The Fire This Time

The black-white divide is in sharp focus again, 22 years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: A man passes in front of a line of policemen in Los Angeles, 30 April 1992. Riots broke out in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted four police officers accused of beating a black youth, Rodney King, in 1991, hours after the verdict was announced. (Photo credit should read MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Aug. 21, 2014, 1 a.m.

The 1992 Los Angeles ri­ots that fol­lowed the not-guilty ver­dict in the po­lice beat­ing of black mo­tor­ist Rod­ney King were prob­ably the last time the fraught re­la­tion­ship between Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and law en­force­ment gal­van­ized as much at­ten­tion as it has since the death of Mi­chael Brown in Fer­guson, Mo.

The King ver­dict, and the an­guish and vi­ol­ence it ig­nited, flared late in the 1992 pres­id­en­tial primary sea­son, and it promp­ted Bill Clin­ton, then near­ing the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion, to ditch his sched­ule and fly to Los Angeles. As the polit­ic­al re­port­er for the Los Angeles Times, I shad­owed him through battered streets in South Cent­ral L.A. where he stood be­fore smol­der­ing build­ings and bent low to talk with res­id­ents who some­times shook with sad­ness and rage.

In everything he said then, Clin­ton ac­know­ledged that while the King beat­ing provided the spark, the ex­plo­sion also tapped much deep­er frus­tra­tions. Speak­ing at a black church in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., just be­fore he flew to Cali­for­nia, Clin­ton power­fully framed the un­der­ly­ing is­sue. “We must not al­low this coun­try to drift apart fur­ther by race and in­come,” he said. “Let us pray for the United States that some­how, some way, we will learn the deep­er les­son of the last few days: that we are drift­ing apart when we ought to be com­ing to­geth­er.”

Twenty-two years later, the ac­rid af­ter­math of Brown’s death of­fers an op­por­tun­ity to meas­ure how well the U.S. has met Clin­ton’s test of bridging ra­cial di­vides. In some re­spects, the situ­ation of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans has im­proved since 1992; in oth­ers, con­di­tions are worse. But the over­all pic­ture is of dis­ap­point­ingly little change: The Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity faces many of the same bar­ri­ers, and jagged ra­cial dis­par­it­ies, as it did when L.A. burned.

The most pos­it­ive trend is in edu­ca­tion. Just over one in five young Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans (ages 25-29) now hold at least a four-year col­lege de­gree, com­pared with about one in eight two dec­ades ago, census fig­ures show. Those edu­ca­tion­al gains have slightly swelled the black middle class: Meas­ured in con­stant dol­lars, more than 34 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an house­holds now earn at least $50,000 an­nu­ally, com­pared with just un­der 30 per­cent in 1992.

Yet the over­all in­come pic­ture for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans isn’t as en­cour­aging. After in­creas­ing by nearly a third dur­ing Clin­ton’s pres­id­ency””over twice the gains among whites””the me­di­an in­come for blacks since 2000 has fallen much faster than for whites. The res­ult is that the typ­ic­al Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­ily is earn­ing only about 10 per­cent more than in 1992, a mea­ger gain. Today, the me­di­an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­ily earns only about three-fifths as much as the equi­val­ent white fam­ily””not stat­ist­ic­ally dif­fer­ent than in 1992, or even 1972.

The gap in poverty rates for blacks and whites has nar­rowed some­what since 1992, but blacks (and black chil­dren) re­main about three times as likely to be poor. Partly be­cause Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans suffered more from the hous­ing crash, the me­di­an white fam­ily now holds more than 14 times as much wealth as the typ­ic­al black fam­ily, a gap about one-third wider than in 1992.

Blacks are also much more likely than whites to be isol­ated in neigh­bor­hoods of con­cen­trated poverty. Stud­ies us­ing census data have found that the over­all level of hous­ing se­greg­a­tion has (very) slightly de­clined since the 1970s””partly be­cause that grow­ing black middle-class has great­er ca­pa­city to leave troubled neigh­bor­hoods. But that mi­gra­tion, along with the wealth gap and oth­er factors in­clud­ing re­sid­ual hous­ing dis­crim­in­a­tion, have left poor black fam­il­ies much more likely than poor whites to live in high-poverty neigh­bor­hoods. “Poor blacks are def­in­itely isol­ated from middle-class blacks, and very isol­ated from middle-class folks in gen­er­al,” says Sean Rear­don, a Stan­ford Uni­versity edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or who stud­ies res­id­en­tial trends. That in turn ex­plains why nearly three-fourths of young Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, com­pared with three in 10 whites, at­tend pub­lic schools where most stu­dents qual­i­fy as poor.

The dole­ful stat­ist­ics now grabbing head­lines on Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans’ ex­per­i­ence with vi­ol­ence and in­car­cer­a­tion rep­res­ent only the dis­pir­it­ing end of this dreary pipeline. Al­though it has de­clined since 1992, the hom­icide rate for black men re­mains 17 times the level for white men. And while the in­car­cer­a­tion rate for black men peaked in 2001, it re­mains slightly high­er than in 1992””and over six times the level for white men. Oth­er rel­ev­ant in­dic­at­ors, from stu­dent read­ing scores to single par­ent­hood, show sim­il­arly stub­born ra­cial gaps.

The polit­ic­al de­bate over these dis­par­it­ies usu­ally pits con­ser­vat­ives fo­cused on per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity against lib­er­als stress­ing so­cial and eco­nom­ic forces. But as Clin­ton pas­sion­ately ar­gued back in 1992, any ser­i­ous ef­fort to im­prove con­di­tions must link op­por­tun­ity and re­spons­ib­il­ity.

“It is cer­tainly the case that per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity con­trib­utes to suc­cess,” agrees Richard Reeves, policy dir­ect­or of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Cen­ter on Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies. “It is also true that the pro­spect of suc­cess in life is es­sen­tial to help­ing people de­vel­op per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity. It cuts both ways.”

Re­mem­ber­ing that may be the key to sli­cing through the Gor­d­i­an knots of poverty, isol­a­tion, and ali­en­a­tion that still en­tangle too many Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies 22 years after the fire last time in Los Angeles.

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