Sa-I-Gu: the Los Angeles Riots 20 Years Later

Some Koreans, especially those who are culturally engaged and fluent in the language know the day as “Sa-I-Gu” or “4-2-9” – April 29th, 1992, the start of the infamous Los Angeles Riots. That was 20 years ago. Back then, I was a stressed out 2nd year student at Mr. Jefferson’s University, especially since it was near the end of the semester and finals were looming and assignments needed turning in. On the other side of the country, four Los Angeles police officers, (three of whom were white and one Hispanic) who beat motorist Rodney King (an African American), a year earlier were acquitted. King, who had been on parole, was excessively speeding and subsequently caught by police.

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In the days before cell phone video cameras one ordinary citizen took his VHS video recorder and taped 10 minutes of the incident and it went viral – this was before there was a commercial internet. The media ran with this story a good long time but it was the acquittal of those law enforcement officers in 1992 that most attribute to the rampant social disorder that spanned a large quarter of south central Los Angeles. All told, over 50 people were killed, up to $1 billion in property and business losses. The massive social unrest included eyewitness accounts of law enforcement fleeing, bystanders pulled out of vehicles, and the need to establish a curfew and bring in the National Guard to re-establish order. Keep in mind, most residents in this area stayed home and didn’t venture the streets, so while this is a big event, the majority of people in the area took no part in the chaos.

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Particularly notable to many (and by “many” I mean type “Los Angeles Riots” on amazon.com) were the encounters between Koreans and the surrounding predominantly black and Hispanic communities. As you can see on this map provided by the LA Times, you can see the number of Korean businesses that were looted and/or burned during that 5 or 6 day time period. While most reports agree that all manner of businesses were affected, it’s also safe to assert that the clear majority of businesses were Korean-owned.

So it seems strange doesn’t it, that the riot participants who were mostly black and Hispanic (as well as some Chinese and others as well) would destroy property and businesses owned by Koreans. What in the world did they have to do with the acquittal of the law enforcement officers? Why not take out one’s vitriol against the police department? Part of the answer comes from several connected ideas in sociology.

In previous instances of social disorder, sociologists theorized that marginalized or subordinate groups react against the oppression they feel against those who are in the dominant group. This seems like common sense. But newer theories have pointed out that there are ways in which members of the dominant group can minimize engagement with subordinate groups. They do so by positioning what’s called a middleman minority. The middleman minority sells the goods from the supplier (who lives a good deal away) to the clientele. The middleman positions his or her shop in close proximity to the customers in order to increase likely foot traffic which results in greater sales.

Thus when members of a marginalized group want to express collective anger and resort to rioting, their likely target is not the actual producer of the goods but the most local source of those goods, the shopkeeper. It matters little whether the business owner makes a huge profit or barely gets by. From the perspective of the marginalized, the business owner is much better off.

What gets us all turned around though is that there are racial mappings to these relationships. In America, in south central Los Angeles, the shopkeepers were Korean, urban poverty appeared mostly black and Latino, and whites controlled law enforcement, the justice system, the political structure and the most desirable lifestyles all of which happened far from the low income and working class neighborhoods. But the next closest symbol of wealth was the local business.

As a Korean American Christian this incident in history helped raise my own awareness that social problems felt by one racial minority are problems that affect me and the minority group that I belong to as well. And it reminds me that social inequality in America is far from color-blind. Through sociology I found a way to think about the world as seen from the perspective of someone who seems unlike me. Rather than pushing back and saying “I would never do that” I ask instead, how does the rioter in south central Los Angeles see the world such that he or she feels the impulse to disrupt established customs of honoring property and exchanging goods and services for money? (ok there’s probably an easier way to ask that question)

What sociology helped me to see was that these behaviors are coming from individuals who live in very particular circumstances that shape their view of how society works and what their perceived choices might be. We’ve known for some time that white flight had been occurring in many urban areas, and Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s was no exception. This has the economic effect of lowering the tax base as property values go down. As the tax base goes down, services wind up getting trimmed or cut altogether. Those that remain see new neighbors who are not the well-to-do “new urbanists” as Mark Regnerus recently blogged about. The new and old residents are familiar with a life typically entailing minimum wage jobs, limited advancement or wage increase. Due to the economic recession of the 1990s these folks saw a flattening of the minimum wage (consumer inflation kept increasing while the minimum wage did not). This means working more hours to pay the rent. The children in these environments also witness poor schooling conditions and likely an absence of parents who need to work in order to put food on the table. Think about what these kids intuit about their own future as they witness their parents try to eke out a living? Meanwhile, for many, the television might have been their babysitter for countless hours a week. Exposed to images of prosperity and manufactured need, their own sense of self-worth becomes tied to the acquisition of goods that are not within reach, at least not based on mom and/or dad’s wages. And as most parents know, without a strong connection with one’s children built on many hours spent together, one’s authority is lost in the competition of peer acceptance and media role models.

So I take these insights and try to imagine whether such conditions would make me sensitive to the ways in which one person who resembles me racially is treated by the justice system and repeatedly talked about in the endless news cycle (which relied a lot on cable back then since there was barely any internet). And simply understanding these scenarios is not saying that the behavior of rioters is good or unquestionably justified. It’s pointing out that what seems immoral and irrational may in fact be more understandable if we only stopped to think about what life might be like in their shoes.

In this post I suggested a way of understanding the perspective of one group involved in the riots, the rioters themselves. In the next post I will provide another way of understanding the same set of events, this time from the perspective of the business owners.

  • Jay Egenes

    What seemed clear to me at the time was that the rioters didn’t feel that they benefitted from the existing social order. They didn’t feel like participants in the society made possible by the imposition of order through law enforcement and other social controls. So, when order broke down, they felt entirely free to disregard the rules of the social order.

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