LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- Like a bandage stripped off an open wound, the civil unrest sweeping through South Los Angeles has exposed and intensified the painful strains of racial anger and ethnocentrism that have long simmered among the city's myriad ethnic communities.
The popular notion advanced by Mayor Tom Bradley and other civic leaders in recent years that Los Angeles was transforming itself into a harmonious, multi-ethnic model city appeared to waft away amid the acrid smoke billowing over the city's ghettos.
Each new graphic televised image -- looters rampaging through ruined stores, white police officers and National Guard soldiers advancing to retake city streets by force, dazed white and Latino passersby beaten by angry black assailants, frightened Koreans guarding their shuttered ghetto markets with guns -- threatened to reinforce the long-held fears and prejudices gnawing at the city's populace, community leaders and race relations experts worried.
The boiling rhetoric of black-against-white and white-against-black, evoking riots that swept Watts, Detroit and other American cities in the 1960s, resurfaced as if it had never left.
"Justice is supposed to be blind, but in this case, justice is black and white," said Frank Holoman, owner of the Blvd. Cafe. "This is a message that will go all around the world. If you're a black man or black woman in L.A., don't expect justice."
"My fear is that all that we've worked toward could be lost if people let their basest instincts take over," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "I worry about the reactions we will get from the white community. Just because there are irresponsible black people out there exploiting this situation is no reason to assume that all black people are looting and burning. In the same way it would be dangerous for the black community to assume that the actions of a few white officers stands for the beliefs of the entire white community. Now not the time for generalizing."
But even as Mr. Mack spoke, his fears seemed to be coming true. Across South Los Angeles, blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians met in scores of violent confrontations city residents would not soon forget. And inside untold numbers of homes and offices, Angelenos soaked in the numbing scenes of violence and reacted instinctively with words of anger and fear.
Sitting forlornly in his ransacked car audio store in South Los Angeles, Eddie Rho, 36, the Korean co-owner, surmised that the anonymous looters who plundered his business were black. The store was targeted, he said, because of the expensive stereo equipment he sold, but he also wondered if it was because he is Korean.
"They knew we were Koreans here," said Mr. Rho, who expects that relations between blacks and Koreans will now "be tougher. From now on I can try to be close to them, but they won't be close to us."
His assumption that the looters were African American belied the multi-racial composition of rioters that swept through many parts of the city. Latinos and blacks both took part in the looting sprees. And a black activist, Michael Zinzun, who led DTC Wednesday's protest at Los Angeles police headquarters blamed much of the violence that followed the rally on white punk-rockers, radicals and college students.
Much of the anger underlying the tensions among the city's ethnic groups could be found any place that different racial groups are thrown together, said Michael Preston, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern California who has studied race and politics in Southern California.
But those currents are stirred even more by the fact that several of the city's most visible minorities -- blacks, Latinos, Asians, working-class and poor whites -- are all jockeying for position in the scramble to win a limited supply of jobs, dwellings and economic opportunity.
Mr. Preston and other race relations experts say that tensions in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating were inflamed by gaps in perception among racial groups.
"In general, blacks perceive much more discrimination than whites perceive," Mr. Preston said. "When it came to reforming the police department, for example, the perception among whites has seemed to be that because the reforms have started, blacks ought to be happy because the element of racism is being extricated. But many blacks see changes in the police department as only the tip of the iceberg, that it's only a part of a broader issue."
And in the wake of the initial riots, said another race relations expert who declined to be named, there appears to be a schism in how blacks, on the one hand, and whites and a lesser number of Asians and Latinos, may be perceiving the city's current crisis.
"Whites, for the most part, will look at these scary scenes on television and conclude that the greatest concern right now is quelling the unrest, staving off black people that they see as threats to their welfare," the observer said.
"But even though a lot of blacks are equally frightened," he added, "that concern is matched by their anger and their dismay over the failure of the judicial system. With that kind of gap over the most basic issue confronting us -- what we need to solve right away -- I worry that we'll come away from these last few days permanently divided."
Stephen Braun and Ashley Dunn are reporters for the Los Angeles Times.