Media Misrepresentation of the LA Race Riots from a Korean American Perspective

Carolyn Lee

April 29, 1992, is known as "sa-i-gu" to Korean Americans. It was the day that four white police officers were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King. As a result, violence erupted in Los Angeles, affecting the nearby Koreatown. Rather than being simply a riot between blacks and whites, it involved Korean Americans who, while trying to achieve the American dream, found these dreams consumed in fire as their stores were burnt down to the ground and looted. The governor, in an attempt to squelch the riots, sent in 6,000 National Guard troops, with the riots' ending on May 1.
There had always been hostility between the African Americans and Korean Americans that resulted from stereotypes that each group had of the other. The African Americans believed that the Koreans were exploitative and would not hire blacks, as well as viewing them as unfriendly and rude. Koreans, on the other hand, believed that the blacks were poor, violent, and lazy. It was these misconceptions that they had of each other that resulted in uneasy tensions between the two groups. The blacks failed to recognize that the Korean businesses were often a family business and that it was cultural customs that prevented them from being overtly friendly, while the Koreans failed to realize the economic and social problems that the blacks had to face living in inner city areas.

An event that helped precipitate the violence against the Koreans was the killing of a fifteen-year-old African American girl named Latasha Harlins, who had been killed by Soon Ja Du in 1991. The blacks had already been outraged when Du was only put on probation, but now with the verdict in the Rodney King case, one said: "First that 15-year-old was killed and they got away with it. Then they beat Rodeny King like a dog and the jury sets them free. The black people don't get no justice, nowhere, no time" (Takaki, 495). The resulting consequence was violence towards Koreans and their stores.

Korean Americans largely were not given a voice, but one who did write about her perspective of the race riots was Elaine Kim. Newsweek magazine had asked her for a personal essay, which she wrote on her own terms. She largely believed that the "media played a major role in exacerbating the damage and ill will toward Korean Americans, first by spotlighting tensions between African Americans and Koreans above all efforts to work together…and second by exploiting racist stereotypes of Koreans as unfathomable aliens, this time wielding guns on rooftops and allegedly firing wildly into crowds" (Kim, 275). Her essay accused the media of using the tensions that existed between the two groups as a way of avoiding the true roots of the riots, which she believed was a result of corporate and government offices and of institutions and the media that tried to keep the two groups ignorant about the other by the lack of appropriate education and the distortion of their experiences. Despite the editor's attempts to change the essay, it was published as she had written it, following which she received hate mail.

I chose the Elaine Kim piece because I think she stayed true to her beliefs as to her perspective of the race riots. Despite the hate mail and the attempts to have her writing changed, she was adamant that her essay would be published as it was. I feel like she largely places the blame upon the media of misrepresenting the Korean and African American relationship, which leads the American public to believe that the roots of the riots were based upon these ethnic tensions.
Part of this misrepresentation was the fact that society in general had misconceptions about the Korean community. Many saw the Korean community as being aliens. These ethnic communities originally formed because they needed a support system, due to the cruelty they faced when the immigrants first arrived. If one knows that he cannot get any opportunities in white America but must find a way to survive, then it is only natural to turn to people who can offer aid. Because this is a common stereotype that is shown in the media, this just adds to the blacks' anger because the Koreans are presumed to be too clannish, without hiring people from the communities in their stores.

The media has seemed to always perpetuate the stereotypes with its sensationalism. Kim believed that the media is used "to divert attention from the roots of racial violence in the U.S." (Kim, 276). I think that this statement is very true because we try to blame bad occurrences on outside factors that do not implicate the US's own wrongdoing. Some believe that the incident was not a race riot between the two groups, but that there was a history of racism within the US itself that contributed to this outpouring of anger. Yet, America never wants to admit its wrongs. The media definitely plays a role in determining what information it provides, and one thing that the media did not focus on was the attempts for the two groups to improve their relations. The media did not write of the joint church services and musical services; it did not write that the Korean merchants were making donations to the black community and youth programs, or that the blacks were volunteering to help the Korean immigrants study for their citizenship exams.

I think that the influence of the media is evident in the hate mail that Kim received. Kim points this out as she writes, "The letters also provided some evidence of the dilemma Korean Americans are placed in by those who assume that we are aliens who should 'go back' and at the same time berate us for not rejecting 'Korean-American identity' for 'American identity'" (Kim, 223). Following the publication of her essay, Kim received a lot of hate mail, in which people made these kinds of comments. Society does not want the Koreans here, yet at the same time, they think that the Koreans should be Americans. It does not make sense because it is not possible to do both. It just shows the illogical thinking that the Americans have, which then illustrates how preposterous people can be in their attempt to maintain their status and justify their beliefs. Rather than placing the blame upon the history of racial tensions that existed in America, the Americans believed the media, and the unfortunate result of the media's failure to appropriately represent the African American and Korean American communities led to misconceptions about the true roots of the riots.

Kim, Elaine. "Home is Where the Han Is: A Korean American Perspective on the Los Angeles Upheavals". Asian American Studies. Ed. Jean Yu-Wen Shen Wu and Min Song. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.