Black rioting: many causes, no single cure

For the fifth time in less than 11 weeks, urban blacks have rioted in a Southern city. Twice in Miami, and once in Tampa, Fla., Chattanooga, Tenn., and -- this week -- Orlando, Fla., violence has broken out on the streets. (Far to the north in Boston, the black community is keeping a close eye on an investigation into the fatal shooting July 14 of a black youth in a struggle with a white policeman. There have been several protest marches by blacks.)

Only the first rampage in Miami (May 17- 19) resulted in loss of life, but all the outbreaks have been serious.

What has caused these incidents? Are there any common threads involved? If there are common grievances, what leads only a bare fraction of the black community to react violently?

These are some of the questions community leaders, black and white alike, have been turning to in the weeks following the first such outbreak.

Based on dozens of interviews with these leaders and ordinary citizens in the black community in Miami, the following emerge as some of the major problems needing attention:

* The continuing high unemployment rate among blacks and especially among black youth.

* The continuing racisim that, in the view of some key Southern leaders, retards the steps of black people toward fuller employment and educational progress on an equal footing with whites.

* Police relations, with the black community.

None of these factors, however, fully explains why some blacks have rioted while others have not. And the fact that only those blacks in certain cities riot does not mean their frustrations are not shared by many others elsewhere. There is little disagreement among nonrioting black leaders in these cities that this is a time of crisis -- and that action is needed.

Religious leaders, black and white, are prominent among those urging sincere efforts to achieve mutual respect, forgiveness, and love between the races.

In Boston, civic and religious leaders responding to racial incident last fall in which a black youth was shot and seriously wounded, produced a "covenant of justice, equity, and harmony" which includes, among several pledges, to "foster a new mood of healing and forgiveness that transcend not only our differences but even our grievances." Prior the recent incident in which a 14- year-old black boy was killed, more than 275,000 residents of the city had signed the covenant.

Says Dr. Robert L. Green, dean of the College of Urban Development at Michigan State University: "In order to love, you have to have had love." Dr. Green, a member of the board of directors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, sees love in the home as a basic starting point for treating nonfamily members with respect, especially those of another color.

It is not enough to say, "I treat everyone the same," maintains Bernard LaFayette, black director of a small private college near St. Louis. "You have to make a special effort" if you are white and dealing with blacks, he says.

Blacks, Mr. LaFayette asserts, have emerged from a history of handicaps never experienced by whites and still face many racial barriers. There are a number of practical things whites can do to help meet the situation, he says. Among them:

1. Introducing themselves to black persons at business or social gatherings, at school or community meetings.

2. Not giving their children subtle, negative signals about blacks by, among other things, turning off black-oriented television programs.

3. Inviting black aquaintances to dinner -- a simple, but much-needed step to break isolation.

Coretta Scott King, president of the center that bears her late husband's name, told the Monitor in a recent interview that the problems behind the recent violence in Southern cities are "much deeper than confrontation with the law."

She said civil rights marches of the kind used in the 1960s would allow people to "vent their frustrations" and still lead to progress.

"Martin showed us there was a nobler way [than violence]," Mrs. King said. But, she added, much needs to be done to locate and train grass-roots leaders in the black community to channel frustrations into effective, nonviolent protests. (The violence in Miami grew out of a demonstration that was intended to be peaceful. But organizers soon lost control of the crowd.)

After Miami and the smaller riots in Tampa, Chattanooga, and Orlando, joblessness was frequently cited as a major cause.

But at least one black psychologist, Marvin Dunn of Florida International University in Miami, sees "no observable relationship between unemployment and racial rioting."

"If blacks rioted for lack of jobs, we'd have continuous rioting" he says, referring to the high unemployment rate among blacks nationally.

Mr. Dunn lists several factors stemming from unemployment that contribute to what he calls "a subculture of violence:" (1) In some areas, as many as 50 percent of the black children are raised by only one parent; (2) many blacks are ill-prepared to find jobs because their dropout rate from high schools is so high; (3) crime is often tolerated in the black community.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.