Deaf ear for the cities, again

November 13, 1992

Six months ago south-central Los Angeles erupted in flames. Politicians, journalists and urban experts erupted in cries of anguish. A wake-up call for the nation, we termed it. The country's attention was once again focused on the urban blight that afflicts central cities from coast to coast. But once again, sadly, it's back to politics as usual, and another opportunity has been frittered away.

The three nights of rioting that followed the acquittal of four policemen in the Rodney King beating case was but the latest in three decades of eruptions proclaiming the frustrations of the mostly non-white inhabitants of the inner cities. Each time the country's political leadership has promised remedies and come up instead with palliatives. This year's record is more shameful than most.

In the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riot, the nation seemed ready for meaningful steps. Public awareness of urban blight was higher than it had been in a long time. An overwhelming majority in one poll said the nation was paying too little attention to the problems of minorities. Most thought the country was spending too little on cities and on improving conditions in black America. Congressional leaders talked of $12 billion in emergency aid to cities. George Bush and Bill Clinton flew to Los Angeles, pledging new approaches.

The upshot? Not much. No one thinks money alone will clear out the tinder that fuels unbridled protest in the inner cities. But it's a start, and little has been forthcoming. After wrangling with the White House, Congress appropriated $1.1 billion, much of which didn't get spent anywhere near an inner city. After more political maneuvering, Congress passed a $27 billion caricature of an urban aid measure that President Bush has vetoed because it includes what he considers some tax increases. What started out as a measure to attract investment through enterprise zones -- half of them in rural areas! -- emerged as one of those legislative travesties Congress is so good at perpetrating. It's a grab bag with something for everyone from IRA investors to airline pilots to the shoe industry. You have to search hard in this 1,200-page monstrosity to find anything relating to cities.

Even more lacking is any semblance of leadership from Washington. After pledging (just before the California primary) to "learn the lessons of what happened here," Mr. Bush has turned away. Mr. Clinton, concentrating on bringing the white, suburban middle class back to the Democratic party, hasn't done much more. Meanwhile, the embers that have been smoldering in ghettos across the nation have not been extinguished. The social and economic ills that provide the tinder for urban unrest remain. Time is running out.


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