THE horrid scenes of racial violence in Los Angeles over the last few days were a rude awakening to many Americans too young to remember the last time it seemed the nation was going up in flames. But they took me back to the late 1960s in Kalamazoo, Mich., where I grew up.
Kalamazoo is not a huge metropolitan area, but it was big enough, and racially mixed enough, to experience all the racial problems the United States went through in those years. I can still remember the Sunday night in 1967 when the Smothers Brothers' show was interrupted by an announcement calling up the Michigan National Guard: Detroit had broken out in rioting. The Guard, untrained to handle urban violence, could not restore order, and Gov. George Romney had to ask Lyndon Johnson to send in the US Arm y.
The following year, when I was in the ninth grade, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn. Chicago and Washington, D.C. erupted in rioting. It seemed to a teenager that the violence would not stop; then Sen. Robert Kennedy was murdered. My fellow students and I sat in class and tried to fathom what kind of country we lived in. President Johnson came on television with a plea: "For God's sake, let us live under the law."
My high school years were filled with the city's and the nation's attempts to address the issue. Racial trouble erupted twice in the two high schools: Classes were canceled, and we all attended seminars and discussed how to combat racism. But we - the white students, anyway - began to feel that the country was really making progress. Our generation thought it was going to change the world, and getting rid of racism was just one goal. As I graduated, the Kalamazoo schools approved a busing program to achi eve racial balance in the city schools. There was much opposition, but the federal courts upheld the plan.
Even then, however, white America was beginning to kid itself that racial problems could be minimized or forgotten. The Vietnam war ended, and activism disappeared from college campuses overnight. Idealists who 10 years earlier would have been freedom riders joined the environmental movement instead. The civil rights movement just seemed to fizzle out.
Meanwhile, whites were running away from America's cities. The population of the suburb of Portage shot up as white families moved to get away from busing in the city of Kalamazoo, just as whites deserted Detroit, Chicago, and many other cities for supposedly safer suburbs. Neither Democratic nor Republican presidents nor Congress seemed eager to do much for cities, which rotted away while the federal and state governments turned their backs. City schools populated more and more by minority students were
allowed to deteriorate. In the United States we now have apartheid in reverse: In South Africa, blacks are relegated to "townships" outside the cities; here, the cities are black islands surrounded by white suburbs.
Some economic statistics show that the poorest part of our population fared badly during the boom years of the 1980s. We have made progress, of that there is no doubt. There are thousands more black elected officials than before the 1960s. A large black middle class has developed. And yet a desperate, impoverished underclass has been allowed to grow in the inner cities, culminating in a culture of drugs and violence that makes "West Side Story" look tame. Our only answer has been to imprison one-quarter of all black men; there are now more of them in prison than in college.
And even those blacks who have "made it" in society cannot escape a pervasive racism that follows them everywhere. Look, for example, at Wellesley, Mass., a wealthy suburb of Boston. Black residents tell of being stopped and asked for their IDs when playing tennis on the town courts by policemen who assumed that because they were black they were from out of town.
Boston Celtic player Dee Brown, out house-hunting, was held at gunpoint by Wellesley police who thought he was a robbery suspect. Blacks don't have to sit at the back of the bus anymore, and they can vote. But day after day, they have to worry about making the wrong move, doing something to attract the attention of a criminal justice system that seems to assume that because they are black, they must be doing something illegal.
What happened in Los Angeles since the Rodney King verdict can't be justified. But people can have faith in a system only when they can count on it for justice: criminal justice, economic justice, and political justice. Too often in America today blacks find they cannot count on the system to protect them.
So in May 1992, another generation of ninth-graders finds its adolescent assumptions about the way things are shattered by race riots. The sense of d vu makes me wonder: Will America finally be honest with itself and confront the subtle racism that lurks everywhere in our society? Or will these children's children someday find themselves sitting dazed in a classroom wondering why people are killing each other in the streets?