Daniel Lee ’26 (DCI Fellow)
April 30th, 1992. Fire blazed through the streets of Koreatown and South Central in Los Angeles. Korean Americans frantically ran about, attempting without much success to prevent looters from stealing from vandalized buildings. The police were nowhere to be seen—the people were on their own, helpless except for a few handguns and the presence of one another.
March 3rd, 1991. Rodney King, a Black construction worker, enjoyed a few drinks with his friends and drove down Interstate 210. A few officers noticed him speeding and pursued his vehicle. Determined to avoid being convicted and thus violating parole for a previous robbery, King led the police on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles. He was eventually arrested and beaten mercilessly by a swarm of officers.
The act of police brutality was recorded and distributed through the media, enraging Black communities. When King’s case was taken to court, the resulting verdict only furthered the brewing anger by favoring the position of the white officers. Infuriated, Blacks violently protested in the streets of Koreatown and South Central, destroying and burning property. The police dared not intervene, leaving residents to fend for themselves. Ultimately, an estimated 2,300 privately-owned businesses run by Korean Americans were harmed, measuring up to approximately $400 million in damages.
On its face, the 1992 LA Riots tell a story of police brutality and white supremacy. But in close examination, it also tells a story of the dysfunctional relationship between Black and Korean American communities. Cultural misunderstanding and prejudice directed at one another create unnecessary division among marginalized communities and make it difficult to develop meaningful coalitions to fight against greater structural problems. Often, this dysfunctional dynamic arises from differences in cultural etiquettes (e.g., norms surrounding eye contact and merchant-customer interaction) and faulty stereotypes that instill unreasonable fear and hatred in people’s minds. Without this unfortunate misperception, it seems unlikely that the 1992 LA Riots would have manifested in the way they did.
In this light, it is my sincere hope to break down existing cultural misunderstandings and work towards building productive coalitions between the AAPI community and other marginalized communities. Instead of being held at an impasse over our differences, we must work hand-in-hand to fight against the greater evil—structural racism and prejudice that weigh down our communities. This starts with intentional education that dissolves toxic stereotypes and respectful deliberations that allow communities to find common ground and see each other in a truer light.
Through the skills and life experiences I develop as a DCI Fellow, I hope to use deliberation to lead successful coalition-building between marginalized communities. The empowerment of future generations to create a more perfect society founded upon values of justice and inclusion starts with everyday conversations grounded in intellectual humility and genuine respect. Instead of being in conflict with each other, I dream of people from all different cultures and backgrounds standing together, hope dancing with our every heartbeat as we march on toward a brighter future.