AMERICA has been undergoing seismic urban disruptions at quarter-century intervals - the Detroit riots of 1942; those of Watts, Detroit, Newark, Washington, and elsewhere in the late 1960s; and now in Los Angeles and other cities, triggered by the Rodney King verdict. In between, in the '80s, were disruptions in Miami and Virginia Beach, Va.
Despite the obvious, painful evidence of urban destruction and the need to understand the tensions that lead to them, the larger trend continues toward the American democratic vision of political and social equality for all citizens.
Racism is an evil. Did the police beat on Rodney King all the harder because he was black? In that beating did we feel some collective memory of the flogging, the humiliation, of the centuries of American slavery? In the incarceration of so many young black males in the United States today, does a fear linger? What does it mean that Californians had beaten on the Okies too? Or that Ford's bullies had beaten on white would-be unionists?
On Los Angeles streets white Anglo faces can be few among the Hispanic, Asian, and black population that has come to dominate. The US West Coast can feel itself at once a part of the Pacific Rim communities and the northern reach of Latin America, the Chile of the North Temperate Zone. Culturally the West Coast remains the objective of America's cross-continent, westward expansion, although many Americans drift back because of the costs or disillusionment of living there.
Add to these complications a popular resentment toward government that emerged out of the Los Angeles environs. From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan a political movement sought to curb the liberal response of government to worker and minority needs. The enemy became government itself. "The goal of a sensible political state would be to reduce its presence in the lives of its citizenry to the greatest extent possible," writes a Palo Alto, Calif., reader of the Wall Street Journal. The argument over propert y rights versus equality of opportunity goes back to this democracy's founding constitutional debates.
Who stands up for the individual if not the government of the people as a whole?
America retreats into minimalist government in between outbreaks of violence that reveal the buildup of tensions. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was in large part motivated by the fear that the social and economic fabric of the country would be laid waste if government did not intervene. The lines of escape from the American ideal of equality were being cut off.
At the most crucial level of everyday experience, work forces are becoming more mixed. Admissions to universities have become relatively class-blind, despite the current efforts to contain student financial aid. At the same time, the occupational trend for the highest-achieving college graduates is toward law and business school and away from education.
Self-interest has been advanced above the social interest.
In presidential politics, the emotional overtones of race are played upon. Carter's attempt to tag Reagan with racism was seen as a ploy; Bush got away with linking Dukakis with Willie Horton.
Overall, however, America is working out the tensions inherent in the human condition as regards race, religion, and class. It is doing rather better than other parts of the world in all three.
But it needs a clear vision at the top of its government and every institution of the need to expunge divisiveness based on race, ethnicity, and class.
We can ask:
Whom do we move across the room to meet?
Have we glass doors to our offices, churches, clubs that exclude those not like us?
Should we shift actions and resources away from entertainment and into education?
Should we divert our contemplation of our fast-expanding golf courses to the vista of our urban war zones?
A conscience works in at least enough of the people to progress toward a more universal acceptance of others despite surface differences and setbacks.