On April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with using excessive force in the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black man. As outrage over the verdict spread, Hyepin Im — then a graduate student in the city at the University of Southern California — watched as rioters destroyed the city’s Koreatown neighborhood. She heard the media vilify Korean Americans, often depicting the riots as a result of conflict between the Black and Korean American communities. “As a Korean American coming out of the LA riots, I saw our community kicked down and crying — and crying alone,” she told Sojourners.
The devastation inspired Im to advocate for the economic and political empowerment of underserved communities, including Korean Americans — and her own faith led her to look for ways that churches could be more effective partners in this work. Today, Im leads Faith and Community Empowerment (FACE), a nonprofit she founded to help faith leaders better support underserved communities. To commemorate recent anniversaries of the riots in Los Angeles, FACE launched the SAIGU Campaign, which aims to “build bridges of understanding and to combat myths that keep communities divided.”
Sojourners’ Betsy Shirley spoke with Im about the 1992 LA riots and how the church can partner with Asian American communities in dispelling the “model minority myth.”
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Betsy Shirley, Sojourners: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the riots in Los Angeles; why is that important to Korean Americans?
Hyepin Im: We call it “LA riots” in English, but Koreans call it saigu, which literally means “four two nine,” for April 29, the date when the riots began. The anniversary is a very painful moment for everyone, particularly the Korean community who were disproportionately impacted: Out of all the businesses that were destroyed, at least half — more than 2,200 — were Korean.
Why was the Korean community disproportionately impacted?
You have to start with Korean immigration history: Technically, the first official Korean immigrants came in 1903, but the Immigration Act of 1924 banned all Asians from immigration and, until 1952, federal policy barred immigrants of Asian descent from becoming U.S. citizens and having access to vote — and the lack of ability to vote impacts policy. The vast majority of Korean immigrants came around the ’70s, after the 1965 Immigration Act.
So when the ’92 riots broke out, the vast majority of Koreans were still in survival mode, just trying to eke out a living. As an immigrant, you’re completely displaced: all your contacts, all your community, family — everything. Though many Koreans were highly educated, when they arrived, they were stuck in minimum wage jobs, like cooking, dry cleaning, or running liquor stores, convenience stores. Many of these stores were in poor Black neighborhoods.
My father-in-law ran one of these stores and it would net $2000 – 3000 before payroll. And that amount would have to cover four people’s salaries: two 12-hour shifts, two people per shift. That’s nothing. My father had to take two shifts and use family labor to make it sustainable. It’s also a very dangerous job. It’s the second highest rate of being killed on the job, behind taxi drivers.
Within the Black community, there were incidents of store owners looking at them in a suspicious way or following them around. They also experienced store owners not putting change into their hands — and they interpreted it as Asians didn't want to touch their skin.
What happened when the riots began?
Around the time that Rodney King was videotaped with the police assaulting him, Soon Ja Du, a Korean grocer, killed a Black girl — Latasha Harlins — over a bottle of orange juice. Or at least, that was the headline. When the verdict came out, Soon Ja Du didn’t go to jail. She received community service probation and had to pay a very small penalty.
During the LA riots, the African American community was angry: Even though it was all caught on video, the four police officers got zero jail time. They felt that Black life was seen as worthless in the eyes of the law. And the media juxtaposed this with [Soon Ja Du’s] case, where a young Black girl’s life was taken, but again, no jail time.
The whole situation was truly tragic: There wasn’t awareness that Soon Ja Du, like so many other Korean store owners, worked in a really traumatizing work environment. That’s not to justify, but there was this context of tension. In the years surrounding the riots, 25 Korean American shopkeepers were shot and killed.
What do you think keeps this history from being more widely known beyond the Korean American community?
God has allowed me to work closely with the African American community; my own organization was modeled after an initiative of First African Methodist Episcopal, a historically Black church in Los Angeles. But when I’d talk with my Black mentors about this history, they’d get this hard look on their face and say things like, “Well, the store owners burned their own stores for insurance money.” And when store owners would talk about their own devastation, these mentors — instead of saying, “I’m sorry this happened to you” — they would say, “You should give more to the Black community.” It was just baffling to me.
There was this “Aha!” moment where I came to realize that there’s a certain narrative about the Asian store owners. Some of these narratives are that [Asian store owners] receive government or bank loans that are not given to the Black community. There’s a feeling the Asian store owners are stealing the business opportunities that rightfully belong the Black community. These store owners are seen as profiteering and exploiting the Black community’s wealth. This narrative vilifies the store owners.
So there’s the anger of the Rodney King verdict, plus the flaming of this [narrative] by the media with headlines like, “Korean Store Owner Kills Black Girl Over $1.79 Orange Juice.” If I was African American and I didn’t know any of this [context] and I had a lived experience walking into a store where I’m being chased or followed, I would be pissed off. And during the LA riots, that latent anger just unleashed itself.
In what ways do you still feel that Korean Americans’ experience is still invisible today?
As a Korean American coming out of the LA riots, I saw our community kicked down and crying — and crying alone. I am grateful as an Asian American that I am now in many decision-making rooms. But oftentimes, I’m the only one.
In California, Asian Americans are at least twice the population of the African American community, but from the PowerPoints and talking points I see, you wouldn’t think so. We’re invisible. Our experience is erased.
Even the term “AAPI” — it’s ridiculous how they put everyone and the kitchen sink into that category. It includes dozens of countries and people groups, plus more than 100 languages. Take home ownership, as an example: If you just look at the aggregate data from 2019, homeownership for white is 66 percent, Asians are 61 percent, Hispanic 48 percent, and then Black is 42 percent. If you saw that, you would think Asians are white-adjacent — they’re doing good, right? But if you disaggregate the data, you’ll see that Korean and Black home ownership rate are the same. There are also Asian groups that are below the Black home ownership rate and other Asian groups that are below the Hispanic home ownership rate — which draws a completely different picture. You look like you have more power and privilege when in reality, it may not be true.
How does this model minority myth hurt Asian American communities when it comes to voting?
For so many Asians, there’s a high language barrier, yet outreach in terms of materials, resources, and candidate information is very minimal. Even if campaigns have a budget for “outreach to Asians,” that one budget will be pitiful, but you then have to divide it amongst a hundred languages. Voting is a very humiliating exercise if you’re not sure your vote is a vote for good.
A second barrier is that many of us don’t see people like ourselves in office. Though I think it’s slightly changed in the last few years, there’s still this huge gap. When Asian candidates run, I have seen more Asians actually register to vote, so if more Asians felt compelled to run, I think that you would activate a greater base of voters as well.
I’m not sure how many truly are aware of the absentee ballot. Raising awareness about that option would really help. There just aren’t enough nonprofits who are being properly funded to be able to create that awareness around voter issues, voter education, and community engagement.
Faith communities are in many ways still the center of many immigrants’ lives. Unfortunately, in spite of all their potential, there’s still a theology that equates “politics” with “civic engagement” and then they equate that to distraction at best, or at worst, it’s evil.
What would it take to get Asian American churches and pastors more engaged in voting rights?
I wish that we could recruit some very highly respected pastors who can model for them — and help them shift their theology — that as ministers, this is also a space that they’re responsible for. I bring the example of Queen Esther: It’s through her relationship with the king —the policymaker — that someone like Queen Esther could call for a meeting, get the meeting, and after she advocated, create a policy change. When her people were in trouble, they went from victim to victor.
I went to seminary; no one teaches you the tools or skills that are needed to be successful in community engagement and leverage resources. If it’s too late for current pastors, maybe at seminaries, we can instill a definition of ministry beyond the walls of church to engage with the broader community.
We say, “Let your light shine before men, so that they may see your good works and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Well, helping others see your good works involves building relationships with the broader stakeholders and partners. I think that could go a long way in getting people more activated.
How can the broader church join Asian American communities in dismantling the model minority myth?
Please understand that the model minority myth is a myth and it really robs us of solidarity with other underserved communities of color. It also robs us of needed investments and resources.
When you’re looking at talking points on stage or PowerPoints, ask: “Where is the Asian community?” If there is data, ask further to say: “Where’s the disaggregated data?” Because of U.S. racist history and legislation, we have been left out a lot of opportunities and resources; we’ve faced racism and discrimination. And if you’re looking to target groups to serve, please be mindful to include us. Invite us to be on stage. Include us in your talking points.
We have a lot to offer — God has anointed us and blessed us as well. We would value that opportunity to be included in all the opportunities and privileges. We want to increase our God-given potential and be able to bless this country as well. We want a full seat at the table — the rights, but also the responsibilities.