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Outlook: The Negative Impact of the Watts Riots

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John McWhorter
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
Monday, August 15, 2005; 1:00 PM

They were five days of flaming riot that left the black community of Los Angeles scorched and smoldering. On the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, many remember them as the moment when a fed-up black America inevitably rose up to protest injustices it wouldn't take anymore. But Manhattan Institute senior fellow John McWhorter sees the moment differently. In his Sunday Outlook piece, he argues that the Watts riots ushered in a new mood in black America, a militant acting out that was more about posturing than promoting progress for the community and its poor. Casting aside the sincere, constructive approach of earlier civil rights leaders, a new cadre of young, rabble-rousing activists pushed rebellion for rebellion's sake -- with grievous consequences for black America that persist to this day.

John McWhorter , a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of a forthcoming book on the subject, was online Monday, Aug. 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article, Burned, Baby, Burned .

The transcript follows.

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Boston, Mass.: Thank you, Mr. McWhorter, for such a great and powerful article. What will it take for inner-city African-Americans to realize that it is the actions of the progressive left (i.e., the "National Welfare Rights Organization") and not those of the "reactionary right" that are responsible for their plight? Considering the percentages of African-Americans who vote for the same types of people who fostered such destructive policies, it doesn't seem like the truth is anywhere close to getting through.

John McWhorter: The change is happening slowly. Lots of black folks are realizing that the Democratic Party has no reason to work for their benefit when our vote is so predictable. The task ahead is to realize that black progress will not involve a Second Civil Rights Revolution, and that today, realism dictates that we teach one another to make the best of the situation that we are in. It will be slow work, but it doesn't need to be that slow. It's a matter of changing the lens people view these things through. I think the center of black American political thought is changing -- on race, editorial pages from ten years ago already look a bit antique, often.

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Laurel, Md.: What is being done to encourage urban renewal via small businesses from the black community? Instead, immigrants, esp. Asians,and corporations have been rebuilding the inner cities with their investments--businesses, as you pointed out, that have been struck by riots.

John McWhorter: That kind of effort is happening slowly. The first step is helping people stuck in such communities to get beyond, and most cities have an organization or two chipping away at that. Small businesses are crucial, too, and I do wish more people were working at that more directly. There are scattered initiatives teaching young blacks from bad neighborhoods about business beyond selling drugs -- I hope they start having a real effect over this generation.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: From my limited knowledge of the issue, based on acquaintances on welfare, or those that we help in the community through our outreach program, I agree with your assessment of what has happened to our community. What was once considered shameful became an entitlement, with all of the horrible side affects that accompany dependency. However, I am willing to bet that before this hour is up, you will have been upbraided.

Question: What do you see as possible solutions to the problem? Let me state that I know from experience that simply saying to someone "Get up and get moving" will not work! The children of the children of the children of the '60's have no experience to draw on, and the people who would set the example for them have run as far as they can away from the underprivileged communities to escape the attitudes and crime of their former neighbors. I know because we ran last year.

John McWhorter: Luckily, the solution has already happened. Welfare reform in 1996 became what welfare should be -- a temporary program focused on helping people find work again. The current program needs better child care, and some other things, but it is having laudable results.

The tragedy is that the distortion of welfare in the late 1960's -- a lost chapter in black history -- dragged poor blacks through a thirty year period that has left us with so much of what is still killing people in inner cities.

For that reason I think of the Watts period as the beginning of a long, dark time that we are blissfully coming out of -- albeit very slowly.

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Washington, D.C.: this was an amazingly poorly argued piece: what on earth is the link between Watts and the Great Society programs that McWhorter blasts? he never makes the case for any cause-and-effect relationship. And surely the federal government and LBJ had something to do with the Great Society, rather than just blaming it on looters?

John McWhorter: I draw no link between the Great Society programs and Watts, and have no problem with the Great Society programs.

The link is between a certain side by-product of countercultural politics (in themselves laudable) and Watts. My wording makes it clear that this is my cause-and-effect.

Nor did Watts have much to do with Great Society legislation afterwards, which was already in full swing.

I argue in the piece that Watts created the agitation to bring poor blacks onto welfare who had not been aware they needed it before. And I also clearly say that this was NOT part of the Great Society.

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Columbus, Miss.: Dear John, I enjoyed Sunday's piece on the Watts riots and the analogy followed. I don't have a question, just a comment. I've been told that a similar riot occurred in Starkville, Mississippi in the '40's or '50's. I've never come across any documentation to substantiate it - but I've heard oral stories about blacks rioting in the town.

I'm a graduate of Mississippi State University, which is located in Starkville.

I was born and raised in neighboring Columbus, Mississippi (20 miles east of Starkville).

Given north Mississippi's legacy/history of a strong civil rights/activism it would not surprise me if were true.

I was born there in the mid-60's; the area is sprinkled with pockets of segregated all-black communities (where blacks lived on land passed down to them).

I live in Western Maryland and work in D.C.

John McWhorter: There were definitely scattered black-led riots before 1965, but none of remotely the size and impact of what happened in Watts. So, for example, a fracas in Harlem was one thing -- "Watts is burning" is another. And then after Watts, events of that kind became normal for three years.

So it's a matter of degree -- certainly the event you heard of likely did occur, and likely in response to something disgusting a white policeman did, or a rumor that got around to that effect based on something bad but more ambiguous (a Harlem episode comes to mind).

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Kansas City, Mo.: I am always fascinated by those who write academically on this subject with the disclaimer "I was not there" because there is a lot to be said for "being there," as I was. No amount of studies, etc. can substitute for the very real emotional impact the various riots had on black Americans at a time when Dr. King was asking "How long?" And, as has often been said, blacks would gladly have burned down Beverly Hills instead of their own roach-infested neighborhood had they been able to get anywhere near it. I just think there is room for both sides of the struggle, as it were: Dr. King realized a need for the Malcolm Xs; sometimes wars must be fought on two fronts.

John McWhorter: I am all for the Civil Rights movement, and I can even understand people who were impatient with nonviolence. My problem is with any political activism that is not based on a concrete plan for action, and is motivated more by just the heat of the event itself.

I can imagine how horrible it must have felt to live under segregation, and I also know that the US did not change overnight just because of some new laws in 1964 and 1965.

But I just can't see what good came out of those riots, especially when they helped set the scene for later "activism" that ended up leaving millions of poor black people even more miserable.

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Anonymous: I never thought about this "event" like this before. I've seen historical accounts and pictures of what riots did in the D.C. black community. It was clearly self destructive but I never considered the long term impacts especially on the civil rights movement or the general attitudes of those who became part of this process.

John McWhorter: It was something that concerned black leaders before that time would have found perplexing and disturbing -- because it was not focused on a plan of action.

It's easy to imagine being an individual caught up in it. But I question those who look back on it as "regrettable" but ultimately a valuable "wake up call" to white America.

Some influential whites woke up and sent poor black America into a tailspin.

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Landover, Md.: I'm sorry I haven't read your book or recent article. Could it have been any other way; the rabble rousing approach taken by black activists? Cultural revolution was in the air throughout American society, not simply the black community.

John McWhorter: That, in fact, is the argument of the article.

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Rockville, Md.: I must refute the statement at the beginning of the chat about "liberal organizations being bad for the African-American condition in America. In Louisville, Ky. in the 'conservative' fifties activist Ann (forget her last name) and her husband were arrested for sedition for trying to sell their home in an all-white neighborhood. It is this kind of "liberal" activism that has always tried to help the condition of minorities in America. Some legislation may have had a negative effect, but at least the left was trying to help, instead of hinder, which the conservatives still try to do.

John McWhorter: I would distinguish between liberal activism and leftist activism; the kind you refer to is obviously something few would have any problem with. Liberal activism created the America we now live in in terms of how the race situation is so much better than it was back then.

But another kind of activism had deleterious effects.

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Washington, D.C.: What strikes me as odd is the the tone of "I know what is better for you than you do" that you seem to denigrate when it comes to the left, you use in your article. Also, to add a question, who really is advocating welfare rights today? That certainly is not on the mainstream Democratic party's agenda or on the agenda with any group with power. It almost seems irrelevant to discuss.

John McWhorter: I think welfare reform, in 1996, was a great thing, and its results are not perfect, but too clearly better than the past for many to have a problem with now. You are right.

I just regret that the riot era began a 30-year period of destruction in poor black communities, which I believe the distortion of welfare at that time had quite a bit to do with.

As for whether "I know what is better," all I know how to do is try to spell out what my reasoning happened to be. That's all I meant by the article.

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Springfield, Va.: A great article and analysis! I am only disturbed to find, once again, that professors from a school I attended (Columbia) are once again found at the center of a lunatic social movement. Not in a million years would one of these bastards allow themselves, or any of their children, to become trapped in the welfare system. But they pushed it on others, all in the name of their socialist dream/nightmare of universal dependence on government. I was in NYC in the late 1970's, as the Bronx and other areas were crumbling from the social disintegration these people helped create.

My question is this: When is the Civil Rights movement going to be taken back by people like John McWhorter, who are not afraid to speak the truth? Why isn't the current Civil Rights leadership making any effort whatever to attack and denounce the culture of failure that is embraced and even celebrated by so many African Americans (and plenty of whites), while the community's children spiral down the drain?

I say, let those with the courage to speak and act, step forward now! The KKK never did so much damage to American blacks as the forces that McWhorter reveals in this essay.

John McWhorter: Luckily, the post-1960's Civil Rights orthodoxy is crumbling, and new black leaders are doing all kinds of good things. I doubt there will ever again be a nationally seismic "movement" -- but the work is being done bit by bit.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. McWhorter: Thank you for your provocative article. Lately there has been a fair amount of fiction which focuses on the riots in the 1960's: George Pelecanos in Hard Revolution discusses the several days of rioting in D.C. in almost clinical detail through the eyes of an African American policeman. Jeffrey Euginidies does the same in a portion of Middlesex through the eyes of the Greek immigrant who owns a restaurant in the eye of the riot in Detroit. Have you read either of these accounts?

John McWhorter: I've heard about the Pelecanos and am ashamed that I haven't gotten to it (partly because I did not retain the name). I've been doing a lot of nonfiction lately for the research I have been doing.

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Washington, D.C.: John, I know you speak a ton of languages; so I assume you have knowledge of the cultures that parallel them. Is there another society in the world that has the same problems with race and class and welfare as the U.S.?

John McWhorter: South Africa is on its way to possibly recapitulating a lot of what has happened here since the 1960's.

Of course the issues there are different -- serious segregation and legalized abuse are more recent there. But one can see the same drift happening, where ideology hardens and impedes true progress. I worry about that country in particular.

Also, the dispute between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka has interesting parallels to what has happened here, although we get less about that in the news unless someone happens to be murdered as occurred recently.

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Culpeper, Va.: Thank you for your article. It prompted me to read much of your other writings which I enjoyed as well.

I agree that there is something in the collective black psyche, for want of a better term, that even now likes to see retribution whether or not it is focused or even ultimately beneficial.

It makes me think of the desire so many blacks had to see O.J. Simpson set free. It also makes me think of a very intelligent black colleague of mine I knew back in law school who once told me that he detested Clarence Thomas because he was "too fair" and that any such person in his position should use it to "strike back" for black America in every circumstance.

Thoughts?

John McWhorter: There is a sense that more than a few black Americans have that the soul of black identity is rebellion and seeking payback.

This must be understood as the product of a time when that sentiment made perfect sense. Cultures do not change overnight, whether people are white, black, on top, on the bottom, or any combination.

Even today, I think usually black people espouse this view on a certain level -- in voting, in what they might say about Clarence Thomas -- but live their actual lives in other ways.

As time goes by, this carryover from the past will dilute. It already is, in my generation.

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Alexandria, Va.: In your article, you decry the "rabblerousing" of the SNCC as rebellion for rebellions' sake. But weren't many of their actions crucial to gaining widespread coverage and help?

As well, in your article you note the activism that followed the riots was what helped many black people to 'realize' that they were eligible for welfare. My question is, is it not helpful that, if a person/family is eligible for welfare and could use some help, that they seek and receive that help?

Thank you

John McWhorter: I would say that what the SNCC did before the mid-sixties was what activism should be.

But after that, it was rabblerousing indeed. For example, for all of his fame, it is hard to say just what Stokley Carmichael contributed to black lives at the time or today. That was not true, and still isn't, of John Lewis.

On welfare, the problem was that the new program was open-ended and its bureaucracy didn't focus on helping the people get work after a while. So the result was leaving generations of people living for a check. Before 1966, that kind of welfare did not exist yet.

Some say that what happened after 1966 was that, for example, factory jobs moved away, or that "crack came in." I believe these things to be false, and make a careful argument for it in my next book. But I just couldn't get all the facts into a short piece.

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Arlington, Va.: Professor McWhorter, thanks for taking questions today. I have two. First, will this piece or some version of it appear in your forthcoming book?

And second, without denying that welfare needed some significant changes, can we say with certainty that the 1996 reforms have been a good thing? What hard evidence do we have that poor people are better off because of them?

Thanks again.

John McWhorter: My next book is about what happened in black America between 1960 and 1970 and its effects. This article is not taken from the book, and now that I think of it, I do not focus on Watts in the book, but the general idea is the same -- and supported with citations, etc. I have been obsessed with those years lately.

On the reforms, I would say they have been very much a good thing. They haven't made poor women middle class, but I'm not sure we ever thought they would. But studies show that children are growing up in homes somewhat less poverty-stricken, and the claims that people would wind up begging on the sidewalks have not been borne out.

The reforms were hardly perfect, but definitely better than what had been going on before.

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Reston, Va.: Hello from a Cal alum and unlikely libertarian,

Do you have any suggestions on how to support the (re-)creation of a culture that will help move urban African-Americans more into the middle class? I feel like I, as a white person, have no ability to act as an effective role model, and government policies are always ineffective economic or "social" welfare.

John McWhorter: I'm not sure what someone can do "as a white person" on this score, honestly! But I think that seeing the difference between activism and acting is always important.

I can't ask whites to stand up to the blistering criticism that can come from some black people when "conservative" or "libertarian" views come up.

But I also hate watching whites support it or pretend to agree with it, even though I think I understand where it comes from.

So tread somewhere in the middle?

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Mr. McWhorter,

I had read your entire Outlook piece before, intrigued, I looked to see who had written it. I was tickled to see that it was you, the same who had written the Power of Babel, which I enjoyed reading a couple of years ago. I am fascinated by your take on things.

I studied languages in college and work as an editor. I am also a white woman who has an "ambiracial" (may I coin a phrase?) teenage child, so your topics of interest coincide with my own. (Please do some work on Roman Catholicism, too; I am sure your views would be valuable.)

The point of this comment-like question is, do you think that studying languages that are very different from your native language has somehow made you able to see other issues differently than most? That the channels opened up by learning to think in a new way -- not just with new words, but sometimes radically different ways of conceptualizing the world around you, which languages can be -- have led you down paths others just can't see?

I do. I think encouraging more multilingualism, and not just multi-European lingualism, but multilingualism of languages that are the frameworks for the thinking of our enemies and the neighbors we fear, will enable us to envision things and solutions for our own problems we would not otherwise be able to envision.

And are you more interested in studying race or language these days?

John McWhorter: To be honest, my "language" self and my "race" self are two different people; when I am doing one, the other is the last thing on my mind. I'm glad you liked BABEL, which is, actually, my favorite of my books. But I must say that the frame of mind that wrote that is not really the one that thinks about race.

If my language side and my race side have anything in common, it's that I have always tried my best to make some sort of sense of things, and if things don't add up from A to B it just bothers me eternally.

So in language I try to do that (and in doing so, have earned the enmity of some linguists; you might be surprised that some of the things in BABEL have been used to tar me as a racist in the ling world!). But then the race things are based on how I just feel walking down the street.

A lot of the race ideology on the table is something that for the life of me I have never been able to quite follow, or feel, as going from A to B. And so here I am.

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Alexandria, Va.: While I basically agree with the point of your article, I thought it may have needed some additional context. As someone who lived through that era, I look back in shock at the amount of political violence that took place. It certainly was just Watts or the counterculture, thought there certainly were those who believed in violent revolution.

Remember that there were three political assassinations in the sixties and there was Jackson State and Kent State, as well as the Chicago "police" riots besides Watts, Detroit, D.C.

John McWhorter: I agree about context, and one of the hardest things about writing in a brief format is "getting it all in."

However, one interesting thing is that the riots were mostly from 1965 to 1968; King was killed only at the end of that. There was a good core of riots long before that happened.

But I take your point, and especially about the kind of abuse blacks took from, say, the police. That was an old, hideous story.

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Olney, Md.: In your earlier answer you said "On welfare, the problem was that the new program was open-ended and its bureaucracy didn't focus on helping the people get work after a while. So the result was leaving generations of people living for a check. Before 1966, that kind of welfare did not exist yet."

However, the reality of the situation that many do not want to acknowledge was that welfare was intended to take care of the children who had no say in the matter. In addition, it was much cheaper to pay a pittance to a mother than to pay what it was going to cost to take care of those children in another form, i.e., institutional care, foster homes, etc. There were programs to try to get folks to work, but there was not enough emphasis on getting an education or job training. Placing a limit on how long someone may get assistance does nothing to help that 7 you whose mother can't or won't get the skills to support herself and children.

John McWhorter: With all due respect, I think that what we've seen since 1996 shows that a time limit -- in combination with work training and the requirement that ones gets it -- does make people change their behavior.

Of course, some people just can't handle it. But so far, that has proven to be somewhere between a third and a fourth of the caseload.

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Washington, D.C.: It is a fundamental flaw to assess the riots of the 1960's as a form of political activism. The riots were the reactionary result of the anger and desperation of a disadvantaged and disillusioned people, not a form of political protest.

Another implication from your piece is quite contrary to my experiences. Many of my family and (blacks across socio-economic classes) do not look at the riots with any degree of pride or celebration. They tend to be regarded with anger over the desperate, racist, oppressive circumstances that fostered the riots, regret and sadness over the destruction they caused, and a resolve to remain engaged in their communities and local governments so that riots of that scale don't occur under their watch.

John McWhorter: I know what you mean. I think what worries me is that there are other black people who really do see those riots as a useful statement. I am speaking of many black intellectuals and journalists -- you can find many of them commemorating the anniversary on line, including some video clips (I won't name names). No one celebrates the destruction -- but many quietly see it all as kind of "manly."

And on the conditions that created the riots, I do wonder, again, why just then? Why no riots like that in the 1920's when blacks were being regularly lynched?

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Just a Note: I've read your books and have never agreed with on many things. I look at you as a whitewashed black man. You are like all these white Americans/Republicans who think that all you have to do to get a nation of people out of poverty is to try very hard to do it on your own. You like them, have never understood poverty and its steel-jawed trap always seem to have all the answers and solutions. Why don't you try living in the ghetto for a week? I don't believe you'd survive for very long. I've never lived in poverty either but I understand that without positive influences and support it is difficult to take part of the American dream when subsistence survival is the only thing most people know how to do. No, I'm not making an excuse for welfare I'm just explaining how difficult it is to achieve something without someone laying out the blueprint and coaching you on how to get there. How do you learn to play basketball by just watching from the sidelines? You can't. Just like escaping poverty and the desperate actions that are a result of poverty cannot happen without real concrete plans and mentoring programs in these sad depressed communities. Thank you.

John McWhorter: I've never once said that people need to just "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps."

That person is a kind of cartoon character, and is not me.

I share your contempt for anyone who would say that, and have spent years trying to show how to help people to help themselves through intelligent government sponsored programs.

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John McWhorter: Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

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