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How the mainstream media framed race relations in the 1992 civil unrest


By Cynthia Gibson | Contributing Writer

Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the LA civil unrest, sparked by the acquittal of four White police officers – for the beating of 31-year old Black motorist Rodney King following a traffic stop on March 3, 1991.

The role of the mainstream media in stoking tensions between Black and Korean communities was the topic of a virtual panel discussion, “LA Uprising/Saigu reflections: Race Relations Then and Now,” presented by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles on April 14. The discussion brought together Asian and Black civil rights leaders and media experts.

Nearly two weeks after King’s beating on March 16, a Black teenager was shot and killed by a 51-year old Korean-American convenience store owner. A scuffle ensued when Soon Ja Du old grabbed 15-year old Latasha Harlins’ backpack and accused her of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice. Du shot the teen who died clutching two crumpled dollar bills.

Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was given probation, sentenced to 400 hours of community services and fined $500.

The Rodney King beating and the killing of Latasha Harlins—combined with the smoldering tension in the Black community from a recession, a 21 percent adult unemployment rate and over policing—are widely believed to be major factors for the 1992 Civil Unrest.

For five days, residents set fires, looted and destroyed liquor stores, grocery stores, retail shops and fast food restaurants. In certain areas in South Los Angeles, motorists — both White and Latino — were targeted; some were pulled out of their cars and beaten.

In the end, there were 63 deaths — including 10 people who were shot and killed by LAPD officers and National Guardsmen — over 2,000 injured and 6,000 arrests of alleged looters and arsonists.

Approximately $1 billion dollars worth of property was destroyed, including an estimated 2,000 Korean–operated businesses.

According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles CEO Connie Chung Joe, the uprising had a disproportionate impact on Korean businesses. While Koreans watched their businesses burn to the ground, just five miles away in Beverly Hills, businesses remained unscathed, protected on all sides by police and firefighters.

Joe recalls the shock and bewilderment across Los Angeles, including the Korean community at how Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin could sentence Du to community service with no jail time for the murder of Harlins.

“The result was a perfect example of the ‘model minority myth’ — a criminal justice system put the Korean immigrant’s woman’s life at a higher value than that of a Black teenage girl,” said Chung. “When the verdict came down in the King beating just a few months later, it showed once again, how anti-Black our criminal justice system was.”

Joe said the media’s framing of the Black versus Korean communities in 1992 pitted the two communities against each other. Blacks were seen as burning down buildings and looting stores. Koreans were vigilantes on store rooftops with guns shooting down at the street.

Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation and former publisher/CEO of La Opinion moderated the discussion which was developed as a means to unpack the mainstream media’s complicity in framing race relations in 1992 and today.

Although the verdict in the King trial may have been the spark that triggered the uprising, Constance Rice, co-founder of Advancement Project and Urban Institute, said the deep-rooted and long standing issues in the community at the time was the kindling.

She said that conditions that led to the unrest go back to the 1965 Watts rebellion against abusive policing.

Rice referred to the 1965 McCone Commission Report which made recommendations to avoid future violent outbreaks. She cited the report’s main remedies: end the spiral of despair in Black communities, including the condition of deprivation, lack of opportunities and lack of resources; and end the brutal, cruel and racist policing.

Rice said that by 1991, 80,000 jobs, the entire manufacturing base, had left South Los Angeles and a burgeoning gang culture was emerging. This dire economic condition was not widely covered in mainstream media. Instead, the media portrayed the community as lacking and dangerous.

“The dominant media covered most of Black LA as deprivation and violence because that’s what the elite communities feared. It was done through the eyes of the subscriber base,” said Rice. “For dominant media, the focus on these communities didn’t talk about what they were facing. We weren’t focused on building communities and building families and reinvesting in infrastructure that created upward mobility.”

Rice said the early 1990s was an influx of immigrants and it was a time of transition and turmoil in South Los Angeles. The city, she suggested, did nothing to help these populations learn to live together and opposed to being pitted against each other.

“When the uprising happened, the media focused on the 1 percent of shops who had owners who could defend themselves. They’re has been very little healing in the wake of it. And I don’t think there has been any much interest from the media in any of those perspectives,” said Rice.

Angela Oh, an attorney mediator and co-founder of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, wrote in regards to the 1992 uprising or “Saigu” as it is referred to in Korean. “Korean-Americans have paid the price that all racial and ethnic minorities in the United States eventually must pay. . . . Saigu commemorates those who sacrificed their lives, so that the message of our permanence in this society can be delivered.”

Oh noted that in the aftermath of the civil unrest, Black and Korean communities were living in parallel universes, both experiencing individual and communal trauma.

Similar to Rice’s observation about the dominant media’s coverage of the civil unrest,

Oh commented that Korean news focused only on certain aspects of the rebellion. The media reported that business owners were being assaulted, burglarized in their stores.

Most business owners could not leave because they had nowhere else to go. Business owners who had their property destroyed found that they had been paying insurance premiums for commercial policies from offshore carriers that did not cover the claims they filed.

There was no reporting on the suicides or children who had to give up their future to help their parents rebuild.

“Multi-racial democracy really depends on media that is fair, accurate and avoids pitting one group against another unnecessarily,” said Stewart Kwoh, president emeritus and founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles.

Kwoh, along with Oh and a dozen other social activists, protested the L.A. Times coverage of the 1992 civil unrest. They met with former Times Editor Shelby Coffey to express their disapproval of the repeated depiction of Koreans on rooftops shooting down at people.

“That picture definitely fanned the flames, it wasn’t accurate, it wasn’t balanced, and it took everything out of context,” said Kwoh.

Coffey agreed with the group and assigned reporter Connie Kong to cover the Asian-American community. Kong covered the complaint against the police for deserting South L.A. and Central L.A., as well as the offshore insurance company for not paying claims.

For Kwoh, It wasn’t about race, but more about having reporters who live in the community, who know the community and speak the language of the community and understood the issues.

“The lesson I’ve learned is that you do have to confront the powers that be at times to say what’s right and what’s wrong.  Because if you don’t, you just accept a media that actually could damage a multi-racial democracy and not uphold a multi-racial democracy,” said Kwoh.

Jarrett Hill, President of the National Association of Black Journalists of Los Angeles and Professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication countered that upholding a multi-racial democracy has never been the mainstream media’s goal.  Hill said it’s priority is to make money and cater to their audience.

“We’re trying to change a system and bend it to the needs of what we need. This [discussion] is a good demonstration of the need for diversity in our newsroom,” said Hill. “Not just in our internships and not just for the reporters, but for the editors, managers, directors, general managers, so the owners of the companies will be more of a reflection of the communities because without that we’ll never get the nuance that we’ve been talking about.”

On April 29, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA will host a peace gathering at Liberty Park, 3700 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in conjunction with the Los Angeles Urban League (LAUL), First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC) and the Korean American Coalition (KAC).

The event will honor and remember the L.A. Civil Unrest and feature leaders from Asian and Black communities with music, healing and inspiration.  For more information visit