Written by Luke Owens
The Korean-Black conflict during the Rodney King Riots of 1992 was a complex event reflecting the intersection of race, class, and immigration in America. It was a defining moment in the history of race relations in America and a significant step up from the Watts Riot two decades prior. It reached damage totals of nearly $1 billion, making it the most destructive episode of civil unrest in American history at the time, only recently being surpassed by the George Floyd Protests. While the Rodney King riots were a result of many factors, including systemic racism and economic inequality, compartmentalizing each aspect of such a complex event can tell much more interesting stories, like the one between Blacks and Koreans.
Looking back, the riots brought about painful and traumatic experiences for Korean Americans. However, through these events, they have gained valuable insights into the challenges of being a minority group in America. This paper combats the notion that the Korean-Black conflict during the Rodney King Riots was senseless violence and argues that it was, rather, the culmination of racial tensions that had been in the works for years. These tensions were amplified by a number of factors. In supporting this claim, this paper has three objectives: to provide the relevant historical context in an attempt to explain the origins of these racial tensions; to examine the reasons behind the intense outbreak of riots and the violent conflict between the two groups; to determine fault of the media in inciting the Rodney King Riots and examining its narrative influence during and after the events.
Historical Context: Setting the Stage for the Korean-Black Conflict in the Rodney King Riots
The United States has had a long and complicated relationship with both Asians and African Americans. Though the riots were the result of the acquittal of four White police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, seeming at face value like a White-Black issue, the conflict spread to involve Korean store owners and Black demonstrators in Los Angeles. By exploring the histories of both Black and Korean Americans in the US, it becomes apparent that the battle between the two communities during the 1992 Rodney King riots was not a new phenomenon. This section examines the factors that contributed to the Korean-Black conflict during the riots, including the history of Asian immigration to the United States, African-American’s struggles for civil rights, and the effects of the model minority myth on inter-minority relations.
Korean immigration surged after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and by 1980 almost 100,000 Korean Americans were living in the US, many owning small businesses, oftentimes in Black neighborhoods. They were excluded from these communities, shunned by both Whites and Blacks. Language and cultural barriers made it difficult for Asian Americans to assimilate into mainstream American society. They, in turn, established their own tight-knit communities in urban areas, sometimes leading to tensions with other established groups, such as African Americans.
African Americans have faced their own set of struggles within the United States. As argued by sociologist Elijah Anderson in his book, Code of the Street, the violence and poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhoods, in which many Black people reside, are a result of governmental neglect. This leads to a breakdown in the social order and a reliance on gangs or “street life” for survival. Due to this fact, police unfairly assume the worst when dealing with African Americans. The Rodney King Riots were a protest against the system that neglected African Americans and dumbed them down into a stereotype. The pervasive presence of systemic racism cohered the Black community into a strong and resilient unit.
Once the riots had broken out, Korean American businesses became a target of looting and many were burned down. Those who opened businesses were viewed with suspicion and resentment. Oftentimes these businesses were viewed as exploitative, taking advantage of the poor economic situation in the neighborhoods by upcharging for subpar goods and services. These tensions were worsened by cultural and language barriers, oftentimes leading to confusion or misinterpretation. Conflictingly, Black shop owners felt as though Koreans were undercutting their prices and came to America to “suck Black consumers dry.”
At a symposium transcribed by Martha Nakagawa, Edward Chang, a Cal Poly Pomona professor, provided his take on Asian-Americans in LA: “The residents of South Central L.A. perceive the Korean American merchants as one of a long line of outsiders coming into my neighborhood and ripping us off. Korean Americans have become a community scapegoat because they are perceived as a symbol of oppression, and most importantly Korean Americans are perceived as [foreigners] with no rights in my neighborhood.” Chang followed this point up by claiming that the media paints Korean Americans as ignorant of the lives of African Americans, further pitting both ethnic groups against each other. The scapegoating of Asian Americans is truly tragic as it disconnected them from other ethnic communities. Ultimately, this pattern of scapegoating of Asian Americans led to the burning and looting of many Korean immigrants’ very livelihoods.
The model minority myth plays a significant role in reinforcing the racial hierarchy that puts Whites first, Asian Americans second, and all other minorities third: “The notion of a model minority does not imply full citizenship rights but, rather, a secondary one reserved for particular minorities who ‘behave’ appropriately and stay in their designated secondary space
without complaint.” Presenting Asian Americans as a success story of determination and hard work appears to reinforce the idea of America as a meritocracy – how the American Dream is supposed to work – however it divides minorities by painting Asian Americans as the dedicated workers while all others are comparatively lazy. Asians Americans’ identity “shifted from being not White to being definitely not Black.” They were not accepted as Americans nor as minorities, but existed somewhere in between, completely isolated. This myth is also a way of undermining the struggles of African Americans by ignoring the systemic barriers other people of color face and blaming them for their own struggles. That fallacy, as Change puts it, “poses a major challenge to the formation of inter-ethnic coalitions.”
It is clear that the Korean-Black conflict during the Rodney King riots was a culmination of built-up tensions between the two minorities. An influx of Korean immigrants into majority Black urban areas in the mid ‘60s led to tensions between the two groups. Korean immigrants who opened shops were viewed as exploitative of the generally poor neighborhoods they were in, and Korean merchants often lacked the social or cultural understanding to diffuse potential situations. The model minority myth only further divided the two groups by categorizing Koreans as diligent, rule-following minorities and African Americans as rowdier or lazier. Leading up to 1992, Black-Korean relations were becoming more and more strained, especially in Los Angeles where a large number of Korean immigrants resided.
The Triggers and Factors that led to the Rodney King Riots and the Korean-Black Conflict
The Rodney King Riots of 1992 were a devastating period of civil unrest that shook the entirety of the United States to its core. The riots were triggered by the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were caught on video violently beating Rodney King; he suffered nine skull fractures, a shattered eye socket, a broken leg, a partially paralyzed face, among a number of other injuries. The nature of his trauma and the widely publicized video stirred deep anger and outrage among many Americans, similar to the way that George Floyd’s murder by police sparked national outburst in 2020. Black people were especially irked, and this was just the spark that ignited existing racial tensions.
Over six apocalyptic days, the riots led to 58 deaths and around one billion dollars worth of damage. While the riots were a response to the injustice against Rodney King, the tense relationship between Koreans and Blacks allowed the riots to intensify and grow in size. Korean stores were targeted and much of the property destruction was carried out against Korean Americans by Black rioters. Additionally, just a year before the riots broke out, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black teenager was shot and killed by a Korean store owner. This tragic incident, combined with several aforementioned factors, served as catalysts for the anger and frustration within the Black community that boiled over in the form of riot.
The Los Angeles Uprising began, and much of the damage was concentrated, in South Central Los Angeles, one of the poorest regions of LA. It is no coincidence that this was the blackest neighborhood in LA. Besides the continuous attacks on Black people carried out by the LAPD, there were a number of other issues that contributed to the riots; the trial was just “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.” For example, the decline of the welfare state, which was prominent in the late twentieth century, left many African Americans feeling neglected by the government. Job security declined and South Central LA continued to be extremely impoverished. Returning back to Anderson’s book, Code of the Street, “the inclination to violence springs from the circumstances of life among the ghetto poor,” or in other words, the poorest communities are the most prone to violence. Many of these “circumstances” are controlled, at least partly, by the government, like policing, trash pickup, housing policies, and jobs with living wages. These socioeconomic factors are an understated reason as to why the riots started in this area and why such great violence occurred in South Central LA.
Another significant factor was the disproportionate police brutality Black people faced. It is important to note that just 30 years prior, the Watts riot occurred in the same area and had also begun with a traffic stop. It was a riot of comparable magnitude and in both instances African Americans expressed their frustration with the LAPD. Both times rioters were dismissed as “law-breakers and mad dogs” by the government, displaying the government’s continued ignorance when it came to the issues of African Americans. Despite the devastating destruction of property brought on by majority Black and Latino rioters, their frustration was understandable, as the LAPD had displayed a consistent pattern of discrimination. By arresting Black people at higher rates and treating them with suspicion, the police were perpetuating a racial hierarchy in which White people held all the power.
Beyond just the conflict between African Americans and the LAPD or the government, there was also that between Korean immigrants and African Americans. As noted, the stage had already been set for a fiery clash between the two groups. Korean merchants were viewed with suspicion and the Koreans themselves despised the “rowdy” behavior they associated with Black people: loudness, bad language, shoplifting, etc. It was a cultural clash – Black people had grown accustomed to racism within the United States and Korean immigrants didn’t understand these issues. They each had completely opposite views of the US, one as a land of oppression and the other as a land of opportunity, making it difficult for the two minorities to see eye to eye.
One prominent example of this disparity, and one that primed LA for its explosion in 1992, was the videotaped and publicized killing of Latasha Harlins. As her brother Vester and sister Christina later recalled, Latasha was a beloved member of her community and a promising student with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Her tragic and unjust death at the hands of a Korean store clerk, Soon Ja Du, further highlighted the systemic injustices faced by Black Americans, sparking outrage and fueling the sense of anger and frustration that spilled over into the Rodney King riots. Accused of shoplifting a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, the situation between Du and Harlins escalated and Du shot Harlins as she made her way to the exit. The fact that the shopkeeper had only been given a $500 dollar fine and community service felt like a slap on the wrist to a Black community that needed some form of justice. It was such a centerpiece of the clash, an LA Times article called the Riots a “ tale of two videotapes,” one referring to the video of Rodney King and the other being the CCTV of Latasha Harlins.
Just as Black people lashed out at Korean shop owners, Koreans protected themselves with the same intensity. Guarding their stores they spent years building, Koreans would oftentimes station themselves with guns on the roof of their shops. Immigrants who came to America with nothing gave blood, sweat, and tears to build these shops, helping bring in a meager income for their families. Devastated and enraged, the lucky ones whose stores had not been burned down or looted made sure to protect their property in any way they could. Though African-Americans were understandably enraged, the obliteration of Korean families’ livelihoods is an ugly side of this conflict. “Roof Koreans,” as they have become known, are a prevailing image of the Korean-Black conflict during the riots.
After over 2000 Korean-owned businesses were completely destroyed, many Korean shopkeepers were weary of reopening in Black communities. Their weariness of African-Americans was not without basis, as since 1990, 25 Korean shop owners had been shot by robbers. It was a scary time for Korean merchants; “It has been a very rude awakening for many Korean Americans,” said Jerry Yu, a leader of a local Korean advocacy group.
The LAPD’s racist policing tendencies coupled with the city’s neglect of its poorest communities created an overwhelming sense of frustration for African Americans. They were finally able to take it out during the week-long riots. While tensions had been worsening with the city of LA, so were relations between Koreans and Blacks. The destruction and violence carried out upon Koreans during the riots were the results of a cultural discord between the two communities that had been in the works for years. It was tragic and unfair to Korean immigrants, many of whom did nothing wrong; it was simply misdirected anger. This explosive of a reaction, however, was not just the fault of the minorities involved and the media played a large part in exacerbating the violence and shaping the narrative surrounding the riot.
The Role of Media in Shaping Perceptions and Fueling the Conflict between Koreans and Blacks
George Holiday’s video, which the nearby homeowner sold for five hundred dollars to a local news station, aired all across the nation, enraging the thousands of Angelenos who felt minorities were being marginalized by the government and targeted by the police. The media was at the very crux of the riots. There were two sides of reporting during this volatile period: one that was exacerbating racial tensions and the other that was properly reporting. Deciding what news is truthful or exaggerated remains a difficult task. Coverage of the Korean-Black conflict was certainly mismanaged in many ways as the media pushed a palatable narrative of inter-minority conflict without directly implicating White racism. Immediately following the riots, the narrative was dominated by a labeling of the protests as random violence, ignoring the historical reasons behind it all. Revisiting the Rodney King Riots with new information now available, the ways in which the certain outlets shaped the riots to fit a specific narrative becomes far clearer.
According to Virginia Held, in her article “The Media and Political Violence,” when covering a touchy issue of political unrest, the media has certain responsibilities: deciding how radically the acts should be labeled; covering the event truthfully and not exploiting it for ratings; focusing on what led to the political violence; but, above all else, it should act with minimal bias. Media is often a vehicle through which governments can project their views, so citizens must be sure to be well informed. The media of the 1990s sometimes did, but oftentimes did not live up to these expectations.
Keeping those guidelines in mind, in the case of the killing of Latasha Harlins, many critical race theory scholars of today point out how the media positioned the Koreans and Blacks antagonistically. By pitting the two groups against each other it created a pleasing narrative where Whites were left completely out of it. This is what Lisa Ikemoto calls the “master narrative” in the article “(Mis)interpretations and (In)justice: The 1992 Los Angeles ‘Riots’ and ‘Black-Korean Conflict.’” What she is referencing as this “master narrative” is a White supremacist scheme that uses exclusive notions of race and privilege to maintain inter-minority conflict. The media perpetuated this through its depiction of Korean Americans as “outsiders” and “foreigners” who were taking advantage of African-American communities. This framing of the conflict as a Black-Korean one effectively erased the role of White supremacy in perpetuating racial tensions and inequalities.
Immediately following the release of the video recording of King’s beating, the media did an excellent job exposing the four policemen involved. As the LAPD and lawyers of the policemen were desperately trying to save their respective reputations, the media prevented that. The Times wrote an article about racist policing patterns and called for the resignation of the Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. The Post spread a report stating the LAPD “has tolerated excessive force and overt racism among its officers,” as well as scanned through 15 months’ worth of police transcripts to uncover a number of racist messages between patrol cars. A few of the quotes that were published were:
“Capture him, beat him and treat him like dirt.”
“A full moon and a full gun make for a night of fun.”
“Sounds like a monkey-slapping time.”
Despite excellent, uncensored investigative journalism by these publications, the inadvertent effect was that the public began to expect convictions. This meant that when the acquittal of the four cops came around, people were all the more shocked and outraged.
After the riots had broken out, big media began focusing on the violence rather than the message. In one Los Angeles Times article titled “Looting and Fires Ravage L.A.,” African Americans were painted as the aggressors. Included was a story once again victimizing Whites at the hands of violent Black mobs: “…some whites in Long Beach were attacked by angry Black demonstrators, who reportedly killed one man and injured at least 15 people.” A similar but more infamous case was the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver. The media coverage surrounding it contributed to the fearmongering certain media outlets had been participating in. His viscous beating was caught on video, widely publicized, and served as a symbol of the chaos that had enveloped the city. What was not popularized, however, was the fact that four Black individuals had saved his life by taking him off the street to a hospital – that did not fit the narrative that the riots were the fault of African Americans.
The previously mentioned “roof Koreans” were another heavily broadcasted piece of the riots. By not providing context, the media reinforced a problematic stereotype of Asian Americans as White-acting or White-aligned minorities. This portrayal of the riots suggested that the fighting was strictly inter-minority, where the rowdy Black rioters were being put down by the “model minorities.” All this being said, it is important to note that the media of the time was certainly not unified, and local publications, for example, peddled government narratives much less than larger newspapers; the more influential the newspaper, the more it pandered to government or White interests.
The line between journalism and sensationalism was rather blurred. A statistical analysis found that around 10 percent of articles concerning the riots possessed “Rumors,” and around 3 percent used “Scare Headlines,” though of course varying from outlet to outlet. For example one New York Times article was titled “23 Dead After 2nd Day of Rioting,” when only 15 deaths were confirmed. Similarly, certain rumors in the Times might have acted as self-fulfilling prophecies: “The violence might spread further,” “more terrible things likely to come.”
While the media did push a definitively narrow view of the riots, it also acted sometimes as a platform through which peace was encouraged. The principal example of positive journalism was Rodney King’s highly publicized speech where he famously said, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all get along? Can we get along?” King’s plea for peace highlighted the power of the media to both perpetuate or contradict narratives of their choosing. They decided that perhaps King’s calls to peace would benefit White Americans the most.
There were many narratives, some that painted Koreans as models putting down rowdy African Americans, or some that painted Koreans as taking advantage of African Americans, but regardless of the variety they all supported Lisa Ikemoto’s “master narrative.” The portrayal of the riots immediately following their end was largely the same – it was a single event of chaotic and senseless violence that frightened White communities.
Since that time however, the legacy of the riots shifted drastically, and additional research has shed light on the underlying issues that caused the riots to break out. The ways in which media operated during these fragile times serves as a reminder of the power journalists have over our collective memories. Journalists can inadvertently implicate themselves by the way they report on facts, even when their intention is to simply inform the public. They can omit and flourish as they please, which can have powerful effects on a person’s outlook on a particular issue. Due to this, people often forget about the injustices carried out against African Americans or racial tensions that were worsened by the media as factors in why the Rodney King Riots were so heated. The fallacy that the Riots were a singular event is diminishing in popularity. The riots are finally getting the scholarly recognition they deserve, as a complicated and controversial topic with ramifications that continue to be felt.
Conclusion: Lessons Learned from the Rodney King Riots
The costliest act of civil disobedience in the United States at the time was the result of a multitude of factors. Some factors were more straightforward in their effects, such as the killing of Latasha Harlins, while some were more nuanced, like the socioeconomic conditions that marginalized African Americans. The immigration patterns of Koreans, the cultural barriers between the two groups, the “model minority” myth, and the “master narrative” of the media were just a few of the things that drove Koreans and Blacks to confront each other during the Riots. It was simply an escalation of a tense relationship that had been brewing since 1965, when most Koreans made their way to the US.
In hindsight, it is easy to see what went wrong or how damage could have been mitigated. What is truly important, more than just reflecting on the past, is to learn from historical events like this. The Los Angeles Riots of 1992 were one of the first highly publicized acts of police brutality and they are very reminiscent of the George Floyd protests. The Korean-Black conflict during the Rodney King riots serves as a stark reminder of the consequences that can arise when tensions between minority groups go unresolved. By examining the historical context and social dynamics that contributed to this conflict, we gain a better understanding of how communities can work to prevent such incidents in the future. Only through acknowledging and addressing underlying issues of inequality and discrimination can we hope to build stronger, more inclusive communities.
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Featured image credit: Mick Taylor from Portland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons