John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at the University of California-Berkeley and a leading advocate for a return to self-reliance in black communities, has this fine piece in the Washington Post reminding us that this August marks not only the 40th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act but the 40th anniversary of the Watts Riots in south-central Los Angeles.
The riots raged in Watts for six days, leaving 34 people dead and hundreds of buildings destroyed, including the heart of the African-American business district. The Watts riots helped trigger a spate of similar bouts of burning and looting in cities across the nation throughout the late 1960s and sporadically afterwards. Many inner-city landscapes never recovered from the devastation. As McWhorter notes, the riots marked a change in the attitudes of America’s black leadership, from the morally grounded integrationism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the angry confrontationalism of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton–and also the beginning of the morally debilitating welfare culture in poor black communities.
Here are some excerpts:
“The worst riots happened in places where conditions for blacks were best. If one had to predict in August 1965 where black-led riots might be most likely, the obvious choice would have been the deep South. And yet, very few of the riots in the late ’60s took place in the most bigoted region in America: There was no memorable race riot in Atlanta or Birmingham. As for Watts, just the year before the riots, the National Urban League had rated Los Angeles the best city in the nation for blacks to live in. Several studies have shown no correlation between the destructiveness of the black-led riots in a given city and conditions for blacks there….
“The idea that rebellion for its own sake was the soul of black authenticity began with some charismatic figures like Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, but soon imprinted a new generation of black artists and intellectuals. The new mood was seductive in its visceral impact, especially to a people whose history had given them so little else to base an identity upon….
“This was not only the physical destruction still on view in the black sections of cities like Detroit, or in less renowned cities like Indianapolis, where solid businesses never returned after the 1967 riot, leaving once-fabled Indiana Avenue hard to imagine as anything but the downmarket stretch that it has since been. There is the deeper destruction that was ultimately wrought. The hopeless plight of today’s black inner city is often blamed on the flight of low-skilled factory jobs and the rise of drugs in poor urban neighborhoods. These factors surely contributed to inner-city misery, but my research leads me to conclude that they were hardly the leading causes of the psychic deterioration that soon overtook poor black America. That, instead, was the urban welfare state that was in large part the product of the model of high-pitched, menacing protest that had now been established.
“That model was quickly taken up by the National Welfare Rights Organization the year after Watts. As has been documented in many studies, Columbia University professors Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven declared to the press and beyond that poor blacks would be better off seeking welfare payments than working in low-level jobs. They explicitly predicted that if they brought enough people onto the welfare rolls, it would force the government to give a guaranteed income to all poor people. They taught a squadron of activists, many of them black women, to stage rallies across the country and disrupt public meetings calling for welfare to be easier to get, more generous and easier to stay on.
“Rarely has radical idealism had such a destructive effect on so many lives. Before the ’60s, welfare payments had been intended for widows and women whose children’s fathers were nowhere to be found. But in the wake of the new agitation, municipal governments relaxed the old requirements bit by bit.
“The new politics of protest was a potent weapon. The riots loomed always as a threat (partly because the Black Panthers loomed menacingly at many of the rallies), and many politicians knuckled under. From 1966 to 1970, the number of people on welfare nationwide doubled from under 500,000 to almost a million. This was not part of Washington’s Great Society agenda, which focused on job creation and training. It was a radical side effort, with grievous consequences.
“The change was most profound in black communities — because blacks had been the main target of the recruitment efforts. In Indiana from 1964 to 1972, welfare recipiency tripled in only 11 of 92 counties. Of those 11, only one did not have a heavy black population — in a state where about 75 counties were almost all white and poverty widespread in about 30 of them.
“Over the next 30 years, multigenerational families lived on government money, fathers had no incentive to take care of the children they made, and poor black communities devolved from shabby but stable slums into hopeless, violent deathscapes. This lasted for so long that the precarious stability of old-time black communities was all but forgotten. But while communities changed, black attitude and political protest as performance has come to seem normal. The models for leadership are not Shirley Chisholms, but talkers like Al Sharpton. And when a spark falls, like the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the same impulses and often the same type of violence travel through black communities as did in Watts.”
It’s heartbreaking, but it’s a must-read.