Urban America Likely to Avoid Replay of 1960s
Cities still face critical task of dealing with social and economic problems, analysts say. LOS ANGELES AFTERMATH
LOS ANGELES — OUTSIDE a looted grocery on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard here, an African-American wearing a shirt featuring a large "X" taunts National Guard troops sent to maintain order.
Embroidered on his sleeve are the words, "By any means necessary," the revolutionary epigram of Malcolm X, the black advocate slain in 1965. As passersby gather, the mood tightens.
By most readings, despite the spasms of anger ignited nationwide by the Rodney King verdict and worsening opportunity for a broadening underclass over three decades, America is not in for a reprise of "the long hot summers" of the 1960s.
"You will see short-lived activism similar to what came after the assassination of Martin Luther King [in 1968]," says William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. "But the formal structures are just not there for a sustained political movement."
At the peak of the social unrest in 1967 and 1968, there were riots in more than 100 US cities. A unifying issue, besides the general malaise over inner-city poverty and decay, was civil rights. Today, experts say, there is no similar theme to sustain a pattern of protest.
"I expect a lot of violence in the 1990s," says Gregg Carter, a sociologist at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I. "But I don't think it is going to be 1967 all over again. It is going to be more individual, localized."
Local mechanisms to consolidate and channel grievances among blacks do not exist for the most part, experts say. Nor does the network of black leaders and highly visible militant organizations such as the once-active Black Panthers necessary to carry the protest banner.
"One of the great modern tragedies of black life is that they [blacks] have never been able to sufficiently organize," says Jewelle Gibbs, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist.
She sees a widening gap between the upper-middle-class blacks symbolized by "The Cosby Show" - which ironically left the air last week - and the growing ranks of disenfranchised featured in such films as "Boyz 'N the Hood," and "New Jack City."
Still, the seeds of general discontent exist today even more than 25 years ago. Economic conditions for minorities in inner cities are far worse, experts say. Many blame a decade of federal budget cuts. Many ghettos have lost what black middle class residents they had. There are more single-parent families and greater crime and drug-abuse problems.
Such economic and social conditions are a tinderbox waiting to flash, as seen from incidents such as Bensonhurst and Howard's Beach in New York, to L.A. Patterns reinforced
When such episodes flare, an inability to coalesce anger into substantive reform reinforces the patterns of riotous response and racial fear.
"If blacks want to take their grievances to the captains of industry and into the wealthy neighborhoods, they can't afford to stop at every electronics store along the way," notes Roger Lane, a black historian from Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
"They are too easily distracted with consumerism and their own anger."
The problems of the inner city will be getting a fresh look in the wake of the riots here and in several other United States cities.
They have already injected themselves into the 1992 presidential campaign and will likely be a more visible issue in Congress and some state houses, though law and order will be stressed as well. Despite the renewed attention, however, few experts expect a Great Society-style thrust to emerge.
Others see a different outcome if the problems aren't addressed. Local historian Mike Davis worries about middle-class whites fleeing deeper into the suburbs and the urban poor becoming more alienated. He believes that could lead to inner cities being transformed into "outlaw third-world nations," with Los Angeles leading the way.
Nowhere will the challenges of rebuilding and addressing the underlying problems be more urgent than in Los Angeles. Even before the latest unrest, the city hadn't recovered completely from the Watts riots 27 years ago - socially or physically.
Now it must try to pick itself up after three days of mayhem that saw at least 44 people killed, 3,700 businesses burned, and scores looted. Budget crisis arises
The cleanup comes at a time when Los Angeles is facing one of its worst budget crises since World War II.
Before the riots broke out, the city was considering taking money from the city's redevelopment agency just to try to keep from cutting back on police and fire services.
Still, disaster-relief assistance will be forthcoming, local businesses are promising to pitch in money and expertise, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth has been called on to head a commission to oversee a massive recovery effort.
"We are going to rebuild - and I mean rebuild," says Mark Ridley-Thomas, a black city councilman. Repairing the social fabric will be harder than repairing buildings and stores.
While the Rodney King verdict was the trigger for the riots, it reflected deeper anger in predominantly black South-Central and other neighborhoods over poverty, joblessness, racism, police conduct, and governmental neglect. Image tarnished
The latest upheaval has also tarnished the image that local leaders liked to project of Los Angeles as a model of harmonious multiculturalism.
Governments don't have the economic wherewithal to address the wide array of problems of the ghetto: housing, education, health, employment.
Visions of the riots linger - of mainly white police and National Guardsmen trying to retake streets, of white passersby being beaten by black assailants, of Korean merchants guarding their markets against looters of all colors.
City leaders will have to bring healing to neighborhoods that have widely disparate incomes and are undergoing some of the most intense ethnic and demographic changes in American history.
Mr. Ueberroth says he thinks the reconstruction effort here - if joined by all segments of society - could become a blueprint for reviving urban America.