Conflicts, Riots, and Korean Americans in Los Angeles, 1965-1992
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Facing numerous disadvantages in the U.S. labor market, Koreans immigrating in the wake of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act found few options but to run small businesses. Lower start-up costs brought them to low-income, inner-city communities, which were increasingly Black and Brown as state investment dwindled and Whites fled to the suburbs. Structural economic and historical social conditions gave rise to conflicts, especially with Black customers. In Los Angeles, Black-Korean tensions reached a peak in late April 1992, when more than two thousand Korean-owned stores were burned and/or looted. This project explores the ways in which Korean immigrants navigated the discursive terrain of race relations, shaping the narrative of their individual and collective experiences. The study begins with an account of the social and structural context in which interethnic conflicts took place. It then examines how Korean immigrants actively identified with, negotiated, and challenged subject positions assigned to them in a discursive field in which they had very limited voice. Koreans challenged their representation as disrespectful ghetto merchants by deploying frames of cultural difference and media sensationalism, seeking to neutralize Black activists' charges by selectively appropriating the image of the model minority. When Black-Korean conflicts were cited as the cause of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, they actively developed a counternarrative to reframe the riots as an eruption in ongoing Black-White relations. Based on a narrow conceptualization of the political to which inner-city Korean immigrant merchants had virtually no access, popular and scholarly criticism characterizes them as apolitical in American race relations. I contend that a more expansive approach to the field that incorporates discursive practices at the margins reveals they were active agents who selectively combined multiple narratives to defend their interests and rights.