Jewish Journal

20 years after the L.A. Riots

Where are we now?

by Susan Freudenheim

April 19, 2012 | 12:40 pm

The remains of a commercial building smolder as another building burns out of control behind the smoke in Los Angeles early Thursday morning, April 30, 1992. Numerous fires were set and stores were looted following the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Photo by AP/Douglas C. Pizac

The remains of a commercial building smolder as another building burns out of control behind the smoke in Los Angeles early Thursday morning, April 30, 1992. Numerous fires were set and stores were looted following the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Photo by AP/Douglas C. Pizac

On April 29, 1992, the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, triggered riots in Los Angeles that resulted in more than 50 dead, thousands injured and some $1 billion in property damage.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, The Jewish Journal invited to our offices nine prominent L.A.-based civil rights activists. We asked them to reflect as a group on two questions: Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? Could what happened in 1992 happen again here?

The result was an often-heated 90-minute conversation that vividly demonstrated the passions that the riots and the issues they raised still evoke in this city.

The panel:

Samuel M. Chu, Director of national advocacy and organizing for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at University of Southern California
Joe R. Hicks, Vice President of Community Advocates Inc. and the former Executive Director of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission
Hyepin Im, Founder and President of Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD)
David A. Lehrer, President of Community Advocates Inc.
Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
David Levinson, Founder and Executive Director of Big Sunday
Connie Rice, Co-founder and Co-director of the Advancement Project
Michele Siqueiros, Executive Director of the Campaign for College Opportunity
Raphael J. Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles

Click here for more information on the panelists.


[RELATED: Los Angeles riots commemoration events]

The edited transcript:

Susan Freudenheim: When we talked about how to cover the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, our writers discussed the fact that there are two grocery stores near the Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson: One is patronized by Jews, the other, just a few blocks away, by African-Americans, and the two do not mix. This one small illustration made us wonder whether we’ve made progress in race relations over the past two decades or not.

Raphael J. Sonenshein: While so much has changed in L.A., there is still a white-black gulf in the perception of what happens on the streets, and that seems not to have changed very much in L.A. What has changed here has to do with the other groups — the rise of Latinos and Asian-Americans in the discussion, which makes L.A. a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.

Connie Rice: On the individual level, there’s enormous progress. The younger generation today is, amazingly, actually integrated. They behave in a way that transcends race in a lot of ways; they’re much better on homophobia. The younger generation is really going beyond race. You see a lot of interracial families, and the rate of interracial marriage [is] going up. So, at the individual level you see a lot of progress. And you see a lot of progress politically; you couldn’t have had Barack Obama as president, if you didn’t see that.

But when we get to that unconscious racial dynamic and the unspoken suspicions that we have of each other at that tribal level, there’s no one that can convince me that that stuff can’t be triggered.

David A. Lehrer: Connie, as I’ve heard you say on innumerable occasions, the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] has transformed itself. It’s not an occupying force anymore.

And, talk about young people, the millennials are 95 million Americans now, and millennials, in terms of their acceptance of differences, in terms of their tolerance of different races and religions, are simply off the charts. That’s 95 million Americans out of 350 million. And they’re the future, not the past.

Hyepin Im: In planning for the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, we [in the Korean community] have talked to a lot of key leaders in the community, and the topic of liquor stores is one area that is explosive. There is definitely a very wide and different understanding from the Korean community’s narrative to the African-American community’s narrative. I remember having a conversation with a key African-American leader, and I mentioned the fact that of the billion dollars in property damage in L.A. alone from the riots, Korean-Americans incurred almost 50 percent of it. And so, I was taking the perspective that Korean-Americans were also victims, and this leader said never in his wildest dreams did he ever think of Koreans as victims.

Abby J. Leibman:  My view of what happened here 20 years ago was that it was really the reaction to the beating of Rodney King that precipitated the violence here.

Lehrer: It was the reaction to the verdict.

Michele Siqueiros: To the sense of injustice.

Leibman: You had a police force that reacted one way; you had a justice system — courts — that reacted in a certain way, where you had a jury that did things that precipitated a result that was very violent. …

We don’t actually have those structures, the official structures, in the same way they did here 20 years ago.  But as a lawyer, I am not convinced that our justice system would react in a different way if something were to happen today that was similar to what happened 20 years ago. I’m not sure that juries would respond differently. I think that we’ve seen other very high-profile cases in which issues about race become front and center, for better or for worse, and whether the decisions are right or wrong, the issue of race is still very present among juries and in courtrooms.

Freudenheim: Isn’t the question how much we view one another as the other, as opposed to seeing ourselves as a cohesive group?

Joe R. Hicks: Obviously, demographics have changed. This doesn’t mean all the racial tensions have gone away between various groups, I’m just spinning this forward, going from 1992, and I’m remembering on Crenshaw seeing black picketers in front of a Korean liquor store with a sign, “Koreans are dogs.” This was in 1992. So if you look at where things have come, for a whole host of reasons, it’s hard to cast it as somehow standing still … or not being better.

Rob Eshman: Connie referred to progress politically, socially and racially. How much did economic disparities play into the riots themselves, and what’s changed since then?

Im: With this whole economic and foreclosure crisis, the Pew Research Center has shown that communities of color have been the most impacted. The Latino community, their wealth loss was by 66 percent, Asians by 54 percent, and African-American by 53 percent. The economic challenges are very present, and many of these store owners who are in those South L.A. communities, they have no other option. Particularly the Korean community; we have the second-highest language barrier, so even though we have the third-highest level of education, you don’t have places to go. With the Korean community, whoever comes and picks you up at the airport, whatever job or business they’re in, you end up going there. It’s not like with the Jewish community, with refugee assistance, etc. They’re not connected to any of those resources. So they’re ending up in these businesses with very little resources, very little training, very few connections.

Lehrer: What’s that a function of?  That they are recent immigrants, right? It’s not a function of racism, it’s a function of being a recent immigrant, and you don’t speak the language. So I don’t see why it’s relevant to our discussion.

Rice: Well, it’s all relevant to the discussion, because race can’t really be separated from a lot of the other fault lines, and context is everything. There’s context in which race doesn’t play a role at all, and there are contexts in which race combines with class, and language barrier and even gang membership, or, you know, which sorority you belong to. In L.A., it’s never one dynamic or the other; it’s always a combination. What I see is an extraordinarily complex diversity on the surface, a sort of surface coexistence. Even in the communities where you have a mixture — there are very few communities you can say are integrated, where there’s a fluid dynamic of back-and-forth. You can find it in some of the little pockets of, say, Altadena, some of the yuppie neighborhoods.

Lehrer: But that’s not true, Connie, that’s not true.

Rice: Just look at the testimony before the Citizens Redistricting Commission. You had some communities of interest come forward that were multiracial. Some of them were even income-mixed, and that’s the real fault line — underclass versus invisible L.A., meaning immigrant and underground L.A., and then underclass versus lower, working classes. It was very, very interesting to see the San Gabriel communities, a mixture of Latino and Asian-Americans, coming together and actually testifying that they were a community of interest, and that they wanted to be drawn together. But there were other parts of the region where the tribes were not integrated, and they really did want influence on districts, or they wanted their separate group recognized, because their groups exist separately, they coexist, but it is their disparateness that defines them, not a fluidity and not an integrated dynamic.

Lehrer: But do you know that Los Angeles is the least racially segregated large city in America?

Sonenshein: I think we’re missing the biggest change, and one mistake we can make is to say that today grew directly out of 20 years ago. Instead of having two groups — black and white — now you have four to six groups. L.A. has gone from being a black and white city with racial politics to a city that now has real ethnic politics for the first time in its history. Non-whites are now not just a demographic majority of the city, but also a political majority of the city. Consider that in 1993, Latinos cast 8 percent of all the votes in the mayor’s race. In 2005, Latinos cast 25 percent. Whites were 72 percent of the voters in 1993, less than 50 percent in the last few elections.

The transactions among groups of color is actually a huge story of L.A. politics right now, and were going to miss it if we keep thinking that all we’re doing is an elaboration of where we were 20 years ago, when Latinos were not a political force.

Hicks: I think you’re exactly right. But I want to return to this whole thing about segregation, because I think that’s the myth a lot of folks operate on. A very recent and quite sophisticated study was done by two professors — one at Duke University, the other at Harvard — that said racial segregation in this country is down from levels it hasn’t seen in a long time. And L.A., in particular, they pointed to as being what they called the least racially isolated city in America.

I live in the Hollywood Hills, and there’s everybody in the area that I live in. We’ve become far more integrated over the last 20 years, and I think we have to really reconfigure some very old ways of thinking about this city, that it’s changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

Samuel M. Chu: But just because they live close to each other, that doesn’t actually translate to connecting and knowing each other. I live downtown, and I worked in Koreatown in a Latino-dominant church for many years. Having grown up in Hong Kong, where I’m used to interaction, I walk around and actually talk to people, and know people who I buy things from and ride the subway with. That doesn’t happen here in Los Angeles, where people lack the imagination of just physically being in a space, being in a neighborhood, and being in conversation with each other. … I think that that’s part of the L.A. dynamic, that just because I know one Korean, that’s not enough, and just because I know one African-American person — that’s not enough. But it’s hard to create that kind of breadth.

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