The other black America

On the night of April 29, 1992, I was among the 1,500 people who packed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. The crowd was mostly black. Many men sported tailored business suits, ties, Yves Saint Laurent shirts, and Ferragamo shoes; women wore elegant African gowns and carried Louis Vuitton pouches or purses. The scent of Pierre Cardin cologne and Estée Lauder perfume wafted in the air.

They were there to protest the acquittal that afternoon by a Simi Valley jury (with no blacks) of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.

The city's top black politicians and business, civil rights, and religious leaders had called the rally. The crowd listened politely to indignant but restrained protest speeches. In between, they sang and prayed.

Outside, hundreds of African-Americans milled about – and then exploded. They burned businesses, overturned cars, and assaulted motorists. In that moment of blind fury, their enemy was the LAPD, Korean-owned businesses, white downtown politicians seen as hostile and indifferent, and the black middle class.

Many of the well-dressed blacks cowered in the church, not from fear of police bullets but from black street anger. The first chance they had, many fled the church and then the neighborhood under protective escort.

For two days, during the height of the riots, I stood in front of burning banks, stores, and gas stations, and talked with residents, bystanders, and looters. The concealed class fissures among blacks long blurred by racism, ignored by blacks, and hidden from white society had detonated to the surface in their orgy of violence and looting.

No one better symbolized the widening gulf between the black haves and have-nots than Mr. King. A semiliterate ex-con, plagued by alcohol and drug problems, who had bounced between low-skill jobs since his prison release, King was as far removed from middle-class black existence as the sun is from the moon.

A decade later that gulf has widened. Speaking strictly of the conflict between blacks and whites, America is no longer two nations. Now the schisms must be defined not just between the races but within them.

The numbers tell the tale of the black-on-black divide. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of black professionals, technicians, administrators, and managers nearly tripled. The number of black college graduates doubled during that same period.

By 2000, more than 15 percent of black households earned more than $50,000 annually. The top one-fifth of black families earned nearly half of all black income. Black wealth, like white wealth, was now concentrated in fewer hands.

Decades before the L.A. riots, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier warned that many blacks were becoming what he branded a "black bourgeoisie," which controlled the wealth and power within the black community and had turned their backs on their own people. Worse, many members of Mr. Frazier's black bourgeoisie had begun to mimic the values, standards, and ideals of the white middle class and to distance themselves from the black poor.

In the 1960s, federal entitlement programs, civil rights legislation, equal-opportunity statutes, and affirmative-action programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson's administration broke the last barriers of legal segregation. The path to universities and corporations for some blacks was now wide open.

More African-Americans than ever did what their parents only dreamed of: They fled blighted inner-city areas such as South-Central Los Angeles. By the end of the 1980s, about 1 in 10 blacks was affluent enough to move to the suburbs. The expansion of tract homes, condos, and apartments made their move easier. In the decade since the L.A. riots, their stampede from these areas has accelerated.

At the same time, civil rights organizations and black politicians did a volte-face. They defined the black agenda in increasingly narrow terms.

Affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement, and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help, and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals of African-Americans.

This left the 1 out of 4 blacks mired below the poverty line, more isolated, and at risk. Lacking education, competitive skills, and training, they have been further hurtled to the outer fringes of society.

In doing the ritual 10-year-later retrospectives on the L.A. riots, the question is obsessively asked whether it can happen again. Predicting urban upheavals is hardly an exact science. However, a decade ago many blacks were able to make their escape from the violence and poverty of South-Central Los Angeles and other urban ghettos, and make the American dream their dream.

But a lot more didn't escape the poverty trap. A decade later they are still in those same neighborhoods. A sharp economic tumble, a fresh police atrocity, and soaring gun and gang violence could certainly bring racial hatreds and frustrations boiling to the surface again. If that happens, many prospering blacks again will feel as puzzled by and fearful of that other black America as they did a decade ago.

• Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press, 1999).

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