Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).


27 April, 2012

Koreans and the LA Riots: 20 Years Later

By Aaron
27 April, 2012



The trailer for Clash of Colors, a new documentary on the LA riots.

As a kid growing up in rural Oregon, my only knowledge that a country named Korea even existed came from the vague awareness that my uncle had done a stint on the peninsula with the US Army back in the 1950s, a period about which he spoke little. As a result, I couldn't have told you anything about Korea's people, its culture, or even its location, except that it was somewhere way the hell overseas. 

Thanks to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, however, I can clearly remember first becoming aware of Koreans and forming an impression of them. As the riots unfolded, and as the LA Police Department failed to provide any measure of protection to local business owners, Korean merchants - who turned out to be the primary targets of looters and vandals - did what Koreans do so well: instead of sitting around and waiting for the government to rescue them, they formed their own spontaneous militias and stood their ground. To this day, I still recall watching news footage of the riots - with Koreans on rooftops and in the streets with their rifles - and  thinking, "these are some tough sonsabitches."

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This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, an event which is sure to inspire among the commentariat hand-wringing aplenty about the state of race relations in America and the lack of opportunity in places like South Central Los Angeles. Take, for example, this piece from the Associated Press:

South Los Angeles, where the riot began, has changed considerably two decades later, as has Watson. But many things remain the same.

While racial tensions fanned by the verdict and the general feeling of disenfranchisement and distrust of police among LA’s black population have moderated, residents of the city’s largely black and Hispanic South Side complain that the area still is plagued by too few jobs, too few grocery stores and a lack of redevelopment that would bring more life to the area.

But let's pause for a moment to ask ourselves why any entrepreneurial class of people should be attracted to South LA. As Charles Johnson writes in this City Journal article, the area's pisspoor civic culture has a way of punishing people for success, as happened to those Koreans who brought grocery stores, jobs, and development to the area only to find themselves fending off looters as recompense for their efforts.
Koreans began arriving in the United States en masse after the liberalization of American immigration laws in 1965. The highly educated immigrants arrived with little more than a work ethic, having left behind economic stagnation and, prior to 1987, military dictatorship and political repression. They adapted quickly, however, and soon came to dominate the corner grocery stores in South Central and downtown L.A. Many blacks openly resented the newcomers’ success and worried aloud how the Asian minority’s growing presence would reshape their neighborhoods.

Indeed, as Johnson notes, LA's Korean community sustained more than half of the estimated $1 billion in property damage caused by rioters. Not surprisingly, in the wake of the riots, many Korean businesspeople elected to take their talents elsewhere rather than rebuild in Los Angeles. 

To be fair, however, the Los Angeles and California governments also deserve a boatload of blame for buggering the motivation of would-be entrepreneurs in the city and throughout the state. A few days ago - in, um, celebrating my own upcoming move to the Golden State - I discussed demographer Joel Kotkin's condemnation of the state's political class, which now exists mainly to coddle old money, the poor, and public employees. Today, over at Reason.com, Steven Greenhut discusses a new study from USC which confirms what Kotkin and most others have long known: that California just isn't attracting or keeping people like it once did. And those who are leaving - or not arriving in the first place - include packs of small business owners, young families, and potential taxpayers, all scared off by the state's nightmarish tax and regulatory policies.

It is certainly convenient for politicians and community leaders to blame the enduring troubles of South Los Angeles on racism - and the 20th anniversary of the riots will provide ample opportunity to do so - but when a city, state, and civic culture does its best to punish those who bring momentum to the area, it shouldn't be surprised when the end result is stagnation.