Rodney King riots anniversary: Have race relations in Los Angeles improved?

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Some black community activists see significant progress, but others see a long way to go. 

Jonathan Alcorn/REUTERS
The infamous intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles, flashpoint of the 1992 Rodney King riots, is shown this year.

This city is in full introspection mode all week.

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the riots that began when three white and one Hispanic policemen were acquitted of charges of beating African-American motorist Rodney King. The wall-to-wall coverage in local newspapers, television, and radio (including "Which Way, L.A.?", the PBS radio show born in the wake riots) has asked: Is America’s most multicultural city getting along better?

In a city as diverse as L.A., the opinions are just as diverse, but some black community activists see positive signs.

“Undeniably, we have seen lots of progress on the racial front,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of nine books on the black experience and head of the Los Angeles Roundtable, which presents weekly, open-mike discussions in inner-city neighborhoods.

Neighborhoods that were previously primarily black have been infused with Hispanics, and formerly primarily white communities have been infused with Asians and blacks, he says. “The Balkanization that was entrenched here has broken down quite a bit with many kinds of people mixing more than ever,” Mr. Hutchinson adds. 

Perhaps the biggest improvement is in Korean-Black relations, say activists, neighborhood leaders, and politicians. Ten thousand Korean businesses were among the $1 billion in damage, as many disgruntled blacks admittedly took the opportunity to express their wrath at Koreans who set up liquor stores in their neighborhoods while living elsewhere, kept their signs in Korean, and allegedly treated black customers rudely.

“I think we understand each other’s cultures much better now, and that has matured,” says black activist Najee Ali, who spent several days lighting fires in Korean businesses, went to prison, found religion, and has since publically apologized to Koreans.

Through meetings and workshops, Mr. Ali says Korean merchants “bent over backwards to make sure they understood blacks, and we in turn realized their intention was not really to disrespect us, but rather that they didn’t understand us.”

Others see less progress.

Hwashik Bong, a sports writer for the Los Angeles’s Korea Daily, says the younger Korean generation in L.A., which has grown up since the riots, has no interest in learning about event, and the older generation is focused on political developments in Korea, with the ascension of Kim Jong-un to power in the North.

“I would give Korean’s a C-plus, just a bit better than average, in the better relations department,” says Mr. Bong. “They haven’t changed that much. They are still thick and xenophobic and have short memories. They still are busy making money in black neighborhoods with very little thought of giving back to the neighborhoods. They like going back where they live.”

Latino activists say the riots aided in broadening the racial conversation in Los Angeles.

“The civil disturbance of 20 years ago shook Los Angeles to the core,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “Whereas before the riots, race dialogue focused on blacks and whites, after 1992, the discourse became multicultural and immigrants had to be recognized. This does not mean Los Angeles became more tolerant, but it became aware that this giant urban center deserved more attention because of its symbolism and economic power.”

“Immigrants have become part of the landscape, the discourse, and the everyday reality of all Angelenos. As one group rises, however, even if minimally, we must keep a careful eye on what happens to other ethnic minorities living amongst us,” says Cabrera. “There is still a long way to go before we reach a de-Balkanized Los Angeles.”

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