Black Lives Matter As A Korean American


This past June 14th, I paid a visit to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest a few weeks before SPD forcefully shut it down. Despite its violent end, and whatever arguments have been laid against it, I think it had something unique from many previous protests: diversity. There were all manners of age, gender, religion and race present at the event. What I found especially interesting was the presence of Korean Americans there, especially because of an event that transpired about 1,000 miles south of where I was standing: the 1992 LA Uprising (or riots, depending on who you ask), known as “Sa-I-Gu” (4-2-9) among Korean Americans.

In the decades leading up to the Uprising, Korean immigrants left their home country after the Korean war and looked for a place to start up in the United States. Many flowed into the southern parts of LA, where they opened liquor and grocery stores. In LA, cultural differences around certain customs like eye contact, and the ever-problematic language barrier, created a rift between the existing Black and newly formed Korean communities. Community tensions erupted in 1992.

To fully understand the conflict, we also have to understand how it was rooted in the “model minority” myth, which requires looking back to the Reagan era. The “model minority” myth is about Asian Americans’ “success”, held up as a way of blaming Black communities for the struggles they face. Even in school back then, Asian American students were assumed to be able to excel academically, more so than their peers, a sentiment that exists to this day. Other than the obvious impact on Asian American children’s self-esteem, the model minority was, and is, an extremely problematic piece of propaganda. Although existent since the Cold War, arguably even earlier, it was promoted by Reagan as an argument against affirmative action and social welfare programs that would have greatly aided Black and Latinx communities. These programs would have also benefited Asian Americans. In addition, the concept perpetuated a white supremacist idea that people needed to climb a “racial ladder” in terms of their place in society, with “white” being its highest rung. This led to a sense of superiority among some Asian communities, and guilt in others. Both results from the model minority myth becoming popular led to deepened animosity between Black and Asian communities.

Back to the 90s and the Uprising. On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins, a Black girl, was killed by a Korean store owner, Du Soon-ja. Du was charged with manslaughter, and could have served 16 years. Instead, she got probation, 400 hours of service, and a $500 fine.

A few weeks later Rodney King was beaten by white policemen, who walked free, and tensions snapped, with members of the Black community protesting in Koreatown. When the police were sent to the area, they protected only expensive stores and properties instead of the store owners or even some bystanders. Many realized then that Asians had no special pass. The model minority myth was just that… a myth. 

The media focused on the conflict between Korean store owners for the killing of Latasha Harlins and Black Americans for destroying property. Yet, nobody seemed to care about the systemic issues that led to the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King, or the judicial system that let Du Soon-ja walk free for $500. The same system that ultimately led to the death of George Floyd this year.

To this day many Korean Americans still sport the wounds, not just from 1992 but from the years before and after it. This is largely anecdotal from my, and my parents’, experiences, but many of them are not open about their hostility. Instead, they decide to stay on a haphazard neutrality; they are neither for Black Lives Matter or against it. 

Very few people, even Koreans, know about this next part. Twenty-five years after Latasha’s death, Latasha Harlins’ surviving family was invited to meet with Koreatown Council members in LA. They exchanged thanks and condolences, and talked about how they wish to bridge the gap in the future. I was surprised to discover that, to my knowledge, there was no American media covering this event. The only thing I could find was an article from a Korean news site: “The day in the memory of the 24th anniversary of the LA Riot” from The Chosun USA News.

We need to break the idea of the “model minority” that has driven a wedge between our community and other communities of color for so long.

Despite the lack of coverage, I found this event fascinating. It displayed that despite years of poor relations, we can put our personal differences aside and meet, if just once, to see if we can work together. This is why seeing Korean Americans, especially young Koreans, at CHOP was so important to me. Our older generation is hesitant to participate because of their experiences, so it falls to us (and millenials) as the younger generation to make a difference.

We, as Korean Americans, need to rise together against the system that has perpetuated the deaths of Black Americans since its inception. We need to break the idea of the “model minority” that has driven a wedge between our community and other communities of color for so long. We need to continue the work and legacy of people like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama. We, specifically we Koreans, need to keep breaking the mold of apathy, and help to finally end the systemic violence that has plagued this country since before its founding. And for all of our sakes I hope we do, or else this vicious cycle of unchanging opinions through unchanging times will continue to grow with our generation.


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