As columns of smoke from torched liquor stores thinned and broken glass was swept away, Angela Oh remembered suddenly finding herself in the spotlight.
The 32-year-old criminal defense lawyer appeared on a national news program, delivering a Korean American perspective on the Los Angeles riots in April 1992, which were provoked by the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers caught on videotape beating Black motorist Rodney King.
In what the mainstream media labeled as race-related violence that lasted for six days, more than 50 people lost their lives, and the city sustained $1 billion in damage, 40 percent of which was suffered by the Korean American community in the city’s Koreatown.
Oh protested the media’s coverage of Korean Americans as racist, gun-toting vigilantes and faulted the media for failing to discuss what they saw as the real culprit behind the unrest: the decades of neglect of inner-city L.A.
Footage of gun-toting Koreans on rooftops transposed with images of Black youth firebombing businesses with Molotov cocktails painted a picture of a conflict — with Black residents considered lawless and Korean merchants, mercenary.
“It wasn’t the full story,” said Oh, who also served on President Bill Clinton’s race advisory board. “And if you have an ignorant public that doesn’t ask what is going on, you don’t get that part of the story.”
These two communities have joined in solidarity many times in the past three decades, but the depictions of them became indelible and evolved into our collective understanding of the riots.
During a virtual panel convened in April by Asian Americans Advancing Justice to discuss media reporting on the riots, civil rights activist and lawyer Connie Rice emphasized the media’s failure to cover deep-seated issues that plagued the city.
“The media didn’t cover the failure to address the policing,” Rice said. “It didn’t cover the failure to provide the economic infrastructure, and what we ended up with was kindling building and building.”
Interviews with more than 20 people representing both the Asian American and Black communities, ranging from business owners to race relations experts, revealed the power of a media narrative to shape the public’s understanding of an event. With 30 years of hindsight, the shortcomings of that interpretation are glaringly evident.
“Educating people is an ongoing necessity,” said Stewart Kwoh, founding president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and co-founder of the Asian American Education Project. “We need to bring history to light. I feel that if you don’t educate, then people are buried.”
Bringing history to light
What started as an act of anger toward LAPD officers quickly shifted gears toward the Korean immigrant community, experts said.
Tensions had been brewing beneath the surface for years. As Korean immigrants began to occupy many of the businesses in South Central left by Jewish owners in the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965 — six days of unrest when the Jewish community was caught in the crosshairs of the Black community's anger toward urban woes and police brutality — Black residents felt that the Korean merchants were taking from them, experts say.
“It brings up the historically old idea of how Black lives have been treated,” said Kyeyoung Park, a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at UCLA. “Korean merchants came into South Central without understanding that.”
The year before, liquor store co-owner Soon Ja Du had shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl. Du claimed she shot her in self-defense: Harlins had been caught putting a bottle of orange juice in her backpack, and, following a verbal altercation, punched Du in the face, she said. Du was eventually found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but only received a sentence of five years’ probation and 400 hours of community service — angering many in the Black community and escalating tensions between the two groups.
The media took it and ran with it, igniting a smoldering fire, said Carol Park, who was 10 when she started working at her mother’s gas station in Compton. The videotape of Du shooting Harlins in the back of the head was played repeatedly, and headlines invoking their races were in bold. So when the riots broke out, the sense of interethnic conflict was spotlighted and scapegoated as more of the reason for the unrest.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was really the Rodney King not-guilty verdicts and the sense of injustice,” said Park, now an ethnic studies researcher at the University of California, Riverside.
But one woman’s mistake was quickly seen as the entire community’s. When videos of Korean men with guns on rooftops aired, the image of Koreans as racist, gun-toting vigilantes was cemented.
The Korean community bore the brunt of the unrest, Rice said. But what the mainstream media focused on was the very small percentage of shops that had owners who could defend themselves with guns.
“That was the only picture that was starkly shown,” she said. “And that picture definitely fanned the flames. It wasn’t accurate. It was imbalanced. It took everything out of context.”
Sonny Kang, then a college student who joined the LA Korean Youth Task Force, an organization that went out to help business owners who didn’t have the means to defend their stores, said the media also failed to report that the task force protected stores that didn’t have a father, a husband or an adult son to do so.
Kang added that the police were nowhere to be found in Koreatown, leaving the Korean merchants to fend for themselves.
“A lot of Korean-owned businesses didn’t have able-bodied males to protect the little old ladies, widowed or divorced or whatever it is, who might own her own business,” Kang said. “These types of businesses were terrified because they had nobody to protect their stores, and they couldn’t rely on the police anymore.”
The Rev. Mark Whitlock Jr., senior pastor at Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Hyepin Im — president of Faith and Community Empowerment, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering faith community leaders to better serve underserved communities — have forged a lasting friendship, tightly knit by conversation and faith.
But it hasn’t always been that way between the Black pastor and the Korean community leader, who have both been vocal advocates of their communities in the aftermath of the riots. When Whitlock invited Im to do venture capital work under him at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, he never thought of it as racial reconciliation.
“I needed someone who I felt was credible and capable,” he said. “I never thought of it as bridging the gap to the Korean community.”
The reconciliation came to Whitlock when he started accepting Im’s offers to speak about community and economic development to the Korean American community. He began to listen to the stories of the people in the audience and experienced a deep change in his thoughts.
“I often thought the Korean community had a much better lifestyle and economic foundation opportunities,” he said. “And then I found out they didn’t.”
Whitlock added that in many cases, the Korean community was unfairly targeted during the riots. Sure, there was a problem with Du and Harlins, “but we don’t indict an entire race,” he said.
Ultimately, he said he believes difficult conversations and education must happen to face the reality of what took place.
The unrest revealed more than just police abuse; it also revealed the poverty that was so rampant in the city, he said.
“This wasn’t a Black problem; this was a human problem,” Whitlock concluded. “Unless we begin to tear down these racial barriers and stereotypes, we will not be able to eradicate poverty as it exists even until today.”
Im, who founded FACE in 2001, made it her mission to dispel myths surrounding the Korean American community, and now her efforts will be included in L.A. schools’ lesson plans.
More educational initiatives are emerging statewide. Last year, California became the first state to mandate ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement. This month, the inaugural Korean American Studies Conference was held at the Young Oak Kim Academy in L.A. Founded in 2021, the Asian American Education Project creates lesson plans and trains educators on how to implement Asian American curriculum.
Make Us Visible — a coalition of students, parents, educators and community members advocating for the integration of Asian American and Pacific Islander history into school curricula — is gearing up to introduce a chapter in California. The organization, which includes eight active chapters, recently saw its efforts pay off in Connecticut when an AAPI curriculum bill passed through the state Legislature’s Education and Appropriations committees. Earlier this year, New Jersey became the second state in the nation to require the inclusion of AAPI history in K-12 schools.
The ideal solution comes from recognizing the situation more accurately, Im said. It’s why education is vital.
“It’s important to know the truth,” she said, “because if you don’t know the whole truth of whatever the situation is, you’re going to be coming up with the wrong solution to the wrong problem.”