Advancement Project Closing the Opportunity Gap

The Conflicting Truths of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising

This is the first post of a three-part series on the current racial equity and social justice landscape in California by John Kim, Executive Director of Advancement Project California.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Whenever I think of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, and the intervening 25 years, this quote comes to mind. The quote has pushed me to come to terms with my own personal narrative within the complex and sometimes contentious racial landscape of Los Angeles. At the same time, it has helped me to frame both the progress we have seen and the challenges that remain in Los Angeles all these years later.

Several years before the 1992 uprising, I remember my father and I visited his friend’s liquor store in South LA. I remember this visit because that afternoon, my father’s friend got into an argument with a customer. There they were –my father’s friend and this customer — standing on opposite sides of that over-crowded countertop and Plexiglas barrier, both shouting at the top of their lungs. I don’t recall the details of the argument, but I do remember the heat. The heat of the summer day, how hot it was inside that store, and how heated the argument was.

I remember thinking how far apart they were from each other. One was an immigrant storeowner with a thick English accent. He received a Master’s level education in Business Administration in Korea and had big dreams for his life in America. But there he was, stuck behind those counters, day in and day out. The other — I had assumed — was a local resident. One, who most likely, was sick of being treated with disrespect in his own neighborhood. Someone who saw this skirmish as part of a much longer fight against decades of both every day and generational racial oppression.

To any witness, their differences may have seemed obvious. But that day, I not only saw the difference between them, but their similarities. I saw how they were both men who — despite their best efforts — found their dreams deferred. I saw how both men were unable to live to their full potential and be respected as the human beings they were. Back then, as a kid, it was too difficult for me to resolve these contradictions into something productive.

Soon after that visit, there was the beating of Rodney King and then the murder of Latasha Harlins. And then it seemed like the world caught on fire. I remember worrying about how my father would get home from his dry cleaners on Olympic Blvd. that night. He called us from a brick-sized cellular phone to tell us roads were blocked and he had to find another route home.

So many disparate thoughts crossed my mind. How could Soon Ja Du take Latasha’s life? Why was Koreatown abandoned and left to burn down as the expendable “buffer community” to save the more valued white neighborhoods just beyond? How could the Korean American community, my community, be both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time?

I was also fixated on how so many of the burdens of our society’s contradictions and injustices are constantly laid at the feet of the African American community. Yes, many Korean American families lost everything in those three days and the Korean American community has still been unable to realize it’s true political power within Los Angeles. But many Korean American families were eventually made whole after the uprising and the community, by in large, could move on. But the communities that remained in South LA — the Black and Latino communities of Los Angeles are still waiting for their full measure of justice.

It wasn’t until I became more politicized as a young organizer and eventually finding my way to the Advancement Project that I was able to resolve these contractions and to see a broader set of truths. That the power structures that both my father’s friend and that customer labored under were rigged. That the systems of immigration, housing, education and political narratives were all built to benefit the few and none of the people in that liquor store that day.

I began to see how justice for the Korean American community is intrinsically tied to justice for the Black, Latino, Muslim American and Jewish communities. Because until all of us are truly free, none of us are.

This might explain how I’ve ended up working at Advancement Project California and why I’ve stayed here for the last 15 years. From the beginning, I was drawn to idea that our collective journeys for freedom are inextricably bound together and that our organization’s mission is to fundamentally transform the underlying institutions and power structures that continue to hold us back from true racial solidarity and equity.

Now as we honor the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, we are required to hold two, opposing truths — that our multiracial coalitions are stronger than ever but we can not forget the promises that were not kept and the conditions that have yet to change in South LA. This weekend, Advancement Project California stands in solidary with our partners throughout Los Angeles that have learned and struggled together over the years. And moving forward, we should remember to always listen to and lift the voices of the communities most impacted by those events.

Click here to see a recently developed Policy Platform developed by our South Los Angeles partners.


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