WORLD

STREETS OF HATE

MURDER AND MAYHEM TURN LOS ANGELES INTO AMERICA'S LATEST RACIAL BATTLEGROUND

MARCI McDONALD May 11 1992
WORLD

STREETS OF HATE

MURDER AND MAYHEM TURN LOS ANGELES INTO AMERICA'S LATEST RACIAL BATTLEGROUND

MARCI McDONALD May 11 1992

STREETS OF HATE

WORLD

MURDER AND MAYHEM TURN LOS ANGELES INTO AMERICA'S LATEST RACIAL BATTLEGROUND

The scenes were apocalyptic, and hauntingly familiar. Once again, a city was in flames, smoke billowing from the charred wasteland of entire blocks. Once again, rage exploded through the streets in an orgy of smashed shop windows, looting and wanton killing. Once again, soldiers in camouflage fatigues and armored personnel carriers rumbled through urban thoroughfares, trying to contain the chaos and disintegrating social fabric. They might have been scenes from some distant, exotic war zone. But this time, the enemy was within, the 375-year-old legacy of that ugly skeleton in the American historical closet: slavery. And what sent chills through those watching the worst racial violence in Los Angeles’s history last week was that the searing images might have been 27year-old scenes from a city—and a racially scarred nation—most Americans hoped they had buried a quarter century ago.

But now, not quite three decades after a sixday race riot in the city’s black Watts district claimed 34 dead and $40 million in property damage in 1965, the fires of racial hatred again engulfed south-central Los Angeles, causing even more deaths and more damage. And just as the 1965 riots sparked three long hot summers of inflamed passions in urban ghettos across the United States, last week’s violence again spread throughout the country. As miniprotests erupted from Atlanta to Las Vegas, police braced for further unrest from coast to coast. Emerging from a meeting of civil rights leaders at the White House, Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, warned that “this is the most critical moment in the nation’s history in the past quarter-century.” Added Lowery: “Mount Saint Ghetto has erupted and, unless we do something, the lava is going to spill all over the country.”

But Lowery, and even many of those in the L.A. street mobs, agreed that the rampage had far deeper roots than its ostensible trigger, the fact that a jury with no black members had acquitted four white Los Angeles policemen in the beating of an intoxicated black motorist, Rodney King. The not-guilty verdicts arose despite an amateur videotape that captured the brutality of the March 3, 1991, incident. To many blacks, the outcome confirmed what they perceive as an increasingly institutionalized form of racism. Not only have two successive Republican administrations packed the Supreme Court with conservatives and led the attack on the tenets of affirmative action, but black leaders also blame George Bush and his

predecessor, Ronald Reagan, for creating a climate that has made veiled racism respectable.

Many of the civil rights leaders whom Bush summoned to the White House were acutely aware of the paradox of offering advice to a president who came to office in 1988 after what some had called the most racist campaign in recent history—and who threatened to veto last year’s civil rights bill. Former Georgia state senator Julian Bond accused Bush of “playing the grossest kind of racial politics.”

The L.A. verdicts also took place at a time when a volatile mix of social and economic factors has stoked black frustrations and widened the racial gap. Despite two decades of electoral gains, when black mayors took office

in the three largest U.S. cities, when the nation’s first black governor was elected in Virginia and when blacks have run for president, it is black Americans who have been hardest hit by the nation’s shrinking economy. In 1990, one out of every three blacks was living in poverty. And in the third quarter of 1991, the official black unemployment rate was 12.1 per cent— five points higher than for whites.

Despite impressive gains by a small, emerging black middle class, the average black income remains 57 per cent that of whites. And

as black professionals moved to the suburbs, they left behind an increasingly alienated black underclass—uneducated, unemployable and caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and drugs—in the nation’s crumbling and underfunded inner cities.

Still, for black leaders, the most disturbing development is the deepening national abyss of racial distrust. In March, the Washingtonbased People for the American Way published a study of racial attitudes among 15-to-24-yearolds with distinctly gloomy forebodings. Fifty per cent of those surveyed pronounced race relations as “generally bad.” And blacks and whites showed vastly differing perceptions of the problem. Said the organization’s president, Arthur Kropp: “Ours is a nation divided.”

Kropp’s pronouncement almost paraphrased

another warning made 24 years ago. In 1968, former Illinois governor Otto Kemer reached a similar verdict in a report to then-President Lyndon Johnson on the race riots that had spread from Watts to Detroit and Newark, N.J., the previous summer. Declared Kemer: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” He urged that “this deepening racial divide is not inevitable.” But in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of his report, a broad group of scholars found that life for inner-city blacks had further deteriorated and that the two races were further polarized in an atmosphere of “quiet riots.”

One of them, former assistant attorney general Roger Wilkins, revisited Watts that year and found “things had gotten worse in terms of urban blight.” Business had not returned to Watts’s once bustling 103rd Street, which had been transformed into the infamous “Charcoal Alley.” And the burned-out hulks of buildings still stood as grotesque reminders of that twodecade-old racial wound. Now, Wilkins says that he worries the same fate awaits south-central Los Angeles— or worse. As he points out, the 1965 riots took place under Johnson, a president who had not only signed the landmark Voting Rights Act a year earlier, but had also just launched his “War on PoverBut those initiatives z came during the 1960s’ eco| nomic boom. “We were hopeo ful then,” said Wilkins. “Now, g we have a society that is more racist and a country that is poorer. We have neither the ± political will nor the wealth to z get things done.”

Last week, at the White House, civil rights leaders told Bush that it was not enough merely to restore order to L.A. streets with a show of military force. Unless he addressed the fundamental economic problems of the nation, and black Americans, National Urban League president John Jacob predicted, “There will not only be a long hot summer— there will be long hot years to come.” Facing the worst domestic crisis of his presidency, Bush seemed genuinely shaken by events that not only threaten to alter the debate in this year’s presidential elections, but have already drastically tarnished America’s image abroad. Last week’s riots in the city known as the nation’s dream factory had suddenly stripped away the country’s egalitarian illusions to reveal a gaping racial wound.

MARCI McDONALD