Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Perfect Crime.......

The L.A Riots.

It's hard to believe that twenty years have passed since the Los Angeles riots erupted into the most violent urban disturbance in recent history. Although the US has seen many riots in its cities over the years, the LA riots were somewhat unique because the racial antagonism went beyond the traditional white/black hostility and brought to light racist attitudes between ethnic minorities.

Of course, although it was the acquittal of the policemen who participated in the beating of Rodney King that sparked the rampage, in the ensuing days it was the tension and hostility between the African-American and immigrant Korean community that became the focus of the media's commentary and attention. During the unrest, Korean businesses were targeted by the mob who first looted and then set fire to them.

Naturally, the disturbance was turned into a major television event by a media who, with a good degree of cynicism, chose to spin the riot like an old-time movie in which the various parties involved were characterized as good-guys and victims (the rioters), bad-guys (the Koreans), and the well-meaning but helpless (the police). Its fair to say that fair and unbiased reporting seemed to go out the window - particularly in their coverage of the reaction of some Korean shop-owners.

As you may discern from this report from 1992 - which to me is a good example of the uncompromising and reproachful character of the media's attitude towards the Koreans - the fact that these shop-keepers were defending themselves and their property elicited much sickening condemnation from many self-righteous observers whose own lives and livelihoods were not under threat, but who seemed to insist on a saintly martyr approach to racially motivated mob violence by those who were targeted.

What is most striking to me is how, both then and now, the racist targeting of the Koreans by the mob has been either ignored, denied, or justified as an understandable act by a frustrated minority. Even coverage of the riots in Europe, where I was living at the time, sought to villify the Korean immigrants and characterize the violence being committed against them as somehow deserved.

Of course, in truth, the 1992 riots came at a time when anti-Asian hostility in America was particularly prevalent. The 1970's and 80's had seen some of the most overt and blatant anti-Asian rhetoric in politics and mainstream American culture. The 1970's and 80's had been a time of anxiety for the American economy because of stiff competition in the manufacturing sector from several East Asian countries. Resentment caused by the perception that these Asian competitors were taking American jobs was compounded by xenophobic attitudes that these nations were being diabolically underhanded or unfair in the way that they were developing their economies.

Consequently, American attitudes at the time reflected this hostility. The period was was full of anti-Asian political rhetoric, calls for boycotts, and retaliatory measures (often martial in nature) against Asians supposedly "cheating" their way to economic power. Culturally, the Asian bad guy became a staple for movies throughout the era and a general hostility towards Asian people was pervasive (in fact this is largely still true). This was the backdrop to the racist murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Chin was bludgeoned to death by two very angry and unemployed white men, because they apparently blamed their unemployment on Asians and wanted to vent their anger through violent murder.

In a strange way, the targeting of Korean immigrants during the LA riots is fundamentally a crime of similar character as the murder of Chin, the only difference being that the Koreans were able to defend themselves more effectively - if this had not been the case my guess is that dozens of Koreans would have been killed. In both cases, widespread cultural xenophobia and hostility towards Asians that had been nurtured in the media, society, and politically, served to normalize the resentment and irrational anger that drove the mob violence. In the aftermath, the anti-Asian racism that made violent anger inevitable also served as a justification for the violence - after all, the Asians are sneakily taking jobs and money out of American communities.

And this is how it was possible to commit the perfect crime. Fully televised, and in full view of the entire world, a racially motivated pogrom that would have made the Nazis proud was carried out against a Korean immigrant community with the full perverse approval of the watching media and a resentful society seemingly rabid about the prospect of hitting Asians where it hurts. In some ways, in the pogrom of 1992, Korean immigrants became the focus for the simmering rage of an economically affronted America. Thus, the hate crime committed against Korean immigrants - and the general anti-Asian racism that enabled it - was marginalized from the story. Instead of becoming a means to highlight pervasive anti-Asian prejudice, the riots highlighted America's tolerance and full acceptance of it and made certain that this aspect of the story would not become part of the accepted history.

Like a perfect crime in an Agatha Christie novel in which a crime of murder becomes hidden within a crime of theft, the story of racist victimization of Korean immigrants was buried (and remains largely buried) and given lesser significance than the stories of the mob who committed it. America's anti-Asian racism ensures that empathy towards their experience will be rejected and their desperate (and brave) acts of self-defence - made necessary by police indifference - will continue to be irrationally and self-righteously condemned.

There were two perpetrators in the pogrom against Korean immigrants - the mob but also (and perhaps even more significantly) the general cultural racism that first enabled it, then provided the means to justify and downplay the racist crime that it was, and finally re-wrote history to exclude this aspect of the story from the accepted accounts.


  1. it's still happening today: just witness how many anti-China and anti-Chinese political ads there will be this (s)election year 2012

  2. True - America's attitude towards Asians hasn't changed much since the end of the 19th century.

  3. http://work.failblog.org/2012/05/05/job-fails-its-all-goin-accordin-ta-plan-ya-hear/

    Laugh damn it!

    Ben, sometimes you make me miss my ethnic studies courses.

  4. Come to think of it, racism is now being more and more open - the problem is it's not called racism anymore, it's called "free speech". I have no problem with someone practicing their right in this country, I have a problem with somebody's stupidity.

    Tommy - Lol, great find!

  5. Tommy..

    Yes that sums it up nicely! LOL.


    Agreed. Especially with regards anti-Asian racism the tolerance forgiveability levels are high.

  6. Lol My copy of Dirty hands (the art and crimes of David Choe) just came in the mail today and interestingly enough his parents' business was one that you mentioned in this post. I'm going to write a review of it sometime soon.