I recently heard that one of the English groups I liked in my youth, the Specials, had re-united and were touring again. This prompted me to go to YouTube and listen to several of their old songs. The Specials were a mixed-race group with a Jamaican ska-influenced sound and left-wing lyrics that often focused on opposing the “racism” of late-1970s Britain. While I rejected the political sentiments of this music long ago, some of the songs are striking in their awareness of the dramatic changes that were beginning to be felt in Britain as a result of immigration.
I first heard about the Specials as a young teenager, watching a news report on American television in 1981 covering the riots in Toxteth, Liverpool. The piece was introduced with a clip of a song called “Ghost Town.” “This,” the narrator said solemnly, “is the most popular song in England.” It had reached the top of the British charts at the same time that the riots broke out, and its eerie, haunted-house strains highlighted the ominous news that there were now race riots in England.
This town is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs are being closed down
This place is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more – too much fighting on the dance floor
But hearing “Ghost Town” in 2010 now makes me think of Detroit and many other urban areas in the U.S. to which that epithet applies very well. And this reminds me of another fact that had been reported in America at the time of the 1981 riots: British authorities were said to be reading reports and consulting with American authorities on the racial riots that had taken place in the United States in the 1960s, in hopes of learning how to handle the British situation appropriately. One even sensed that some Americans enjoyed the idea of being in a position to offer advice in this matter.
What can be learned today from America’s black riots? With Hispanics, Muslims, and other groups growing in population and power, the traditional 90% white, 10% black dynamic no longer generally applies. And yet, the way in which white Americans respond to all nonwhite groups in this country has been largely conditioned by the history of our interactions with those of African descent. Nor has the threat of black-on-white mob violence disappeared, as shown by the recent phenomenon of “flash mobs.” I therefore thought I’d approach the subject by looking at the 1965 Watts riots. To get a sense of how these events were regarded at the time, I used a book written in 1966 with the refreshingly clear title Black Riot in Los Angeles. The author, Spencer Crump, was a writer on California history and seems to have been writing for the L.A. Times as recently as the early 1990s.
The Watts riots (which really took place in a wide area of south Los Angeles) were triggered by the routine arrest of 21-year-old Marquette Frye for drunk driving (reported by a black man) by a California Highway Patrol officer. Frye, his brother, and their mother physically tangled with officers, who called for enforcements as an angry crowd gathered. The crowd threw rocks at the departing vehicle and the riots began. For the next five days black mobs totaling up to 10,000 people went on a rampage in southern Los Angeles, severely beating any white person unfortunate enough to fall in their path. They looted stores and then set them on fire with Molotov cocktails, shooting at police and firemen who tried to extinguish the fires. The situation was not helped by a hesitant response on the part of the deputy governor and by disagreements between various authorities. The riots were finally quelled by 13,900 National Guard troops using sweep tactics; over 1,650 officers from the police and sheriff’s department were engaged. The results: 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed, a loss estimated at over $40 million. Over 1,000 people were injured. 34 were killed, including a fireman, a deputy sheriff, and a policeman; 25 of the dead were black.
Reading the book was painful for me. I was born in the mid-1960s and although the events of that time are not part of my personal memory, I recognize the America of that time as the world of my parents and grandparents. 1965, in particular, seems to me one of the most important years in American history, the year that the Civil Rights and Immigration Acts became law, inaugurating the anti-discrimination practices and the mass non-Western immigration have altered our country almost beyond recognition in the ensuing decades. I believe it is deeply significant that 1965 was also the year of large-scale black rioting in Los Angeles. This shocking explosion of violence against white people and white property in relatively liberal California took place just as white society was, collectively, making an enormous commitment to raising the material and social status of black Americans. As I read about the agony and bewilderment of civic leaders grappling with this attack on their society, I felt as if I were watching the beginning of the crumbling of that society.
What was the source of black grievance and anger? Certainly the dramatic growth of the black population through migration – from 75,000 in 1940 to 420,000 in 1965 – and their crowding into substandard areas, had set the stage for civil strife. The “McCone Report” to Governor Edmond Brown expresses what I think was the common consensus at the time, that black unrest throughout the United States was due to the following “fundamental causes”:
- Not enough jobs to go around, and within this scarcity not enough by a wide margin of a character which the untrained Negro could fill.
- Not enough schooling designed to meet the special needs of the disadvantaged Negro child, whose environment from infancy onward places him under a serious handicap.
- A resentment, even hatred, of the police, as the symbol of authority. (127)
Crump, whose views were certainly “liberal” as defined in the mid-1960s, accepts this assessment, while agreeing with the popular criticism that the report did not offer anything new. He also considers many other possible aggravating factors, ranging from the influence of TV shows showing all white people as affluent and happy, to the irritating effects of the hot weather and smog!
But how does one really explain acts of violence performed by a mob? Here, Crump seems to be at a loss:
The Los Angeles riots were motivated by as many factors, with varying intensities of course, as there were rioters. Investigating commissions can only make generalities as to the causes: it would require an army of skilled psychologists to interview each rioter at the moment of violence to determine his or her motivations in joining the frenzied, angry mob.
The individual answers would vary radically, just as there are variants in human personalities.
Rioting might attract one person because of deep, unhappy feelings over denials of rights to the Negro race, while another might rush to join the destruction simply because he loves violence. The opportunity to obtain – gratis – the treasures displayed in a store window could be the incentive for rioting.
Yet another person might be inclined to join the mob because of the fear that not to do so would indicate rejection of his race. Others might participate because of inclinations to be led easily.
The fact that approximately two-thirds of the rioters arrested had police records certainly indicates that the tragic Los Angeles violence in a sense was a criminal riot as well as one that drew participants of a particular race.
The immense unemployment problem in the area also gives speculation that the violence was a poverty riot even though its participants also had the pigmentation of their skin in common. (21)
I don’t think these would be the reasons given today, as I will explain momentarily, but I think that today we share the desire to explain, as in the report, a frightening phenomenon like a black riot in terms of controllable factors. What I don’t think white Americans were able to come to terms with in 1965 was that the riots were motivated by hatred of white people, and the predatory desire to hurt or kill them and take their property. This can be seen in photographs showing rioters leering at the camera with “we’re gonna get you” expressions and in others showing men, women, boys, and girls eagerly scrambling for looted merchandise. This is not a protest or a cry for help; it is a roaming pack of savages looking for prey.
Crump aims to give a balanced account: he considers the possibility that low numbers of black police officers, prejudiced treatment of black people by white officers, and other factors need to be addressed. He is mildly critical of Chief William H. Parker, the public figure hated most by L.A.’s blacks, whose attitude, which seems to me in fact the right one, can be gleaned from such statements as “I’m a policeman, not a social worker.” On the other hand, he gives little credence to the idea that there exists systematic “police brutality,” and speaks of “the Los Angeles Negro community’s almost fanatical distrust of police in general.” It does not occur to him that any serious checks should be made on police power.
Yet the book as a whole makes it very clear that U.S. society in 1965 was set and determined to solve the Negro problem through aggressive, expensive programs to correct the inequalities between blacks and whites in wealth, education, and power. The eruption of black riots might have provoked Americans to question the assumption that black discontent was based purely on material inequalities or the wish to be “included” in the larger society. Americans might have questioned whether ordinary school improvements in class size, library resources, and the like could have put a dent in the problem of black illiteracy:
On the basis of [achievement test] scores, it appears that the average student in the fifth grade in schools in the disadvantaged areas is unable to read and understand his textbook materials, to read and understand a daily newspaper, or to make use of reading and writing for ordinary purposes in his daily life. (Report, 141)
They might have scrutinized the words and actions of black leaders, such as the Reverend James Edward Jones, sole black member of the McCone commission, who objected to the report’s statement that efforts to ameliorate the condition of the Negro will be of no use “unless he helps himself.” Having been excluded from society, Jones said, they could not be expected to “take responsibility.” At what point, Americans might have asked, would the disadvantaged Negroes be ready to assume the responsibilities that go with citizenship, and until that happened, how were police and other authorities supposed to treat them?
But in the end, the only solution that Americans were able to contemplate was the institution of programs to end racial inequality. Such programs were presented, contradictorily, as being urgently needed while at the same time not at all certain to succeed:
What can be done to prevent a recurrence of the nightmare of August? It stands to reason that what we and other cities have been doing, costly as it all has been, is not enough. Improving the conditions of Negro life will demand adjustments on a scale unknown to any great society. The programs that we are recommending will be expensive and burdensome. And the burden, along with the expense, will fall on all segments of our society – on the public and private sectors, on industry and labor, on company presidents and hourly employees, and most indispensably, upon the members and leaders of the Negro community. For unless the disadvantaged are resolved to help themselves, whatever else is done by others is bound to fail. (Report, 128)
For the record, I do not wish to dismiss the grievances that must have been common to all black Americans in the early 1960s. Residents of the ghetto, in particular, probably had little contact with white people other than landlords, store owners, and police; and although I am certain that the majority of whites treated blacks decently, I am equally sure that all blacks had unpleasant experiences and felt themselves outside of the mainstream much of the time. Those of high ability must have been particularly frustrated. From a black point of view, things must look much better today, with the development of a substantial black middle class and with numerous blacks in positions of leadership.
However, in many ways the reforms have been a total failure. Conditions in the ghettos themselves appear to be even worse than they were in 1965. The rate of violent crime for black Americans is at least seven times that for whites. In government and education, race-based appointments of black people (I leave out the other ethnic groups from this discussion) have become standard practice, with all the associated corruption and dysfunction that one would expect.
Also, the riots themselves have now been widely legitimated as justified acts of protest. If Crump were to present his bland list of possible reasons for rioting today, he would be shouted down by people openly supporting the rioters. I imagine this would include nearly 100% of the black community. For instance, in this retrospective on the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles Times, one Tommy Jacquette boasts (I see that he has recently died) of his participation in those riots and defends them without reservation:
People keep calling it a riot, but we call it a revolt because it had a legitimate purpose. It was a response to police brutality and social exploitation of a community and of a people, and we would no more call this a riot than Jewish people would call the extermination of the Jewish people “relocation.” A riot is a drunken brawl at USC because they lost a football game.
Jacquette, incidentally, entered the same vocation as that formerly followed by Mr. Obama: he became a “community organizer.” I wonder what Mr. Obama’s view is on the Watts riots.
This brings me back to the Toxteth riots. For it may be that it is now time for Americans to learn from the British, and maybe wider European, experience. One of the most important things we should note about the Toxteth riots is how similar they were to the earlier riots in the United States. They, too, were triggered by encounters between urban blacks and white police, with the former claiming “racism” and “brutality” and engaging in the same type of destructive activity. And they, too, were followed by a massive expansion of programs designed to eliminate the inequality that was supposedly the cause of the violence. To me this suggests that the riots cannot be explained by the particular nature of American (or British) society, nor by the particular history of how a black minority came to exist in that society. They were, rather, the product of deep group differences between the white and the black elements in any society that has both.
Now, I would actually be sympathetic to the law-abiding black person who complains that he is the victim of undue attention from police. However, I believe this phenomenon is a reflection of a messy reality without any perfect solution. No social program can change the fact that in any white society with a sizable black minority, the white part will be forced to police the black part. This is true in terms of sheer numbers, of course, but it also true in the sense that that concentrated black populations tend to be more violent and disorderly than the surrounding white communities, which means that you will always end up with white police giving disproportionate attention to black people. This, in turn, will breed the hatred of the police that we saw in 1965 and that is still characteristic of urban blacks today. Undoubtedly, it will also breed a harsh attitude on the part of some of the white officers.
This may not be the dynamic that applies with other ethnic groups, but it always seems to apply in the white-black case. And this becomes a lose-lose situation for white policemen and other authority figures because if they enforce the law harshly they will be hated for “brutality,” and if they are lax they will be hated for “neglect.” Hiring a certain number of black policemen will also not solve the problem, because they will either be thought of as tools of the whites, or it will be demanded that their numbers be increased until they make up the majority of the police force. This is what we see in black cities like New Orleans. I’ll leave aside the issue of the actual quality of such police forces, and simply point out that this logically amounts either to segregation, or to the reversal of the original situation so that blacks police whites. It has not solved what seems to be a problem inherent to the coexistence of the two races in the same society.
A second point: acts of mob violence must be punished by retaliations that affect the community from which the violence originated. The McCone report recognized the need to maintain authority:
Our society is held together by respect for law. A group of officers who represent a tiny fraction of one percent of the population is the thin thread that enforces observance of law by those few who would do otherwise. If police authority is destroyed, if their effectiveness is impaired, and if their determination to use the authority vested in them to preserve a law abiding community is frustrated, all of society will suffer because groups would feel free to disobey the law and inevitably their number would increase. Chaos might easily result. (Report, p. 134)
But Americans were unwilling to consider that perhaps the only way to enforce that “respect for law” was to allow the group that flouted it to suffer, collectively, the consequences of doing so. I would suggest that the period following the Watts riots was the wrong period to initiate a set of programs providing benefits for the black residents of that area. I do not know what should have been done, but it should have involved, if anything, a visible reduction of existing benefits and a ratcheting up of security and law enforcement. (I imagine significant improvements were made in some police procedures.) Instead, America moved ahead with its liberal solution to the problem.
There are intractable differences between whites and blacks on the group level, although these can often be overcome, and may not even matter in many cases, on the individual level. I would like to see more white Americans take an honest look at these differences and ask themselves how these differences might be managed in a way that does not require them to give up their safety, comfort, self-esteem, and cultural standards. These may seem like bleak and unsatisfying conclusions. But recognizing the constraints that reality sets upon us is the very thing that can free us to take actions that, while not leading to any utopia, may actually work.
Spencer Crump, Black Riot in Los Angeles, Los Angeles: Trans-Anglo Books, 1966.