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The Legacy of the Watts Riots By: Abraham H. Miller
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 11, 2005


Forty years ago this August, a routine traffic stop in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts erupted into the most intense and dramatic riot up to its time, eclipsing all the riots of the previous summer in its devastation. Even the word “Watts” has become synonymous with the image of mayhem in the streets and plumes of acrid smoke rising from American cities.

The revolutionary romantics of the time, both in and outside of academia, seized upon the riots to create an agenda for social change. Underlying that agenda was their assertion that the riots were a direct consequence of black oppression and their warning that the riots were harbingers of a greater fire next time. That agenda and its false premises are still with us, an integral part of the liberal mythology that dominates what professors teach about race relations and what is commonly accepted as good public policy.

The wondrous “scientific” logic of the times was that blacks were poor, deprived and discriminated against; ergo, poverty, deprivation and discrimination naturally lead to riots. It was the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Night follows day; therefore, surely day must cause night.

But these explanations were not just illogical. They were also ahistorical. In much of the prior century it was the middle class that ran into the streets and rioted. Moreover, throughout the first part of the twentieth century, it wasn’t blacks that rioted, but whites.

Nor was discrimination the obvious wellspring of the riots. What the social scientists and revolutionary romantics failed to comprehend was that the riots were taking place in those American cities most receptive to blacks. Los Angeles, one of the best places in America for blacks to live, belched forth the smoke of civil violence. Conversely, areas with a darker racial past did not fall into the grip of riots. In Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, the only smoke climbing upward was from the steel plants. Mississippi burned not from black unrest, but from Klan violence. Beyond that, deprivation, poverty and discrimination within the black community had been far greater in other decades. Yet, unlike in 1965, there had been no long hot summers of riots. If one were looking for a causal relationship, instead of a slogan, those observations should have cast doubt on the usual poverty and discrimination explanation as a cause of the riots.

A cold-eyed study of the facts, however, was not high on social scientists’ agenda. Instead, they saw the riots as a golden opportunity to influence social policy through a pseudo science that confirmed their ideological predispositions about the riots. The romantic revolutionaries, meanwhile, could interpret the riots as a symptom of the growing rage in the black community that had to be addressed before it evolved into a full-scale black revolution.

Against this backdrop, President Lyndon Baines Johnson established the Kerner Commission, under the direction of former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to find the root causes of the riots. Johnson was not without an agenda, and his commissioners were chosen because they could be counted on to draw conclusions that would underscore the necessity of Johnson’s Great Society programs.

But this liberal agenda was not sufficiently radical for the commission’s behind-the-scenes research director, social psychologist Robert Shellow. His staff produced a report as incendiary as the riots themselves. Titled, “The Harvest of American Racism,” Shellow glorified the riots as nothing less than a revolutionary uprising that could only justly be dealt with by a major transformation of the African-American community. If mayhem, arson, looting and killing warranted sanctification, Shellow was more than happy to provide it. Even for liberals, this was too much. Shellow’s “Harvest” document so enraged his superiors that 120 social scientists and investigators were summarily fired.

But the damage was done. The Kerner Commission Report, the foundation for the pervasive national mythology of the riots, was dramatically influenced by Shellow’s “Harvest.” The Kerner report preserved Shellow’s view that blacks were a colonized race living under oppression, and that it was the larger society, not the rioters, that had to answer for the riots. Kerner also affirmed Shellow’s idea that the riots were acts of revolutionary nihilism directed at positive social change—an oxymoron that, perhaps, only a nihilist could appreciate. The mantra of the Kerner report was strikingly similar to Shellow’s conclusion: “white racism caused the riots.”

The Kerner Commission was not the only commission appointed to study the civil unrest of the 1960’s. The Eisenhower Commission, chaired by Milton Eisenhower, Columbia University president and brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower, was tasked with a mandate that led to an inquiry into civil violence. The commission’s focus included the riots but extended far beyond it. Published not as a single report but a series of task force reports, the most famous of the Eisenhower Commission’s products was Jerome Skolnick’s The Politics of Protest.

The foreword to Skolnick’s work presented America with one of the most fatuous and controversial theories ever created by the social science of the time and two black psychiatrists, Price Cobbs and William Grier, fastened on it to promulgate their theory of black rage.  According to Cobbs and Grier, black rage was a seething anger that white oppression had created within a substantial portion of the black community. The riots were simply a manifestation of black rage, which Cobbs and Grier alleged was a phenomenon they had clinically observed.

Like the mythology of the Kerner Commission Report, the mythology of black rage became a catchall to justify the riots. Every individual act of black violence could now be justified by this engaging theory; whether the crime in question was rape or murder, it was all explicable as a function of black rage—caused, of course, by white racism.

Never had all the violent acts of one group of people been so totally absolved by placing the responsibility for them on another.  Leftist attorney William Kunstler even molded black rage into a legal defense, and it was used unsuccessfully in the Colin Ferguson case. Ferguson had, without provocation, slaughtered six white passengers on a Long Island commuter train.  According to his defense attorney, this was a manifestation of “black rage.”

Of course, not everyone bought into this silliness. Harvard sociologist Edward Banfield observed that the rioters were primarily young males whose politics led them to target liquor stores, and noted that the riots occurred on hot, sultry summer nights. This led him to conclude that the riots erupted merely “for fun and profit.” To Banfield and other observers, the riots had all the political content of a late spring panty raid on a college campus.  

So why did Banfield’s conclusion escape the commissions investigating the Watts riots? In large part, it was because they were committed to using empirical studies to confirm what they had been predisposed to believe. Never did they grapple with the possibility that the riots had nothing to do with racial grievances, or that they stemmed from the immediate gratification found in the carnival atmosphere of the moment. To entertain such a hypothesis would have been beyond the capacities of the social scientists that worked for the commissions. It would have been anathema to the poverty and civil rights establishments.

Evidence suggests, however, that this is what generally happens in riots. Police have reported on the phenomenon of arrested rioters sitting in holding cells and watching pundits on television and then parroting their expressions of “deprivation” and “alienation,” so as to justify their actions. Damian Williams, the man who beat and actually danced around the unconscious body of white truck driver Reginald Denny, during the 1992 Rodney King riots, claimed he had no idea what the Rodney King verdict was. He justified his actions by claiming he got caught up in the violence itself. Most of us, of course, choose to walk away from violence and not get “caught up” in it. Similarly, British soccer rioters do not themselves complain of grievances, oppression or deprivation (albeit some social scientists have been happy to reconstruct their behavior in those terms). Rather, soccer rioters talk about “getting off” on the sheer pleasure of the riots or having an “aggro,” as they refer to the ecstasy derived from engaging in violence.

Riots often occur because of the immediate gratification of the violence and the carnival atmosphere of the moment. But while one can say that about soccer riots, spring break in Florida, celebrations of athletic victories or any of a number of similar events, one cannot say that about the riots in black urban neighborhoods without being called a “racist.” Little wonder, then, that the commissions of the sixties refused even to consider that the riots were political only in the sense that they served the needs of the poverty industry—the scores of liberal academicians, legislators and so-called civil rights leaders bent on remedying America’s social ills with expansive and expensive government programs.

Every decennial anniversary of the Watts riots or the commission reports brings the poverty and civil rights industries before the cameras. Their spokesmen repeat the same worn clichés and advocate the same failed policies of pumping billions into the abyss of the inner city. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, Vera Kimble, of the Eisenhower Foundation, advocated spending no less than thirty billion on the inner city to deal with the root causes of the riots.

Kimble might be shocked to know that today, after millions of dollars spent on research, we have come no closer to identifying the root causes of riots. What we do know is that the theories under which the commissions of the 60s operated had little basis in fact. As early as 1971, sociologist Clark McPhail found that the cherished theories about the frustration, aggression, and relative deprivation of many urban blacks—the cornerstones of the commissions’ thinking—could not be sustained by meaningful statistical evidence.

Standing nearly a quarter of a century later from his perch as President of the American Sociological Association, McPhail again called for moving beyond the models that had influenced the commissions toward a study of the riots themselves. Specifically, he suggested partitioning the riots into different behaviors by different actors on different days.

One who took up that suggestion was the journalist Eugene Methvin. Methvin was, perhaps, the first to undertake such a systematic analysis, and he documented how to prevent riots. But it was hardly what the liberal establishment wanted to hear. Methvin found that the greatest deterrent to a riot was not an understanding of root causes or implementation of social programs but a fast and decisive police response. In a comparative study of the Watts riots and the Rodney King riots, I later found that Methvin was uncannily correct.

The Watts riots were quenched when then Inspector Daryl Gates decided that the tactics of riot control where not applicable to the mobile hit-and-run rioting the Los Angeles police encountered in Watts. Gates teamed police cars filled with heavily armed officers to intercept the rioters, and then proceeded to process and detain rioters at the scene. This way, officers would not be going back and forth from the riot scene to book the rioters. Once these alternations in police response were implemented, the Watts riot began to subside.

Unfortunately, the police failed to heed that lesson. During the 1992 King riots, the Los Angeles police, for reasons that one can only speculate about, did none of the things they had learned from Watts. Gates, then chief of police, lingered at a dinner and then took a helicopter ride over the city as it burned, while the police response remained without a central command structure or decision making authority.

To be sure, some observers have opined that in the racially tense atmosphere of Los Angeles in 1992, the police did not want cameras instantly televising live coverage of scores of young black males in handcuffs, surrounded by heavily armed police. But it remains the case that by adopting a less assertive approach, the LAPD allowed the riots to escalate to ever greater heights of destruction. When the police backed off, as had police in other cities in the 1960’s, riots grew in intensity, numbers and duration. The flames burned out of control.

If there is one thing we’ve learned about controlling riots it is this: a fast, decisive police response works. Indeed, even the vaunted Kerner Commission said as much; it was just one of those parts of the report that no one was enthusiastic about underscoring. It was much easier and seemingly much more compassionate to point the finger at white racism and the need for social programs.

As we once again face another decennial anniversary of the Watts riot, be prepared to hear the shrill voice of the poverty industry citing Kerner and demanding the infusion of money into the ghettos. As you listen, keep in mind that despite the dire predictions of the Kerner Commission and liberal academics about the future of race relations, since the 1960’s African Americans have achieved more integration, more social mobility, and more political power in a shorter amount of time than any minority group anywhere on the planet. This is a tribute not to the riots and certainly not to ineffectual social programs. It is a tribute to the historic civil rights movement and America’s democratic institutions.

Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati. He has written extensively on the black urban riots in both popular and academic venues, and authored the Los Angeles Times editorial essay on the tenth anniversary of the Watts riot.


Abraham H. Miller is emeritus professor, University of Cincinnati. He has written extensively on the Middle East for both academic and popular venues.


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