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Watts: Out of the Fire : Race: 25 years after the Los Angeles riot, many blacks are better off, but far moreare not. How has this happened?

August 05, 1990|Robert Conot | Robert Conot is the author of "Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness: The History of the Watts Riot," and of the "Profiles of Disorder" section of the 1968 Kerner Commission report

It has been 25 years since the Watts riot flashed across America's consciousness like a lightning bolt amid a thunderstorm of racial dis harmony. Watts made a statement: of growing black power in cities; of anger at American casuistry in preaching democracy abroad while continuing to practice discrimination at home; of generations of blacks deprived of opportunity through repression and exploitation; of a substantial part of the population alienated from mainstream society.

Coming near the high-water mark of the great black urban migration that began with World War II, and within a year of passage of civil-rights and anti-poverty legislation, Watts is an important benchmark. How does the condition of blacks today compare with then?

De jure segregation is gone. Discrimination in jobs, education and housing has largely been eliminated. Blacks have moved into high-visibility, role-model positions. The number of black officials has multiplied from fewer than 1,200 in 1969 to 7,200 in 1989. Blacks are or have been mayors of most of America's largest cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, New Orleans. Last year, Virginia elected the nation's first black governor since Reconstruction.

Numerous blacks have become instant millionaires: 75% of pro basketball players, 60% of pro football players and 17% of baseball players are black. Some of the most popular and highest-paid entertainment figures--Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor--are black.

But de facto economic segregation remains in housing and education. The gap between the median family income of whites and blacks has increased, in constant dollars, from $10,400 in 1960 to $14,600 in 1988. The problems of crime, gangs and drugs are no nearer solution. Blacks are imprisoned at nearly four times their proportion of the population, and graduate from college at half the white rate.

It is a mixed bag. But it is not a paradox. Rather, it is the logical result of the policies and developments of the past 20 years.

Even as the civil-rights legislation took root, the War on Poverty was aborted in its infancy. Though some of the smorgasbord of programs were no things of beauty, it is a national tragedy that such successes as Head Start have been unable to enroll more than one-sixth of those eligible because of a lack of funds. It is equally distressing that because of the coincidence of the civil-rights struggle and the War on Poverty, the latter came to be seen as a program primarily for the benefit of blacks instead of what it was initially intended to be and should have been--a means for the economic improvement of all the disadvantaged.

In a nutshell, what has happened is that civil-rights legislation opened opportunities for blacks equipped with the education necessary to take advantage of them. But in an era of disappearing blue-collar jobs and ever-higher skill requirements for well-paying ones, the masses of poor youth have not been receiving that education. Consequently, the increasing disparity between affluence and poverty in the population in general is even more pronounced among blacks. Among whites in 1987 (the latest year for which figures are available), the top economic 20% received 42.9% of all income, while the bottom 40% got 16.3%. Among blacks, the top 20% received 47.4%, the bottom 40% only 12%.

It is clear that prepared blacks have taken advantage of the opportunities. The Los Angeles municipal work force, for example, has been between 22% and 25% black during the last two decades, substantially exceeding the proportion of blacks in the population (16.7%) and the black labor force (14.0%), according to the 1980 census. Moreover, in 1973 (when records were first kept) there were only a handful of minorities (three blacks, six Latinos and three Asians) among the city's 227 officials and administrators. Today, there are 159 of 616 (62 blacks, 46 Latinos and 53 Asians). Among professional employees, the three minorities each have more than tripled their numbers, and, combined, account for almost 42% of professional workers.

Indeed, in the evolving new Southern California, there is as much competition between blacks, Latinos and Asians as between any of the three groups and whites. By and large, it is Latinos and Asians who are displacing whites, whose share of municipal jobs has declined, from 64% to 47%, during the last 16 years. And it is Asians, with their superior education, who are making the most notable gains,

We have in the region the greatest ethnic mix in world history. Latinos, whose economic status and problems are comparable to those of blacks, now make up 35% of the county's population, compared with 42% for non-Spanish-surname whites. During the mid-1990s, they will become the largest single ethnic group. Asians are rapidly surpassing blacks in number.

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