Rebellion? Race War? Inevitable? Myths of L.A. Riots are Dangerous

JOEL KOTKIN

June 17, 1992|By JOEL KOTKIN

Beyond its human and material costs, the Los Angeles riots left behind a residue of dangerous myths and attitudes. Left unchallenged, these myths could pave the way for a descent into a future of ceaseless racial and class strife and widening economic impoverishment.

The politically correct myth makers portray the riots as naturally occurring events, even as justifiable expressions of anger and despair. In their eyes, Los Angeles is a city of separate ethnic groups, the most aggrieved of which can protest their grievances without fear of punishment or moral censure. Such are the seeds of a political and social culture more akin to that of Sarajevo.

Some seem to have taken root. Korean merchants negotiating jobs and investments with local gang leaders, rather than with community leaders, is one frightening example. Unless rejected by people of all races, such forms of "governance" will become the norm of our political future.

Among the post-riot myths are:

* The riots were a rebellion.

Although the acquittals in the Rodney G. King beating trial provoked an angry political protest, within an hour the "rebellion" looked more like mayhem, with criminal intent replacing moral outrage.

Once the Los Angeles Police Department officers and National Guard soldiers, or even neighborhood residents, showed any will to resist, the "rebels" quickly retreated. Authentic rebels, as were the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, withdraw to fight another day. And they can count on support from the local population if their cause is popular. In South Los Angeles, residents pleaded with government and law-enforcement officials for assistance.

* The riots signaled the opening of race war between people of color and the white Establishment.

In fact, the vast majority of communities denounced the unrest as completely unjustified. Among Latinos, nearly three-quarters, including nearly all business and political leaders, condemned the rioting. Latinos -- and even more so, Asians -- were among the prime victims of the disturbances, accounting for as many as half of all the destroyed businesses.

Even more damaging to the myth makers, nearly three of five African-Americans, in contrast to some of their leaders, also shared this position.

* The riots, together with economic despair in South Los Angeles, were an inevitable reaction to Reagan-Bush economic policies.

In fact, the area's rapid economic decline began in the mid-'60s and continued through the '70s, due largely to a widespread exodus of local businesses, particularly in manufacturing. During the period from 1970 to 1977, for example, median family income in South-Central Los Angeles rose at one-third the rate enjoyed by the rest of the city. This gap persisted throughout the Carter administration.

In contrast, during the much-maligned 1980s, the percentage of African-Americans in the Los Angeles area living in poverty declined, even as the rate of non-black poverty increased. By the late 1980s, blacks in Los Angeles suffered, on average, a rate of poverty almost 50 percent below that experienced by their counterparts in other metropolitan areas.

The economic problem for South-Central Los Angeles lay largely in the migration of upwardly mobile blacks to the suburbs, leaving the poorest and most alienated parts of the community behind. Since the late 1970s, the African-American population in South-Central has dropped from 80 percent to roughly half.

* Only huge government programs tailored for the worst riot-scarred areas can help overcome the area's fundamental problems of crime, lack of training and entrepreneurial skills.

The record of the '60s and '70s provides little comfort for believers in this approach. When tried in communities similarly blighted, enterprise zones have proved to be not much better.

A more reasonable approach, perhaps, would target companies in the broader region that already provide decent jobs to residents. Those companies have established markets and technologies. Regrettably, as demands for financing economically tenuous developments in South-Central mount, the established employers in adjacent areas become targets of opportunity for industrial recruiters from out of state and from the suburbs.

* Given the racist nature of Los Angeles society, local politicians, particularly in minority communities, have little choice but to support programs rewarding narrow communal interests.

Already, many African-American leaders seem relentless in their advocacy of a "black agenda," often seemingly indifferent to either their increasingly Latino constituencies or the overall general economy. This brand of "me-first" economic tribalism seems headed for failure, given the increasing demographic and economic power of other groups, notably Asians and Latinos, in Southern California.

The chances of building a multiracial cosmopolis rooted in a shared civic culture lies in turning away from all these dangerous and, ultimately, self-destructive myths.

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