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What Caused the Riots? (Sa-I-Gu, Part 2)

May 26, 2012

The 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest was caused by deeply rooted flaws of American society, such as segregation, unequal rights and unequal opportunities.

Long before that fateful day, the Kerner Report of 1968, ordered by Lyndon Johnson after the Watts Riots, described America as, “Two societies, separate and unequal, one black, the other white.”

However, what made the 1992 Civil Unrest different from earlier racial conflicts (largely Black and White) was the large scale participation by and repercussions for, new immigrants–referring to those who came after 1965, the year the Immigration and Nationality Act was introduced. Before 1965, immigration to the United States was determined by strict quotas based on national origins. The 1965 reform act opened immigration opportunities to Latin Americans and Asians by repealing national origin quotas and giving priority to those who had family members living in the United States and those with needed occupational skills.

The new immigrants, largely Asians and Latinos, diversified the faces of America. The rich and the powerful responded to the changing faces of America by retreating more and more into secure havens, and by heaping the burden of the ills of the society on minorities–African Americans, many of whom were still at the bottom of the society, the new immigrants and the burgeoning poor. From their backyards, drinking martinis, so to speak, the rich and the powerful (the majority Whites) turned these minorities against each other, using the tactic, “divide and conquer.” (You may ask, “how?” I will try to deal with this question in the next few posts).  One of the Korean women whom I interviewed for my film, Sa-I-Gu, talks about the invisibility of what she had thought to be Americans (Whites), “I thought America would be full of people with fair skin, blonde hair, a distinct nose, and blue eyes. But I never saw any of them. I thought I came to Mexico, not America.”

This phenomenon reminded me of a Chinese movie by Zhang Yimou, Raise the Red Lantern, which came out in 1991. Set in the 1920’s China during the warlord era, the plot is about Master Chen and his concubines. The master decides on a daily basis the concubine he will see that night. Whomever he chooses gets the red lantern lit and raised. Never clearly showing his face, the master puts his concubines in constant competition, which leads to tragic deaths.

African Americans who were left at the bottom were bound to encounter new immigrants, because many of the newcomers had nowhere else to go but to the bottom to start life in their new country. In the absence of the master’s face, inevitably volatile interactions among new immigrants and African Americans happen.

Yes, I charge the flaws of American society– historical and current– as the cause of the 1992 riots. But I do not mean to declare Koreans and other new immigrants totally free from being guilty for Black anger on them. Further, I do not mean that the Blacks and new immigrants are powerless people, continually vying for the attention of the invisible powerful.

to be continued—

(On a separate note, I would like to remind you that my book, Looking for Don: A Memoir is available at and at


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