Wednesday, May 1, 2019
May 1, 2019: Rodney King in Context: Korean American Businesses
[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to a special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On an ethnic and communal space that became complicatedly part of the King riots.
At the 2018 New England American Studies Association conference at UMass Lowell, one of the best papers I heard was on the subject of 1980s Korean grocery stores as a potent American Studies myth and symbol. Babson College Professor Paul Schmitz balanced specific details from the histories and stories of that cultural and communal space with broader analyses of the narratives and images associated with it, convincingly arguing that both the Korean grocers and their families and external media and social forces worked to shape this space and role into a complex but inspiring symbol of community, success, and the American Dream. There are many layers to those histories and realities, those images and their meanings, those different sides to this American space; but one particularly complex side is that for various social and economic reasons these Korean grocery stores are often located in (or at least in close proximity to) neighborhoods that feature sizeable African American, Latino, or other minority communities.
As that hyperlinked New York Times article from 1990 illustrates, those geographic details had become a significant story (not only in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but nationally) in the years immediately preceding the Rodney King verdict and riots, and would become a focal point of the riots themselves. As this 25th anniversary CNN story notes, roughly half of the $1 billion in property damage inflicted in the course of the riots was sustained by Korean businesses, as the riots spilled over from predominantly African American neighborhoods into the adjacent area known as Koreatown. Images of Korean business owners and their friends and families patrolling the neighborhood’s streets and rooftops with weapons became fraught and frightening symbols of the riots and the war-like conditions they produced throughout much of Central LA. As the CNN story reflects, these horrors affected the LA (and national) Korean American community in multiple tragic ways: not only creating deep and enduring divisions with the city’s African American community; but also, thanks to the near-complete lack of law enforcement response to the unfolding horrors, leading Korean Americans to a recognition of their status as second-class citizens in the eyes of the city’s power structures.
Those shifts in perspective and community have continued to unfold in the quarter-century since the riots, and likely will remain complex and evolving in the years to come. But what does better remembering these histories contribute to our perspective on the riots themselves? For one thing, they remind us that the fault lines in American history and community are never as simple as the white supremacist/Americans of color divisions I highlighted through yesterday’s LAPD histories and controversies; while it would be delightful if all Americans of color (or of course all Americans period) consistently operated in solidarity, life is never that one-sided or straightforward. And for another thing, they remind us of one of the most frustrating limits of exclusionary or white supremacist visions of American identity: that those visions not only exclude so many different foundational and longstanding communities, but make it impossible to do justice to the complex histories and stories of all those communities, individually and in relationship to one another. Which is to say, even when American history is at its darkest (and things got very dark during the King riots), it still and crucially reflects the truly inclusive and diverse community that has always defined us.
Next King context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?