Indifference, Injustice, and Identity: Multiculturalism and the Model Minority Myth in Koreatown, by Lauren Kim

August 20, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

Figure 1: Torched Buildings on S. Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, Los Angeles. (Leonard, Gary. Torched buildings, Los Angeles Riots. 1992. Photography. Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles. TESSA Digital Collections of the Los Angeles Public Library.)

During times of sociopolitical change, interactions with people unlike yourself can spark a reckoning of what it means to be a racial minority in your own neighbourhood. Urban areas, such as Los Angeles’ Koreatown, are where unique groups overlap to form the rich fabric of the city. In 1992, the Rodney King Riots brought questions of power into public spaces, which challenged the relationship between marginalized racial communities and government institutions. The photo above of Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles’ Koreatown illustrates the destruction of a commercial strip, spatializing tensions between identity groups and subsequently shaping Korean Americans’ understanding of how to navigate their place in the United States. Society continues to contextualize identity in public spaces and this calls for cross-racial unity in the shared postmodern urban geography.

Places are no longer singularly defined. Spaces in the postmodern era are constantly evolving as groups defined by differences in ethnicity, class, and values overlap in the city landscape. Each group occupying a shared space brings their own nuanced and often conflicting interpretations of that space. South Los Angeles in the early 1990s was a prime example of cultural intersections in a single geographical district. African American and Latino communities predominantly inhabited the area. Mom-and-pop stores owned by Korean Americans mainly populated Koreatown, located in South Los Angeles. These communities lived and worked in close proximity to one another. Each group wanted to define the space, bringing differences of power, agency, and assimilation into question.[1]

Figure 2: A detail of English and Korean signage along Vermont Avenue. (Leonard, Torched buildings).

In the 1980s, when Koreans began establishing small businesses across America, Korea was one of the most homogenous populations in the world. New Korean immigrants had only ever lived in a society with one race, history, and language. Moving to the United States challenged these lived experiences and meant learning to live in a multiracial community.[2] The multilingual landscape of the Koreatown commercial district depicts the well-established diversity that enabled multiple interpretations of the neighbourhood. Korean language signs are often found alongside English signage. Running along the Eastern border of Koreatown, Vermont Avenue is a quintessential portrayal of the businesses offered and the intended racial background of customers.[3] Korean immigrants opened many of these stores and restaurants to sell ethnic goods to a Korean clientele as evidenced by the Korean signage. The prevalence of non-English text codes the streetscape as a Korean neighbourhood. For a person who cannot read Korean, the rows of decorated sheds are a predominantly foreign landscape, interrupted by the occasional chain restaurant to remind them they’re in America. Vermont Avenue illustrates how powerful the vocabulary of commercial strips are at bringing the social composition of the city to our attention.[4]

Commercial strips like Vermont Avenue are where communities necessarily encounter one another in the hybrid urban landscape. These spaces illustrate negotiations of power, whether that’s financial transactions at stores or outbreaks of violence between racial groups.[5] Commercial areas are often particularly volatile spaces because merchants and customers necessarily have competing interests. The middleman minority theory points to a source of racial tensions specifically between Korean shop owners and Black clients.[6] This theory posits that merchants function as a buffer between dominant and subordinate groups in society and often end up as the recipient of anger. The economic disparity between these racial groups further strains this relationship. By the 1990s, tension between Black and Korean communities stemmed from years of growing wealth gaps exacerbated by an event of undeniable police brutality.[7]

In 1992, four LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, a Black man, following a high-speed car chase owing to a speeding infraction.[8] The police officers were acquitted sparking protests within the local African American community demanding justice. Riots erupted through South Los Angeles, including Koreatown. The significance of these protests in Koreatown requires an understanding of past clashes between Black and Korean individuals in volatile commercial spaces. In 1991, Soon Ja Du, a Korean American shopkeeper, fatally shot Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl.[9] A month before the Rodney King protests, two Korean employees at a liquor store were shot during a robbery by a black assailant.[10] These instances of violence are indicative of tensions between marginalized groups with varying economic backgrounds. These Korean Americans ran shops relying on African American patronage, who were often living in significantly worse poverty.[11]

The economic stability of Korean Americans in South Los Angeles illustrates a crucial facet of the model minority stereotype. Many Asian immigrants assimilated economically and socially in hopes that it would provide a path towards safety and acceptance in America.[12] Politicians then labelled Asian Americans the “model minority” because of their alleged strong work ethic, family values, and lawfulness that supposedly lead to their integration into American society. To this day,  sweeping generalizations about stereotypical Asian American characteristics are used as a comparative standard for how minorities should assimilate into white American society.[13]

Figure 3: Detail of police blocking off Vermont Avenue. (Leonard, Torched buildings).

The outbreak of riots across South Los Angeles turned spaces of consumption into sites of violence. The destruction of the built environment sent a powerful message about the Black community’s anger with the LAPD and broken justice system. During the riots, the police did not protect stores in South Los Angeles but did keep riots from entering surrounding neighbourhoods. In this photo we see plumes of smoke rising from torched buildings along Vermont Avenue, presenting a sliver of the damage to Koreatown by looting and arson. Michael Kang speaks of the law enforcement response to violence in Koreatown. Police barricaded specific roads “so that the riots wouldn’t spread to downtown, or to places like Hancock Park where really rich people live, and so they more or less surrounded the North, West and East of Koreatown with barricades.”[14] The 900th block of Vermont Avenue is located in the Southeast corner of Koreatown. It is clear these police cars captured in the foreground of this image were strategically positioned there to prevent the spread of destruction from leaving Koreatown. As the LAPD sat on the fringe of violence, Korean Americans had to reckon with the fact that, while the public lauded them as a model minority, their neighbourhood and businesses were still inherently less valued than those of white Americans by the institution of law enforcement.

Personal narratives of the riots are rich with spatial imagery and associations. As Korean stores were recoded as sites of violence, Korean Americans felt their identity was being threatened. Many shop owners took up arms in an attempt to protect their business from looting and arson. Michael Lee, a student from Orange County who was studying at UCLA in 1992, recounts watching the event unfold on television:

I just remember being really shocked about it and then I remember the next couple of days with the Korean shop owners taking control, and you know how they have guns and things like that and they were on top of their roofs, protecting their stores. […] And I felt like for some reason I just knew I would have done the same thing if I was in their position because […] what other people don’t understand is that they come here with nothing and spend their whole lives building those shops and to see it go down without them, being helpless it just doesn’t seem right. That store is their life basically.[15]

Lee’s account references the well-known images of armed Korean shop owners on the roofs of their stores to prevent the arson. He felt the destruction of Korean stores challenged the integrity of the racial community’s visibility and political power. To Korean Americans, this translated to an understanding that their economic success alone would not afford them an equal place in America. Ultimately, both minorities were pitted against one another, when in fact they faced the same oppressor.

Following the riots, urban landscapes in South Los Angeles such as Vermont Avenue were scarred by physical destruction. In some cases, the built environment was nearly reduced to rubble. The challenge of reconstructing a fractured cultural identity was embodied in and attached to the places themselves.[16] Even for individuals with no native connection to Korea, Koreatown provided a depiction of Korean roots grown on American soil. Serving as a geographical anchor for identity, this multicultural place was a reference point for what it meant to be Korean in America.[17]

The riots left the Korean community questioning where they fit into American multiculturalism and how overlapping ethnic communities occupy space. To address the barriers faced by all racial minorities, a political awakening was necessary for the evolution of the Korean American identity. Despite differences in socioeconomic status manifested in spaces like commercial strips, cultivating solidarity with neighbouring minority communities is a way to prevent the weaponizing of the Asian American experience, avoiding further racial divisions.[18] To move past the history of Anti-Black racism in the Asian community, it is crucial to remember that systemic and social barriers impact Black and Asian individuals differently. Recognizing the historical privilege of Asian Americans is part of understanding how to stand in solidarity with other marginalized groups.[19]

Today, Los Angeles’ Koreatown is a vibrant multicultural neighbourhood home to many Korean-owned businesses. However, contemporary Los Angeles and broader North America are not immune to racial tensions. People are still navigating the various but interconnected ways racial minority groups face oppression. For instance, Anti-Asian sentiment manifests itself differently from the systemic racism brought to our attention by the Black Lives Matter movement.

The rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes across North America during the pandemic has forced Asian Americans to once again confront our place in a multicultural landscape. From verbal harassment to the beating of elderly individuals in the street, incidents of aggression force Asian Americans to confront the perception of our racial identity in public spaces. The recent shootings at Asian-owned spas in Atlanta specifically recontextualize commercial spaces as volatile sites of violence.[20] The Atlanta shootings occurred under vastly different circumstances than the Rodney King riots, though the murder of six Asian women in a commercial setting is reminiscent of the inherent tensions between Asian American merchants and customers.

In subsequent political engagement, the Asian American community needs to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as we navigate justice systems to dismantle the overarching system and social norms that perpetuate racial inequality. Addressing the complicity, superficial privilege, and condescending tokenization embedded in the model minority stereotype will raise awareness of the multicultural context surrounding Anti-Asian Hate activism. Community leaders in the Asian American community call for a course of change that avoids increased policing, given law enforcement’s history of disproportionately targeting Black individuals. This call for political action emphasizes safety and solidarity among these two racial communities as they navigate a continually hostile political environment.[21]

While Black-Asian solidarity is not a new approach to dismantling racial inequality, it requires a consideration of the complex and tense history between these racial groups. The impact of the Rodney King Riots on Los Angeles’ Koreatown illustrates how the destruction of a spatial representation of identity can highlight deep divisions resulting from the inevitable overlap of racial groups that comes with postmodernity. Historical awareness of how racial groups moved through space can help shape our approach to contemporary issues that deal with deeply rooted prejudices in volatile places, forging nuanced solidarity that stands to benefit all racial minorities.

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Lauren Kim is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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[1] Constante, Agnes. “25 Years After LA Riots, Koreatown Finds Strength is ‘Saigu’ Legacy.” NBC News, April 25 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/25-years-after-la-riots-koreatown-finds-strength-saigu-legacy-n749081.

[2] Constante, “25 Years After the LA Riots.”

[3] Tangherliini, Timothy R. “Remapping Koreatown: Folklore, Narrative and the Los Angeles Riots.” Western Folklore 58, no. 58 (1999): 152-154. https://doi.org/10.2307/1500164.

[4] Tangherliini, “Remapping Koreatown,” 152-154.

[5] Tangherliini, 152.

[6] Constante, “25 Years After the LA Riots.”

[7] Constante, “25 Years After the LA Riots.”

[8] History.com Editors. “LAPD officers beat Rodney King on camera.” HISTORY, March 2, 2021. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/police-brutality-caught-on-video.

[9] Holguin, Rick and Lee, John H. “Boycott of Store Where Man Was Killed Is Urged: Racial tensions: The African-American was slain while allegedly trying to rob the market owned by a Korean-American.” Los Angeles Times, June 18 1991. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-06-18-me-837-story.html.

[10] Holguin, Rick and Lee, John H. “Boycott of Store Where Man Was Killed Is Urged: Racial tensions: The African-American was slain while allegedly trying to rob the market owned by a Korean-American.” Los Angeles Times, June 18 1991. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-06-18-me-837-story.html.

[11] Constante, “25 Years After the LA Riots.”

[12] Moon, Kat. “How a Shared Goal of Dismantling White Supremacy Is Fueling Black-Asian Solidarity.” Time, March 25 2021. https://time.com/5949926/black-asian-solidarity-white-supremacy/.

[13] Lim, Dion and Fortson, Jobina. “Coming Together: Understanding the history of tension between the Black and Asian communities.” ABC7 News, July 10 2020. https://abc7news.com/african-american-asian-history-black-lives-matter/6309505/.

[14] Tangherliini, “Remapping Koreatown,” 161.

[15] Tangherliini, “Remapping Koreatown,” 160.

[16] Tangherliini, 150.

[17] Tangherliini, 154-155.

[18] Constante, “25 Years After the LA Riots.”

[19] Lim Dion and Fortson, “Coming Together.”

[20] Moon, “How a Shared Goal of Dismantling White Supremacy Is Fueling Black-Asian Solidarity.”

[21] Moon, “How a Shared Goal of Dismantling White Supremacy Is Fueling Black-Asian Solidarity.”

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