Professor Edward Chang, re: LA Riots
Interview by Miae Kim
1 Disc – 61:07
EDWARD: I’m Professor Edward Chang. At the Korean National Museum.
MIAE: Start with I am.
EDWARD: Prof. At UC Riverside.
MIAE: Tell me about the riots. How did they start, develop, and end? We’ll use your voice as narration.
EDWARD: April 29th 1992. 3pm I had a telephone call from a Korean Times reporter. She told me the not guilty verdict came, what is your reaction? I knew it was potentially problematic. The day began festively at Cal Poly Pomona. We were getting a new president, Suzuki, the first Japanese president for Cal Pomona. Our keynote speaker was Bill Cosby, the most famous American at the time. Gymnasium was packed, very festive. Ended before 3pm. I walked into my office and the telephone rang and I heard the news of not guilty. I thought it was trouble, but race problems usually begin and end in the black community. It happened in the Watts riots in ’65 and it contained and didn’t go elsewhere. I didn’t think it would spread. 6pm I and Angela Oh were to speak in front of Jewish leaders
EDWARD: At 6pm we had a previous engagement to talk about race relations, focusing on Korean/African American relations and Jewish community leaders wanted to hear us. Angela Oh and I were asked to give a talk at a restaurant. We met and ate dinner and discussed the nature of Korean/African American relations and what could happen after the not-guilty verdict.
MIAE: Try not to make noise.
EDWARD: outside things were already burning down in downtown LA and south central and also in Koreatown. My wife called and was worried. She said things broke out outside. We didn’t know that until my wife called at 10pm. The Hollywood freeway was shut down and many places were burning so we ended the talk. We told the Jewish audience to be careful going home. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was unbelievable. Live broadcast all day long. April 30th the police were not visible and things got worse. In daylight people started to loot and burn stores and inviting people to come down to the grocery and take what you wanted. That’s what the TV was implying. Things were getting worse. The curfew order was in from sundown to sunup. In the meantime the National Guard was brought into the area but they had no ammunition. It took another day or two for them to position themselves to protect property and citizens. It was 3, 4 days of a war zone. No security, no LAPD to protect and serve. Korean Americans were upset in the heavy police presence guarding the West side, Beverly Hills area. Korean Americans thought this was unfair and racial discrimination. That’s how it progressed. Ted Koppel’s nightline had a special on the LA Riots and the program invited prominent African American ministers and they were Korean-bashing. It was biased, unfair. We felt we were victims and then victimized again by the press so we pushed to have our message across. Nightline agreed to interview Angela Oh, civil rights attorney, and she could articulate our concern and give voice to the Korean American community. It was very sudden and yet somewhat expected because tension between Korean American merchants and African American customers had been building through the 1980s. I remember July 4th 1980 the cover story accused Korean merchants of taking profit at the expense of African Americans. LA Sentinel 1993 August – September published a five-part series about Korean Americans not contributing to the community and ripping them off. General complaint echoing throughout the nation. Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, San Francisco. Boycott, tension that had been building up.
MIAE: Was it true that Koreans were taking money from the community?
EDWARD: It’s a matter of perspective. The general complaint is Koreans are rude and disrespectful to the customer. True and false. Some were rude regardless of race. Some were rude to Korean customers too. In Korea in the 70s and 80s the whole notion of service did not exist. It was a formal exchange of money. But others have bought into this racial and educational hierarchy. Many Korean immigrants who owned stores were highly educated, college or post-college, and they feel they are superior to the customers who are not educated. In Korea, highly educated people think they are superior. Korea is a hierarchical society. They may have cultural baggage they brought with them. They may feel they’re more superior than those who dropped out of high school. It’s a combination. When Koreans communicate they try not to make eye contact. When a merchant hands out change, they don’t put it in the customer’s hand, on the counter, the customer counts his own money in Korea. Here it’s disrespectful. When the merchant doesn’t say hello to a customer, African Americans think they are deceptive or rude. But rumors began to fly that Korean merchants are rude and disrespectful. They sell inferior products at higher price. When you compare mom and pop stores to Ralph’s or Wal-Mart, a mom and pop store is higher priced because they sell less volume. Capitalist 101. These things became truth in the African American community, so people began to resent. Community people began to call for the boycott of Korean stores whenever there’s some incident. Highly charged. Keg of dynamite ready to explode. Who’s going to put the match on this flame? Volatile, tense situation late 1980s, early 1990s and the not guilty verdict simply ignited the things brewing.
MIAE: Can you tell me some statistics? Dead, injured, shops ruined?
EDWARD: Initially they said 56 deaths but 55. Thousands arrested. More than 10, 20,000 people arrested and some of them put into jail in violation of various laws. Total damage 1 billion dollars and 40% suffered by Korean community alone. So 40 million suffered by Korean stores. Things catastrophic for the Korean American community, a disproportionate amount of Korean stores were looted or burned. TriplEDWARD: property damage, post-traumatic stress syndrome, (many immigrants couldn’t believe their eyes that their property was burned without police help, they began to question democracy, felt they were betrayed), mainstream media portrayed it as the fault of Koreans. Or Koreans were responsible. So they had been victimized in many angles. The problem was the majority of Korean immigrants could not articulate in English the oppression they felt from the press. They put a microphone into the Korean immigrants’ faces and they couldn’t say a word. It was one-sided. The Korean American voice was disregarded until later on. Mainstream media did not understand the Korean Americans. Asian Americans were Japanese or Chinese American. Korean Americans did not exist in the consciousness. The La times asked me to write a column describing Korean Americans, so I wrote it. Mainstream society began to pay attention to Korean Americans, and the community have since been recognized.
MIAE: So the LA Riots were not a conflict b/w Koreans and African Americans but Korean Americans are victims?
EDWARD: you have to make a distinction between the causes and the results of the riots. Many Korean stores burned, but it doesn’t mean African American/ Korean tension was the cause. The riots of 1992 were caused by the same things that caused race riots of the 60s, 40s, 20s. The growing gap between the whites and the blacks. If you look at the race riots since the 40s, it’s like a protest as a last resort. Legal equality has been achieved, but economic equality is not there, inequality is growing. The report of 1968 says that unless we narrow the gap between races, race riots will occur again. Second factor in the commission report was an inequality in the education system between black and white school sin qualification of teachers, textbooks, funding, and every aspect. Black children had far inferior education so they couldn’t compete in the labor market and make a decent living. If you look at high school rates in the inner city, 40, and 50%. Unemployment is high. A large proportion of young people out of a job, it’s a problem. Third factor was ongoing conflict between local residents and police, for African Americans and Latinos. And the Rodney King videotape was like concrete proof that the LAPD was abusing its residents. Yet, it didn’t matter. So a combination of traditional factors plus 1980s and 90s rapid population change with Latino and Asian immigrants. So in 1990 LA has full sizable racial groups vying for jobs, housing, and health care. The African American population was constant 1970 to 90. But Asian American and Latino increased. White population decreased to less than 50%. So it gave one of the first times the full major group and were just getting to know each other. But at that time tension was mounting.
I think that was another factor that may have contributed to growing suspicion.
MIAE: There is a lot of talk about Koreans being rude. But we don’t hear about how America treats Korean Americans. Some say Korean Americans get special deals from the government.
EDWARD: There was a rumor that Koreans were getting a special loan from the federal government. That is false. I’ve said it so many times. Even my colleagues believed they were getting a special loan. Which is false. Because they had no credit history they were getting rejected. I often had to explain traditional credit system. In Chinese communities and Japanese communities there are credit associations too. Members chip in $500 a month, 20 people that’s $10,000 every month and it will run for 20 months until everyone gets enough capital to open a small store. So you rely on one another. The secret is that you have no collateral. No security. It’s based on mutual trust. They’ve been doing that for thousands of years in Asia. But in the US that concept is foreign to western culture. Unless you have a legal contract you’re not going to do that. So that’s one advantage Koreans brought with them – cultural values that let them go into small business. But they didn’t not get special help. But that rumor contributed to this anger by African Americans. We suffered, we went through a horrendous slavery system, lynching, and we paid to gain civil rights for all minorities and yet we are still treated as second class citizens and Korean Americans might be getting assistance. That wasn’t the case, but in the minds of many African Americans that was true.
MIAE: I talked to some African American leaders and they still say Koreans are rude. They see them as occupiers. I hear these things even now. What can you say about those things?
EDWARD: That’s lots of rhetoric. In the past the African American communities has been controlled by outsiders, Jewish merchants, white merchants, Chinese, Japanese and now Korean. Historically the African American economy has not been able to gain what it should be. The number one aspiration of African Americans is to be an independent storeowner. They can’t get loans from financial institutions, they lack capital. Because of that a niche was created and outsiders came in and took the opportunity. That doesn’t mean they are occupiers. After the LA Riots when many stores were burned down, local residents did not have a place to shop. They served a critical role in the community. is the glass half empty or half full? But when community activists talk about Koreans as occupiers, that’s more rhetoric than the truth. At least the legal barrier is gone, before the 1960s African Americans were discriminated against legally, and now the red line is still there, but legally the African American community can’t blame others. They need to produce more businessmen and merchants. Magic Johnson, what he’s trying to do to revitalize the African American community. We need more black entrepreneurs to play a role with revitalizing, investing. You can’t blame Korean merchants. It’s America’s problem. It’s policy failure by the federal, state, local government, but it’s unfair to blame Korean immigrants who are trying to make a living like everyone else. We need to give responsibility to both public and private sectors and start searching for solutions. How to revitalize. How is it that financial institutions are not willing to invest in the black community?> how can we create a climate where it’s profitable for entrepreneurs to invest to create jobs? Those are what we need to focus on rather than repeating rhetoric.
MIAE: You mentioned the riots were triggered by whites. Why did it focus on Koreans?
EDWARD: The media played a critical role in shaping it as a K/AA conflict. In 1991 Latifa Harlans was killed by a Korean American shopkeeper. They headlined that for $1.79 she was shot and killed, the implication being that a Korean sees an African American as only worth $`1.79. thirteen days later, March 16th, we saw the Rodney King videotape. So we saw a tape twenty times a day for an entire year. If you watched those two videotapes every day twenty times a day how would you react? Here we have a motorist beaten up more than a hundred times. Next you see this fifteen year old girl shot and killed by a Korean American merchant. Now she received probation, she did not go to jail, which is appalling from an African American perspective. In the meantime Danny Baquil and other African American activists tried to use those incidents to mobilize the African American community. the media loved it because he gave them sound bites. Sensationalistic and racially charged. The media love that story and it became a Korean-African American conflict. The late 80s and early 90s were defined no longer by a white black dynamic but a K/AA dynamic. In LA and NY. Which was tragic.
MIAE: Can minorities can have racism against other minorities?
EDWARD: It’s more of a prejudice against a stereotypical image. Racism is more about power relations, those with power use their power to take things away from less powerful groups. But if you look at K/AA relations that wasn’t eh situation whatsoever. The Koreans may have had more economic power, a little, but the political situation African Americans had more power. Korean Americans had no political power whatsoever. This was shown after the riots where local African American politicians blocked Koreans rebuilding their stores. Racial discrimination does not explain the dynamics of the two groups. It’s more prejudice, misunderstanding, or myth-understanding. They communicated by relying on myth rather than reality. They communicated through the media rather than with each other. They each had a certain image of each other. They communicated through the mainstream media which distorted reality.
MIAE: Why were there 55 people dead?
EDWARD: it was chaos. The LAPD was not around. Initially there were gun battles and shootings. It was like chaos. That’s why there were so many casualties.
MIAE: Was any of it planned?
EDWARD: if you look at the FBI report they said there is no concrete proof to suggest there was an organized effort. On the other hand there is no concrete proof to suggest it wasn’t organized effort. They left the door open. I interviewed several merchants and they swear they saw organized group activities the day before. So if the not guilty verdict came down, they were going to have mass violence. People
MIAE: What do you think about the image of Korean American merchants guarding their stores.
EDWARD: the media sent this image out to the whole world. They were portrayed as gun-toting vigilantes. They were trying to protect their property, but media continued to send out that image. The one gun-store owner who was shooting was highlighted. But he majority of Korean American did not own a gun. The majority were law-abiding citizens. It sent a totally wrong message to the audience. It was detrimental to the Korean American communities.
MIAE: Korean Americans called the riots Si-I-Gu.
EDWARD: Koreans call it Siygu. Which means April 29th. In Korea important things are mentioned by the dates. Lke September 11th. Everyone knows 9/11. but we have another date we remember, si – il – gu which is when the government was toppled. So those rhyme so we remember it. It was a historic moment in Korean American immigration history.
MIAE: What changed in the Korean community?
EDWARD: It was a watershed event becaust until 1992 they lived in istolation, like Koreans in America. Mainstream society did not know about Korean Americans. They were invisible. Immigrants came to work hard, 16 hours a day, 365 days a yea. They believed in American dreams. If you worked hard, you could make dreams come true. They did not participate in legal or political affairs, just economic activities to send their children to the top schools. But when the community suffered such a prolific devastation they began to re-evaluate their economic, political, social, cultural position. They began to self-examine their position and future prospects and “Korean American” became a word. They are no longer Koreans in America. They are Americans of Korean decent. You have to be a member of a multi-ethnic community. the process of healing, understanding, being part of a great multi-ethnic America. In that sense Korean Americans began to self-examine in a multi-faceted manner. We learned many valuable lessons. That’s why it is important to understand what it means. We have to pass it down to the next generation. When Asians face such a historical moment they want to bury it. We want to bring it alive and teach the lessons to he next generation so it doesn’t happen again . that’s an important historical lesson
MIAE: Last questions, what are the lessons we learn?
EDWARD: Many. One: we have to participate in the political process. More than 2000 Korean stores were victimized, not a single politician came out to support the Korean American community. painful lessons that in the participatory democracy, unless you have someone in the political process you are not head . we had to mobilize ourselves so our voice could be heard. Second: Korean Americans felt there needs to be more cooperation between first and second generation. The first viewed the second as babies, young kids…
EDWARD: But it was Angela Oh and myself and others who were able to articulate first-generation issues to mainstream America. There needs to be more cooperation and the immigrant generation began to recognize the importance of education and connection to the next generation. Third: the role of the Korean American church. The Korean American community is church-centered community and the church is the center of the political, social, and cultural life. And yet many churches have not been involved in community affairs. How can they serve spiritual and community needs? It’s a critical organization that takes in human resources and financial resources. A big chunk. And yet the human and financial resources are inside the church only. Which is different from the African American church, which is more in the community. the most important lesson is that Korean Americans realized they have to get along, be part of multiracial America. Not only learn about others, but actively participate. So that’s why I wrote a Korean language book called ‘who African Americans are’ and it chronicles African American history and culture. And for the first time, Korean Americans began to understand the contributions and problems of African Americans. Radio stations also read it over the air . that was the first Korean book about African Americans. Before that, Korean Americans knew nothing about American race relations. They knew nothing about race issues and didn’t know how to handle the issues, how to intermingle with others. They learned they have to be part of multiethnic America. Since then, Korean immigrants have been very active in trying to reach out and go beyond racial and ethnic barriers.
MIAE: Koreans said they were victimized twice because no one came to help and their stories were burned. S there was an Asian peace march. Tell mea bout that?
EDWARD: I am proud that at the height of racial tensions the young Asians called for a peace march. It was one of the largest gatherings in Asian American history. There were 20 to 30,000 and it was a huge rally. It wasn’t a protest march, it was a peace march and they wanted to heal and understand each other. It was an important gathering of young and old, men and women, different races. La was surprised and I’m proud to be Korean American because we pulled it off. We need to continue the spirit of that peace rally. Destruction doesn’t solve anything.
MIAE: Two more. How are Korean/African American relations now?
EDWARD: in terms of Korean/AA relations I think it’s better, because it couldn’t get any worse than what happened in 92 and Koreans learned many lessons. One is that you have to be kind and nice to your clientele. Regardless of who your clientele is you have to be nice, if you’re a smart businessman. So Korean American merchants learned a lesson. By the same token I think African Americans began to understand more, so relations have improved. But the structural conditions that ignited the riots have not improved. They’ve gotten worse. The economy has gone down, economic conditions south central has gotten poorer. Those conditions probably have not been improved at all.
MIAE: Anything to say at the end?
EDWARD: One other issue that might be important fro the Asian American perspective. I remember reading an LA Times article written by a Chinese or Japanese reporter blaming Koreans for violence. I think that was ethnic confusion within the Asian community. we’re still ethnic specific. We haven’t learned to come together yet. It is an important issue we need to overcome. If you look at the 150 years of Asian American history there were some moments we came together, Vincent Chin, Wen Ho Lee, and yet we still can’t communicate amongst each other. A commonality or one-ness as Asian American. We need to work hard to reach the goal. LA riots dis-united the Asian community. and some Japanese Americans were mistaken for Korean Americans and beaten up savagely. The common stereotype of Asian Americans is that we look alike. We’re primarily portrayed as foreigners, immigrants. Some are fifth and sixth generation, American like anybody else. And yet we’re perpetual foreigners. We’re portrayed as model minorities, that we’re all successful. We’re not all successful. The stereotypical image is not that positive and for the sake of the next generation we must overcome those images and provide a better environment for the next generation to succeed in American society.