Rooftop Koreans: You may have noticed some pro-gun family and friends sharing articles and memes about “rooftop Koreans” in the aftermath of anti-racism marches around the country.
The striking photographs depict Korean Americans picking up arms during the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, which occurred after four white LAPD officers were acquitted of the savage beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
True Story Behind That ‘Roof Korean’ Meme You’ve Seen
“It’s the same as in 1992. One man wrote, “Don’t mess with the #RooftopKoreans.”
“When duty calls, everyone of us should embrace our inner Rooftop Koreans,” a post on Town Hall urged, days after generally peaceful protests against police brutality turned chaotic and ended in looting in numerous cities across the United States.
For a long time, the right-to-bear-arms group has praised “roof Koreans,” who are even represented on stickers sold on sites like Etsy. However, given that some gun-toting Second Amendment groups have stepped up to meet the Black Lives Matter protesters, this is unquestionably one of the more upsetting situations in which they’ve been invoked.
“What we have here are white supremacists utilising ‘rooftop Koreans’ photographs and film to defend their own position,” said Edward T. Chang, a professor of ethnic studies and director of the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at the University of California, Riverside.
He remarked, “This has the potential to promote racial division and animosity between Korean Americans and other groups of colour, notably African American communities.” “It refers to a similar white supremacist agenda of division and control.”
Chang believes that those who post the meme owe it to the Korean American business owners depicted in the photographs to learn more about the history of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and what drove them to pick up guns in the first place.
Without any political clout and power in the city, Koreatown was unprotected and left to burn since it was not a priority for city politicians and the LAPD.
-Edward T. Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside
More than 60 people were killed and over 1,000 were injured during the nearly weeklong rioting in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992, which cost an estimated $1 billion in damages, about half of which was incurred by Korean-owned businesses.
Long-standing cultural tensions between Korean mom-and-pop store owners and their mostly African American clients in the town erupted when the LAPD officers were acquitted.
It wasn’t unexpected. Tensions had already boiled over a year before when Soon Ja Du, a Korean American liquor shop owner, fatally shot Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl, in South Los Angeles. Harlins allegedly tried to take a bottle of orange juice, according to Du. A altercation between the two may be seen on security camera footage. Harlins eventually tosses the drink onto the counter and walks away. Du shoots her in the head while she does so.
The Harlins family and the Black community were incensed when Du was given a low punishment for the murder: probation and community service.
During the 1992 rebellion, Harlins’ name became a rallying cry, and many feel it was a major reason why Korean Americans’ stores were targeted.
When the looting extended to Koreatown, store owners took action to safeguard their establishments. They’d started shops and booze stores in the United States shortly after coming in the late 1970s and early 1980s as immigrants.
They took up guns, though, since the LAPD had “left us to burn,” as one K-Town business owner put it.
In the Korean American community, the uprising in Los Angeles is known as “Sa-i-gu,” which literally means “April 29,” the day the violence erupted.
The upheaval was a watershed moment for Korean Americans across the country, according to Chang, and a “wake-up call” for Koreans in Los Angeles to the city’s indifference.
“Because it lacked political clout and power in the city, Koreatown was unprotected and permitted to burn because municipal lawmakers and the LAPD did not see it as a priority,” Chang added. As rioting and looting escalated, police blocked roadways between Koreatown and wealthy white districts, and official defense lines were established around primarily white towns such as Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. Some Koreans have claimed that emergency responders had ignored their pleas for assistance.
Andy Yoo, a 7-year-old K-Town resident at the time, told CNN in 2017: “It was containment.”
Chang claimed that the Korean business owners did not shoot and kill anyone, only fired warning shots to scare away prospective looters and arsonists.
This is why so many Korean Americans find the “rooftop Koreans” meme irritating: those who co-opt and meme-ify Korean store owners talk of them reverently. One guy said in a viral tweet that the police were overburdened, so the residents of Koreatown “become peak American citizens by expressing their God-given and constitutionally protected rights.”
However, the Korean Americans who were on the streets in 1992 tell a different picture.
Chang Lee, a gas station owner who emigrated to the United States with his family as a child, told CNN, “I honestly thought I was a part of mainstream society.”
“Until the L.A. riots, nothing in my life indicated I was a second-class citizen,” he remarked. “The powers that be in the LAPD decided to defend the ‘haves,’ and the Korean community lacked political clout and authority. They abandoned us to the flames.”
The “roof Korean” stereotype also encourages Asian Americans to confront community anti-Blackness.
The fact that some Asian Americans have shared or supported the meme highlights an essential point: racial minorities may be and often are racist toward other racial minorities, and anti-Blackness feeling runs deep in many Asian American families. (One of the Minneapolis cops who stood by while Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against George Floyd’s neck last month is Asian American, sparking a heated debate in the community about how Asians benefit from their proximity to whiteness.)
When we consider how white Americans have historically monopolised resources and excluded racial minorities, it’s easy to see how Black and Asian people would feel like they’re vying for the same pool of restricted resources.
Racial anger and distrust are certain to arise, as they did in 1992 in Koreatown, when many Black consumers of Korean American companies suspected shop owners of funnelling money out of the community and never putting anything back in.
The “rooftop Koreans” meme is intended to cause a rift between Black and Korean populations when utilised by right-wing extremists, according to Wendy Sung, an assistant professor of critical media studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
She explained, “The ‘rooftop Koreans or Asian’ can be historically located within a pattern of praising Asian Americans as both a substitute for whiteness and a racial weapon against Black allegations of racial unfairness.”
During discussions like this, Sung says it’s critical to consider the “model minority” myth. In a 1966 New York Times article, sociologist William Petersen coined the phrase to characterise Japanese Americans who overcame discrimination to achieve success, praising hard work and family structure.
Asian American success was held up and used as a racial weapon against African American claims of systemic racism — essentially saying, if Asian Americans can do it without complaining, why can’t you?
– Wendy Sung, assisant professor of critical media studies, the University of Texas at Dallas
“The civil rights movement, when Black Americans were demanding for equal rights, is a significant historical context here,” she said. “Asian American achievement was held up as a racial weapon against African American allegations of systematic racism, implying that if Asian Americans can do it without complaining, why can’t you?”
To have Asians lauded as the ultimate gun-toting citizen by the same far-right fanatics who referred to Asians and Asian Americans as “vectors of disease just weeks earlier in this pandemic” is alarming, Sung added.
It’s upsetting, according to Ranier Maningding, who manages the blog and Facebook community “Love Life of Asian Guy,” to see Asians in 2020 believing that misconception. He was eager to call out the “rooftop Koreans” joke that was circulating among certain East Asian Americans on his Facebook group.
He told HuffPost, “Asian Americans have a long, convoluted, and destructive history with white supremacy.” “We’ve always been told that we’re two steps away from whiteness. We’ve persuaded ourselves that we’re honorary whites because some of us came from middle- or upper-class backgrounds, or we’ve bought into the illusion of our own intellectual superiority.”
“It’s a core conviction that we’re constructed differently and hence meant for a life of academics and money, while the ‘others’ are built for poverty and crime,” Maningding added.
Last week, Twitter user Roscoe Von Rotten uploaded a thread that deconstructed the racial complexities of the 1992 revolt while investigating anti-Blackness in Asian communities.
In the post, Von Rotten reminded Asians who associate with alt-right sentiments that white racists used to view East Asians as dangerous and subhuman as well. (The term “yellow peril” comes from the 1800s, when Chinese labourers were recruited to the US to replace liberated Black communities as a cheap source of labour, according to NBC News.)
— Roscoe Von Rotten (@TheRoxyV) June 3, 2020
“We’ve bought into the fiction of the model minority hook, line, and sinker,” she remarked.
Von Rotten was 5 years old at the time of the revolt and is Korean-American. She understands how complicated Sa-i-gu is in the communal memory of Korean Americans. She and her family’s elders don’t talk about what happened during the looting and devastation with pride or bravado.
“They know who was up on the roof, and there is no going back to the glory days,” Von Rotten told HuffPost. “When my dad and I look at the images from 1992, we both agree that the community protecting itself is something to be proud of. Both agree, though, that our pride does not extend beyond the fact that we had to do it at all.”
“We must hold ourselves, and especially our communities, accountable for our complicity in maintaining the white supremacist power structure and anti-Black narrative in this country,” she continued. “We cannot achieve true change unless we understand and accept responsibility for the roles we play and the words we speak.”
The photographs, more than anything, serve as a reminder that you can come to this nation in search of a better life, wanting the American dream and seemingly attaining it, but still be a second-class citizen if you aren’t rich and white, according to Von Rotten.
What a difference almost three decades makes when comparing 1992 to 2020.
Finally, the Rooftop Koreans images are significant not to serve as props for gun rights activists and the alt-right, but to demonstrate America’s tangled and unjust relationship with both minorities.
As the protests over the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others continue, it’s encouraging to see photographs of Asian Americans, including many Koreans, standing alongside Black Americans.
Community organizer Isabel Kang explains why it’s critical for Asians to step up as allies and tackle their own internalized racism in a viral video from protests in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month.
“It breaks my heart to see how many Korean Americans haven’t woken up,” she remarked. “Those who have experienced oppression, on the other hand, understand immediately away.”
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Last month, Asian designer Bobby Kim, who goes by the moniker Bobby Hundreds, watched as fires were set near his streetwear store in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, not far from Koreatown. Shortly after, he took to Instagram and posted a passionate message of support for the demonstrators.
“When people ask why I’m not bothered that my business has been harmed or that my neighbourhood has been pillaged, I tell them that my disgust for injustices in this country outweighs any other fleeting emotion,” he wrote. “I’ll stand in the fire with you even if you bring it to my doorstep.”
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And now, in Koreatown, shop owners appear to be less hesitant to reach for their firearms and more inclined to join Black Lives Matter protesters.
Sam Yang resides in Koreatown and co-hosts the martial arts and political theory podcast Southpaw. While walking around his neighbourhood with his child earlier this month, he shared some of the “Justice for George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” placards he’d seen set up by Korean shop owners.
Yang told HuffPost, “I wanted to express what I wasn’t seeing: armed Koreans, frightening people.” “So I put out that tweet to say, ‘Here’s your stereotype, and here’s reality.’ Make an effort to improve yourself.’
White Democrats and Republicans need to stop concern trolling. I'm a Korean in Koreatown and I don't see any "Rooftop Koreans" or store owners standing out front with guns. I just see a lot of this. pic.twitter.com/2p7WRWR1SS
— Liberation Martial Artist ? (@StuffFromSam) June 2, 2020
Because so many of their elders were practically silenced in 1992, Yang believes Asian Americans now feel emboldened to speak out against things like the “rooftop Koreans” myth.
“In 1992, the Korean American generation didn’t have social media,” he explained. “No one was interested in talking to them or hearing their storey. Others will talk for you if you don’t know the language and have no outlet.”
Those who post the meme, he claims, are effectively “speaking for Korean Americans, telling us how to think and feel, co-opting our voice and ability to create our own narrative.”
Yang isn’t going to let that happen. He stated that this is not the time for separation, but rather for minority groups to unite.
“As Asians, we have our own work to perform inside our own communities, which begins with decolonizing ourselves and healing from the ravages of white supremacy,” Yang stated.
“However, we must promote Black lives and defend Black bodies while we do so. He stated, “We must stand in unity with our Black and Brown siblings.” “Yellow Peril must stand up for Black people.”