites but also Latinos…"

"LA Rising: Korean Relations With Blacks and Latinos After Civil Unrest" by Kyeyoung Park

The author shares data about the drastic demographic changes that occurred in the city of Los Angeles since the 1970s, in the wake of the change in U.S. immigration law in 1965 that abolished a quota system based on national origin.

In the 1970s, White people were the majority of L.A. residents with 70 percent, followed by Latinos (15 percent), African American (11 percent) and Asians (3 percent). The demographic map changed a lot afterwards, with a surge in the Latino population. In the 1990s, White residents still took the lion's share but the ratio decreased to 41 percent, nearly 30 percent down from the 1970s. Latinos accounted for 36 percent and the Asian population increased to 12 percent, 9 percent up from two decades ago. The ratio of African Americans remained almost the same.

In "LA Rising," the author says such a drastic demographic change complicated the traditional white-black racial debate.

Park encourages academics and policymakers to move on and incorporate other ethnic minorities, including Asians and Latinos, in the racial debate to make it more inclusive.

"The unrest raised fundamental questions about the current and future state of race relations in Los Angeles, the nation's most diverse metropolis," the book reads. "Unfortunately, even after the unrest, the dominant discourse defined race narrowly and failed to go beyond the conventional 'Black-White racial framework.'"

Park claims the 1992 Los Angeles riots were a multi-ethnic incident that occurred as a result of the interactions of three racial minorities ― Koreans, blacks and Latinos ― in South Los Angeles, not the binary Korean-Black conflict.

The book wraps up her field research in South Los Angeles before and after the unrest and unearths social injustice and economic inequality as the root causes of the racial unrest based on her extensive interviews with people of the three racial groups and academic research about the Korean diaspora.

Park says the traumatic racial conflict has had a lingering effect on the Korean American community and changes occurred in employment: Korean merchants began hiring Black people. An African American the author interviewed says progress was made as she feels Korean merchants became polite.

The book highlights various views presented by her interviewees, which are missing in the mainstream media's portrayal of the civil unrest.

Kang Hyun-kyung

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