Distinguished Undergraduate Thesis: Veronica Tien on Race and Representation of Unrest in Early-1990s Los Angeles

AMS::ATX asked the two Dean’s Distinguished Graduates from the undergraduate American Studies program to write a blog post about their research for their senior theses. Today, Veronica Tien discusses her work on media representations of the 1992 Los Angeles uprisings, particularly in the Los Angeles Times. Her work focuses on the ways that dominant media discourses surrounding the uprisings and conflicts of marginalized, racialized communities tend to obscure the presence and influence of predominantly white-led institutions of power.

My honors thesis is on modern narratives of urban unrest and studies Los Angeles Times front page photography of 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. It specifically discusses the ways in which South Los Angeles was visually portrayed as an inherent place of negativity in order to rationalize the history of institutionalized racism in L.A. I’m interested in understanding racism and its role in American society, and how it has never gone away though we often talk about the 1960s as an era of critical triumphs in United States history. My study of 1992 seeks to explore some of the ways we process racial issues and protest of racial oppression following Jim Crow. In a sense, it’s been a way for me to discover what really bothers me about some of the things we focus on when we discuss race.

In the beginning of my research it took me a while to focus because I was so unsure by what exactly fascinated me about the L.A. Uprising. In April of 2017, many documentaries came out about Los Angeles following the 25th anniversary of the unrest. The more I looked, the more I noticed there were also museum exhibits, photo galleries, scenes from movies. I felt like it was everywhere and every film or exhibit seemed to focus on the violence, the fires, and the destruction when it’s only one aspect of unrest. So I gravitated toward that and questioned what motivates the narrative of violence when representing protest of institutional racism, especially in a place like Los Angeles. The presence of different groups of people of color allows me to talk about race in a modern context and in reference to more than just Back and white power dynamics.

Learning more about stories of inter-ethnic conflict also persuaded me to focus on Los Angeles. Well-reported conflicts between Latino/a, Black, and Korean communities in L.A. made me feel like a key component was missing. I started to question the seemingly invisible nature of white dominance and the importance of defining minorities in relation to each other in racism. The model minority stereotype, for example, is something I’ve done research on in the past. This concept has come up in my research of Los Angeles and has been something I’ve found meaningful to explore as a Chinese-American person. In a conversation with my dad the other day, I liked the way he described this assertion of whiteness as, “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Having stared at words for several hours, this irreverent reference to white power stuck with me. It is something constantly constructed and rationalized, rather than some amorphous inequality.

Though incredibly difficult, writing my thesis has been one of the best things I’ve done at UT. Figuring out how to deal with my own problems in my research and writing has been more formative than any problems I’ve encountered when answering a prompt for a class. It’s taught me to be really honest with myself and my ideas, which I’m finding out is hard when you’ve had an idea for over a year! At a certain point you don’t get to decide what you research because you have to listen to what the archive is telling you.

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