America's Task

THE rest of the world, no less than Americans themselves, viewed the riots in Los Angeles with horror. The jury verdict that sparked the disorder was greeted abroad, as here, with disbelief. The criticisms of US society and democracy have been quick from capitals as diverse as Paris, Tripoli, and Tokyo.

Too quick, perhaps. A system of justice and government made up of human beings is always susceptible to flawed attitudes - and no flaw is more pervasive and more subtle than the tendency to judge others by skin color and ethnicity. It's easy to assume the jury in the Rodney King beating case was to some degree swayed by that tendency. And it's easy to jump from that to a blanket condemnation of the US system of justice.

But that jump is wrong. The guarantee of a trial by jury and the presumption of innocence are bulwarks of justice firmly in place in the United States, and lacking in many other parts of the world. Such guarantees don't always result in a public perception that justice is served; many Americans think the guilty are regularly "let off." This response was certainly seen in the King case.

The reaction to this verdict was deepest among black Americans in the cities, many of whom view police departments and court systems as their adversaries. Their anger and frustration raise a more profound question than any regarding courts and juries: Is America capable of addressing the inequities that still separate most blacks from most whites?

Critics - here and abroad - point to the last 12 years of conservative policies under Reagan and Bush and answer "no." But in fact much of the "War on Poverty" is still in place; basic programs, like food stamps, have expanded even in recent years.

The job now is to move beyond these "safety nets" and instill some hope and direction in young people whose alternatives are gangs and drugs. Enterprise zones to help create jobs, cooperatives to loan money for small businesses or housing rehabilitation, readjustment of the tax code to aid low-income families, public service programs for inner-city youth - these and other ideas are out there. They ought to be acted on.

American democracy has always faced a yawning gap between its ideals of equal justice and opportunity and the fact of racial discrimination. Much of the history of America involves the effort to close that gap. That effort continues.

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