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LA Riots: After the smoke settled, blacks and Korean-Americans faced contrasting realities

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International investors poured money into rebuilding Koreatown, making it wealthier than ever. But in South Los Angeles, little has changed.

The animosity created by the Latasha Harlins shooting, combined with the arson and looting directed against Korean businesses 25 years ago, sparked a shift after the smoke cleared and the broken glass was swept away.

But what changed after the riots in the Korean American and African American communities?

Take Two put that question to Nadia Kim, professor of sociology at Loyola Marymount University, and Erin Aubry Kaplan, a journalist who has written extensively about the riots. 


Was it possible to emerge without hard feelings?

Kaplan: Hard feelings — that sounds so personal. I was kind of amazed in another way. I'm a native, and I grew up in South Central and I had heard about 1965, and it's interesting to note that we are now roughly the same distance from 1992 as 1965 from 1992, kind of hard to believe. I had heard by whole life that '65, we're still living that legacy. But initially, when this happened, what I call an uprising, I thought it was kind of energizing. I thought, OK, this is a good thing. We're going to express how we feel. We're going to organize and we're finally going to make good on the promise of improvement.

Well, that got out of hand very quickly and I was just kind of ... you know, for the first time sort of fearful to be out in my own community. But I understood everything — I understood the resentment, I understood the rioting, I understood the protests. But I kind of felt ... and I don't mean to sound hard ... but it's almost like it couldn't have happened any other way. People were just really angry and, yes, indiscriminately angry because, you know — Nadia mentioned Koreans feeling invisible prior to this — black folks had felt invisible for a very long time.

What stands out about the Korean American experience?

Kim: It was an awakening. A lot of people from legendary journalist K.W. Lee to all kinds of analysts to organizers, they always describe it as a racial baptism by fire, or it was when Korean America was born. I really believe that to be true. Almost a year after the unrest, only maybe a quarter of the businesses had rebuilt. A lot of them had been uninsured at the time of the burnings and the arson so they could not rebuild. Some of them struggled with repayment because of engaging in high-interest loans ... and then losing their homes because of inability to keep up with mortgages. And so rent and mortgage issues were probably some of the biggest.

And then, of course, we have to talk about the transnational capital that invested in Koreatown. So, taking advantage of depressed real estate values, taking advantage of the globally structured economy, you now have these wealthy entrepreneurs or you have South Korean transnational capital coming in and gentrifying and rebuilding Koreatown. [There were] major opportunities there, and you see Korean Americans taking advantage of those as well. 

The story of African Americans turned out a little differently. What happened to the African Americans who had to deal with the aftermath? 

Kaplan: Well, nothing. You know, I'm sitting here, listening to you two and being reminded ... it pretty much says it all. Koreatown is booming. There was for Korean merchants — I think sociologists call it the option of exit — who tragically lost their businesses but they can go elsewhere. But the situation in South Central is pretty much the same. I guess the new merchant class would be Latinos who had businesses then. The demographics have changed a lot. We knew this was coming back in '92, so now South Central is something like 30 percent black, 70 percent Latino. Whereas, it was 50 percent [black] back then. So blacks are literally becoming a smaller population but with the same problems as a community, and it's just kind of disheartening.

There has been no economic growth. What the community was looking for was some investment, transnational or otherwise, coming into South Central to finally change things. It didn't happen. There was Rebuild L.A. Everybody might remember it didn't get too far. There was just not the interest. And unfortunately, a lot of people in the black community are not surprised. This is, frankly, what has always happened.

What's it going to take for riots to be unthinkable?

Kaplan: Oh, gosh. Not to sound too pessimistic, but I think that possibility is always there. I think that the conditions that perpetuated it, particularly with black people, because this was framed as sort of a racial incident and it was, are still in place. They just are. I think people have seen, particularly black people have seen, what does work. Rising up doesn't work. Raising our voices doesn't seem to shake the system very much. So, you know, I think it could always happen again. What will set it off? I don't know.

We live in an age now where we have these outrageous videos every day, every week. We see with the Black Lives Matter movement, we see incidents of police brutality all the time. It's difficult to know, when or if something will spark a grassroots expression like 1992 did. That I don't know. It'd be interesting to see.

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