Keeping the lid on a pressure cooker

William Scobie November 1 1982

Keeping the lid on a pressure cooker

William Scobie November 1 1982

Keeping the lid on a pressure cooker


William Scobie

At noon, Watts, the heart of Los Angeles’ black ghetto, is a desert. Storefronts along 103rd Street— “Charcoal Alley”—are still blackened by the fires of the great riots of 1965. Vacant lots sit like gaps in a mouthful of decaying teeth. A menacing lethargy hangs in the air. Women wait in line for food stamps. Jobless men hang out on sidewalks or shoot craps while discussing the latest liquor store holdup. Pawnshops, bail-bond offices and liquor stores are staples of Watts. Especially liquor stores. The area has more per square mile than any other part of California. Winos sprawl in rubbish-strewn empty lots. A bar radio blasts the Rick James hit, Ghetto Life:

... one thing ’bout the ghetto You don’t have to hurry It ’ll be there tomorrow So people don’t you worry...

Drug deals are conducted on street corners: pills, tiny plastic bags of “angel dust”—the cheap animal tranquillizer, PCP, the ghetto’s lethal drug of choice— and what passes for cocaine, change hands. Muggings and murders are everyday events. In the United States black males now lead all statistical groups in homicide. The days of Black Panthers and other idealistic would-be revolutionary bands are long gone. This

is a time of violent youth gangs, Chicano warring with black. Police estimate that there are about 500 gangs with a total of at least 50,000 members spread across the sprawling Los Angeles basin. Scores of young people die each year in savage, aimless wars over “turf.” As local crime pickings grow ever thinner, marauders foray out into wealthy white neighborhoods. This is where, in 1965, the first major black urban riot in the United States left 34 dead, 1,000 injured and an inner city in ruins. A stunned America watched as, during the course

of the year, an estimated 164 black ghettos exploded like a string of firecrackers across the United States.

Watts is not a place that has received much mention in the passionate wooing of Black America conducted by Ronald Reagan’s administration in recent months. This is the homestretch in a midterm election campaign that could end in the Republican party losing a score of seats in both Congress and the Senate. In many electoral races, including the bid for a Senate seat by California’s gadfly governor, Jerry Brown— the last person Reaganauts want in Washington—the black vote could be crucial. And so, for the past few months, the president has tried to stamp on the minds of 26 million black Americans the impression that he is “not a racist,” that there is “no place in the GOP for bigots ” and that those who call him indifferent to the poor and disadvantaged are liars. “One charge strikes my heart every time I hear it,” Reagan recently told an audience of black Republicans. “That’s the suggestion that we are taking a less than active approach to protecting civil rights. No matter how you slice it, that’s just plain baloney.” The president went on to take a swipe at former Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”—a “tragedy,” no less, for blacks, who “would be better off today” if it had never occurred.

But are blacks really better off? “Hardly!” snorts Maxine Waters, the dynamic black who represents Watts and most of the south-central area of Los Angeles in the California state legislature.

“Reagan has brought us the worst un-

employment in three decades.” In her large district more than 60 per cent of the young blacks are jobless, with scant hope of finding work. For black workers nationwide, the jobless rate has jumped to 20 per cent, double the general level and the highest figure since the department of labor began breaking its statistics down by ethnic group 10 years ago.

Many poor families in Waters’ fief have turned to cultivating small plots of city soil. Annie Robinson, a 50-year-old mother of two, says that the benefits paid to her disabled war veteran husband have been slashed by $115 to $200 a month. She works three days a week in a school cafeteria, “but without our vegetable garden [planted in a vacant lot], we just couldn’t make it,” she says.

Waters rejects charges by Reagan supporters that the millions of dollars in federal aid pumped into Watts after the riots was abused or thrown away. She says that the “war on poverty” initiated in the late 1960s guided many black youths to an education and escape from the ghetto. Since then Watts has acquired housing projects, health centres and the new $40-million Martin Luther King Hospital.

For the jobless, however, relief is still shrinking. The 11 per cent of Americans described as black make up more than one-third of those benefiting from the programs that are being cut back—food

stamps, medicare, housing, aid to single mothers. One out of every three blacks—nearly nine million people, according to the census bureau—lives below the poverty level, currently defined as an annual income of less than $9,287 for a family of four.

, The big question is whether, under the present conditions, riots could once again explode in Watts. Many of the area’s residents still remember the six-

day orgy of arson and looting of 1965. But Watts seems consumed with apathy. “Wouldn’t do no good to riot now,” says Lee Browne, a 30-year-old who, as a teenager, heard the cry of “Burn, baby, burn!” “Didn’t do nothing last time.”

Among black leaders, the rhetoric level is increasingly shrill. Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) accuses the government of “reducing civil rights to the status of Indian treaties.” John Jacob, the new president of the Urban League, accuses Washington of “savage cuts in survival programs for the poor... while the Pentagon gets a blank cheque.” Ronald Brown, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says that “blacks see with alarm 25 years of gain being eroded.”

Against all that, Reagan has pitted his personal charm and the voices of a small cadre of black Republicans given White House and administration jobs. In the 1980 federal election the cabal of black Republicans soon found that selling Reagan to black voters—barely eight per cent of whom had chosen him over Jimmy Carter—remained a daunting task. Mainstream black Democrats felt that they were so many Trojan horses, positioned to fend off charges of racism.

The tone of Reaganaut thinking with

regard to blacks was set early in the game by Thomas Sowell, 51, a prolific California economist from Stanford University (he has written 12 books), colleague of another Reagan guru, Nobel Prize-winning free-marketer Milton Friedman. Sowell’s litany became familiar through dozens of press and TV interviews. According to him, forced school busing was insulting and disruptive to young blacks. Affirmative action and welfare did the poor more harm than good. The minimum wage law, not discrimination, was the prime cause of unemployment among black youths.

Sowell’s remedy was that blacks should work more within the free enterprise system: other ethnic minorities had made it by playing the game, so could blacks. Sowell then retired to the highly profitable lecture circuit, leaving the administration’s black aides to spread the gospel.

Meanwhile, white conservatives had re-examined Watts and devised new explanations of black riotousness in the late 1960s. Those theories were summed up in Midge Decter’s now famous Commentary essay entitled “Looting and Liberal Racism.” Liberals had given

blacks “permission to riot,” explained Decter, through attitudes and policies that “proclaimed that race and poverty are sufficient excuses for lawlessness.” The flow of government money to the urban poor had created a social-work industry with a stake in persuading its clients that they were “victims”—and this had promoted “the very liberal and very racist idea that being black is a condition for a special moral allowance.” Popular columnist George F. Will chipped in with the thought that “many rioters were too young to be rioting for anything but the fun of it.” What liberals described as the black “cry for help,” he thought, seemed rather to be a “cry for a free color TV.”

Such notions do not sit well in Watts itself, where Waters expects unemployment figures to reach new heights this month and where she spends much time trying to dissuade the police from harassing her constituents. “The cops see every black as a potential criminal,” says one elderly Watts resident. “One wrong move, you’re in the morgue.” It was a police bust, Watts leaders recall, that triggered the 1965 outburst. And it was the acquittal of four white policemen accused of killing a black that sparked the Miami ghetto eruption of 1980, which left 16 dead.

The inner city violence that sociologists feared would come last summer has failed to materialize. But Maxine Waters and other black leaders believe that the ingredients for a Watts II remain: frustration, the bitterness of the idle jobless, poisoned relations with the police. In the meantime, Washington projects further cuts in social programs during the next two years and offers no more than the promise that, in the long run, its policies will better the lot of blacks. As one White House aide told The Wall Street Journal recently: “This election, we’re selling hope.”