Sharply contradicting the popular assumption that the 1992 riots were a "wake-up call" for Los Angeles, a UCLA survey has found that the cataclysmic events of this spring did very little to alter residents' attitudes about economic, ethnic, political and social life.
In a wide-ranging telephone poll conducted before the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case, then repeated immediately afterward, researchers found that the riots did not measurably change residents' perceptions about the quality of life in Los Angeles County. Confidence in local government remained tepid. Fear of crime--already high--got no higher.
Even before the civil unrest, residents felt such despair that "there was little room," said the survey, "to further shift opinion in a negative direction."
Moreover, the survey found little evidence of the positive change that some analysts had predicted would occur in the riots' wake. In the aftermath of the most destructive civil disturbance in the United States in this century, the survey found county residents had no renewed commitment to addressing poverty, racial inequality or prejudice. And negative ethnic stereotypes, though they did not increase appreciably after the riots, appeared firmly held.
"We often tend to assume that people's basic assumptions are affected by events this dramatic and costly," said Larry Bobo, a UCLA sociology professor and the principal author of the annual study, called the Los Angeles County Social Survey. "But unfortunately, it doesn't appear that a lot of basic assumptions were moved very far."
That bodes ill, Bobo said, for the future of Los Angeles. He said that although the survey stops short of predicting another riot, its findings support no other conclusion.
"If one had to make a prediction," he said, "sadly, that would be the prediction that we aren't really likely to see fundamental change of the sort that addresses the basic problems--in part, because people are really not thinking in greatly different ways about (those) problems. . . . That's one of the reasons why history repeats itself."
The poll consisted of interviews with 1,869 Los Angeles County residents selected at random. About half were interviewed before the riots and half afterward. The survey results, while overwhelmingly stable, noted a few significant shifts in opinion after April 29, when the verdicts were announced. Among them:
* More Anglos said they were open to residential integration. Asked if they would favor living in a neighborhood where half their neighbors were of a different ethnic group, many more Anglos said yes after the riots than had before. Among Asians, blacks and Latinos, there was no significant change.
* Blacks became more alienated. Several questions sought to measure how ethnic groups feel about the social and economic opportunities available to them. While the responses of Asians, Latinos and Anglos were unchanged by the verdicts, the responses of blacks--and particularly of upper-income blacks--indicated a "strong and uniform rise in black alienation from American social institutions," the survey found.
* Asian-Americans became slightly but significantly more hostile toward blacks. Before the riots, 20.8% said blacks were more likely than Asians to be easy to get along with, but that fell to 9.5% after the riots. Similarly, 11.3% of Asians interviewed before April 29 said blacks were more intelligent than Asians. Afterward, just 2.9% said blacks were smarter.
* Confidence in the police declined among Anglos. Thirteen percent of white respondents expressed "not much" confidence in the police before the riots, as compared to 20.5% afterward. In contrast, the views of Asians, blacks and Latinos remained the same. Before and after the riots, 56% of blacks expressed "not much" confidence in the police, as compared to 31.1% of Latinos and 26.3% of Asians.
In releasing the survey for publication today, UCLA researchers touted it as a historic document that provides the first opportunity to compare public opinion on race and ethnic relations before and after an explosive event. In its conclusion, the survey suggests that its findings "may help explain why these problems arise again and again."
"As many riots and rebellions as this country has had," Bobo said, "we've never had a before-and-after sampling that deals specifically with intergroup relations. Now we have a record of the fact that, contrary to a lot of anecdotal thinking and commentary, (most) things didn't change. . . . And I strongly suspect that (the same lack of public reaction) went on after each previous round of these type of events."