Blunt Answers for One Who Asked

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

May 09, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Dear Mr. President: Now that you have completed your whizz-bang, early morning visit to the gutted streets of L.A., stooping to pray in a black church but slipping out before ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic'' warmed up, it appears that there are still points you need to hear.

So it is good that you have asked people to be ''blunt'' in telling you what went wrong in L.A. Blunt answers about the desperation of the inner cities are the only ones worth hearing these days. Before this, you insulated yourself from such news.

Let's start at the top: Stop talking through your hat. It was not lost on the nation that your first response to the Simi Valley jury's refusal to punish the beating of Rodney King was to say ''the system'' had ''worked.'' You later expressed ''anguish'' at the verdict, but found no time to visit with Mr. King during your whirlwind tour of South Central L.A. You praised the officers who helped bring order back to the blazing streets, but you seem to have forgotten Mr. King's poignant appeal to stop the violence. Surely, he deserved praise, too.

Moreover, your attempt to blame the violence on social policies long ago reversed was as graceless as it was wide of its intended mark. Watts' 1965 riot ripped open a ghetto no one had recognized, a running sore amid tree-lined California streets. The programs cooked up after the fires cooled gave hope to the angry residents for a while, but after five years even the ones that worked were closed down.

Nationally, as the New York Times has pointed out, the Great Society programs nearly halved the poverty rate, even if they could not totally eradicate the cesspools of despair. The burgeoning black middle class your friend Bob Woodson likes to disparage came mostly from the the urban poor and near-poor, a fact he ignores. War on Poverty programs emphasized education and job training and provided access to corporate and government-service careers for millions. It is really no accident that the black middle class grew. That was, after all, the plan.

Now take a good look at those dramatic videos of rioting whites who looted stores and smashed windows in downtown L.A. and in San Francisco. Notice, if you will, that whites led the unrest in many other cities. Rewind those South Central tapes; see all the Hispanic Americans who joined the rampage in the streets? Reporters on the scene did, finding that many shared in the outrage over the acquittal of the men who beat Rodney King because they, too, had suffered abuse. New York Rep. Floyd Flake said then that the anger went beyond California. While you're in a learning mode, you need to know it went far beyond the black community.

Please reread the Kerner Commission report in its entirety. A Democratic president named the commission, but then declined endorse its work for fear the criticism was really aimed at him. It really was aimed at a society for whom its indictment still points to criminal neglect, but its lessons were clearly not learned.

Your tenure in the White House began with the ''Voodoo economics'' of Ronald Reagan, a man who decried deficit spending but spent the country deeper into debt than any president in history. Those deficits allegedly block any new aid -- for the cities, after you and Mr. Reagan meat-axed the revenue-sharing programs on which so many depended. It has not been lost on inner-city residents that you could find money to fix the space program after the Challenger blew up, even as the savings-and-loan debacle and a less reported banking crisis were gobbling down enormous bailout outlays.

Ditto for your emergency aid to the former Soviet Union. Most Americans, black as well as white, recognize the need to support our former enemies' painful climb out of the abyss in which a gangster-like totalitarianism left them. But many wonder as well why you can't see that the abyss of neglect in which 12 years of wrong-headed, Republican-led policies left urban Americans is every bit as deserving of crisis-level attention.

Your search for the correct code words to win this election, yet again gearing up white ''conservative'' resentments while dividing yet again the ''family'' you seek to ''heal,'' can have terrible results. The swiftness of violent reaction to L.A.'s events across the country should have shown you how close to the limit many people are. More of the same old failed policies from you, even if successful at the polls, will only be fodder for the fires to come.

If that's too blunt for you, take heart. Blunt truths, however painful, are a far less destructive spur to action than the riots it took to get your attention in the first place.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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