LOS ANGELES -- On a radio talk show shortly after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case, a caller half-jokingly urged whites to riot. The talk-show host and subsequent callers concluded that, of course, white people don't riot. But in reality, if ''to riot'' means something like ''to wreak havoc on others,'' then white Americans have been rioting for some time. But when white people riot, they do it silently, almost invisibly, albeit painfully.
Who are these white people? They are mostly the powerful elites who control decisions and shape public opinion. They are also a slim, but perhaps growing, majority of middle-class people who have been told to blame their troubles on the lazy, parasitic poor.
Even liberals, in the face of cheers by blacks who saw the not-guilty verdict as a victory over racism, may say: ''I supported affirmative action; I applauded programs for the poor, and I thought Rodney King's attackers were guilty. But I am still jeered a racist. To hell with it. I'm going to close my doors and pull down the shades. It's time to retreat to private life and ignore public affairs.''
If this happens, then the backlash against blacks, especially the poor, will be severe. And the streets that saw blacks celebrating a symbolic court victory will see those same people protesting against real, political defeats. If this backlash happens, I fear for
Why a backlash?
But why a backlash? In part, because of exasperation. If most whites, including former President Bush, could see the injustice of the first Rodney King verdict, then why can't blacks see the obvious injustice of this verdict? In part, it's anger. How could the jury ignore the battering of Nicole Brown Simpson? How could one juror say such testimony was a ''waste of time?''
There is unease as the country recognizes just how gaping is the chasm separating blacks and whites. If blacks close ranks around Mr. Simpson, that leaves whites outside. Progressives may want a coalition, but a coalition where the all-encompassing first principle is race cannot possibly succeed.
So how do white people riot? They riot by eliminating affirmative action so that jobs and education will be more readily available to whites; by voting to deny services like education and health care to illegal immigrants; by declaring English as the official language and attacking bilingual education; by leaving 38 million people in poverty -- 30.6 percent of all blacks and 30.7 percent of all Latinos.
White people riot by eliminating 50,000 children from Head Start; by cutting money allotted for summer jobs for inner-city youth; by slashing subsidies for the heating bills for the poor; by cutting homeless assistance by one-third; by cutting funds for low-income housing; by ignoring the 2 million children in California alone who go hungry at some time during any given year; by leaving the minimum wage at $4.25, which translates to supporting a family on $170 a week; by eliminating the earned- income tax credit and thereby raising taxes on the working poor; by decreasing taxes for the wealthy, especially by lowering taxes on capital gains; by dumping 230 times more toxic waste near low-income and minority neighborhoods than near wealthy suburbs.
And meanwhile, pushed out of public discourse by the clamor over the Simpson verdict, Congress is trying to virtually eliminate Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
Indeed, white people do riot. And as in all riots, this one will have many innocent victims.
Roger Boesche is a professor of politics at Occidental College in