The ritual of blaming racism and neglect for the outbreak of rioting and looting, already under way as Los Angeles burned, continues. Sparked by verdict, 27 years of pent-up frustration over poverty, prejudice, injustice caught fire, said one headline.
Lamentably, racism exists, and certainly even more money could be spent on the inner city. But are racism and neglect helpful or even plausible explanations for the explosion?
Thirty years ago, school segregation was just ending; overt racial discrimination in housing, employment, and places of public accommodation was legal and widespread; and federal spending on the poor was but a fraction of what it is today$18 billion versus $140 billion, in 1989 dollars.
Yet there was no seething, idle underclass. The level of participation in the work force was roughly the same for blacks and whites; the black family was largely intact, with the great majority of births legitimate; black crime was relatively modest. Blacks were not burning down their neighborhoods.
One thing that has changed for the worse in recent decades is the message that blacks are being given about American society.
Thirty years ago the prevailing message was that the United States was a land of opportunity for all, and that life was steadily improving for black Americans. That left a lot out, but it was a message of opportunity, and a counsel of hope rather than despair.
Since then, paradoxically, even while supporting major efforts to root out discrimination, white Americans have proclaimed and acquiesced in increasingly sweeping indictments of themselves as hopeless racists, fundamentally unwilling or unable to give blacks a fair shake. For many blacks, the words appear to have spoken louder than the deeds.
Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall described a visit to his old neighborhood in Virginia. It had been middle class by black standards with sprawl-ing homes, manicured lawns and two-car garages. There were plenty of role models. But now, most of the guys I hung out with are either in prison, dead, drug zombies or nickel-and-dime street hustlers. His generation had been infected with rage, one of the many things a black man can die from.
McCalls parents generation made the best of a world in which racism was pervasive; his contemporaries, obsessed with its remnants, ruined their lives. Those who have denounced the pervasive racism of America so extravagantly have done great harm by eclipsing more relevant and surmountable problems.
Need for reform of the welfare system that has helped create inner city breeding grounds for despair and resentment is at last beginning to be recognized. But without hope and a belief in opportunity, structural reform will not succeed.
The great majority of Americans are not racists. They have supported sweeping civil-rights legislation and unprecedented expansions of governmental authority in the belief these were necessary to provide justice and opportunity for blacks. There are innumerable opportunities to be grasped that did not exist 30 years ago.
But they cannot be grasped by those who, in anger and hopelessness, drop out of school and into gangs, drugs, and crime. Endless recitations of the all-powerful evils of racism raise higher the walls of the attitudinal prison that has ruined the lives of many American blacks in a way Jim Crow never could.