External Answers to Internal Problems

BEN WATTENBERG

May 06, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The immediate tragedy in Los Angeles is over. What happens next?

It might get worse. The calamity may be compounded if we draw the wrong lessons from it. We won't get the lessons right if we get the facts wrong. That sequence, alas, played out once before. Will we ever learn?

There is, however, something working in America's favor: politics in an election year. The events in Los Angeles will likely become -- and properly so -- the defining symbol of this election.

Politics tend to rank the major problems in priority. We were told the issues were jobs, jobs and jobs. More important, though, is values, values, values.

Since Los Angeles, the essence of the public dialogue has been about racism, police brutality and lack of aid to the hopeless poor in the cities. We are supposed to build lessons from that. But the facts don't support such a foundation.

There is still racism in America, but much less than previously. (Remember that we've been arguing in this country about reverse discrimination.) There is still police brutality in America but much less than previously. (The primacy of civil liberties allowed four brutal policeman to temporarily save themselves from justice.)

There is still poverty in America, but less than previously. There has been more spending on poor people, even in the 1980s. There is some urban hopelessness, but it flies in the face of big urban facts: blacks moving to the suburbs, blacks moving up the occupational ladder, near-parity of blacks and whites in high-school graduation rates. (Read about it all in the census.)

Racism, brutality and poverty are not the principal ailments of the black community. The criminality that terrorizes law-abiding and hard-working blacks (the vast majority) is not caused by racism. Police brutality is not what creates families without husbands, which is the root cause of American poverty.

There is a values problem driving these conditions, in all of America, but most intensely in the black community. ''Values'' is another way of saying the problems are mostly caused from the inside, not from the outside.

There is hope. Before Los Angeles, a consensus was forming about internal causes. The Values Issue is old stuff among conservatives and Republicans, but we heard about it recently, with passion and intelligence, from liberal Democrats like Sen. Bill Bradley and Sen. John Kerrey. And from Jesse Jackson, too. Most important, Gov. Bill Clinton made ''responsibility'' (read: ''values'') a principal theme.

Such thinking is now in jeopardy. In a moment of crisis, it is politically tempting to play the blame game. When you hear that riots are caused (externally) by ''12 years of Reagan-Bush'' -- you are hearing the blame game. If you hear that at length, you will soon thereafter hear of one more big Democratic defeat.

So, the Democrats must show rhetorical discipline. They must show they can focus on the problem, even when the climate gets tense, and even when special interests demand rhetorical payment.

If Americans agree that values are the central problem, we may have some rewarding political debates and decisions about how to encourage values.

There are good ideas in the air from both parties, including: educational standards, enterprise zones, tenant ownership, home ownership, ''boot camps,'' educational choice and welfare reform. The Republican notions are more market-oriented; the Democratic ones more government-oriented. But all are intended to stimulate responsible individual behavior in a society that has been too lax about it.

In another riot-torn moment we had a chance to go down that wise road once before, and we blew it. In the early 1960s, segregation had been outlawed and government programs had been started. Yet in 1968, the Kerner Commission ignored facts and offered lessons rooted in external causes (''white racism''), recommending still more external cures, in law and in programs.

Black and liberal leaders became preoccupied with blame and victimization. Children got only a diluted version of a central lesson: Once the doors are open, upward mobility in America will come only from individual effort and discipline.

This time we owe the kids the right lesson.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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