In the aftermath of the recent rioting in Miami, which claimed 15 lives and caused an estimated $100 million in damges, the soul searching has begun. The attorney general was dispatched to Miami. The White House announced that President Carter would soon visit that troubled city. If history is to be any guide, a blue ribbon panel will probably be named to search for the causes of the Miami violence.
But the problems that led to the Miami riot do not require more study. The problems are obvious, and the Miami community and the nation have known about them for years. Miami is not -- as many have suggested -- unique or a sympton of new, more complicated problems. Rather, it is a tragic result of our failure to find solutions to old ones.
In 1965, an arrest of a black youth by white officers in Watts resulted in a devastating riot that took 34 lives and caused millions of dollars in damages. In 1967, the arrest of a black cab driver by white police officers in Newark led to an equally devastating riot there. A few days later, a raid by Detroit police officers at a black nightclub precipitated a riot that left 43 dead and entire neighborhoods smoldering.
Similar events -- white brutality toward black citizens -- triggered hundreds of other riots throughout the country during that long summer. And in the following year, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King -- by a white man -- led to still another summer of devastation.
In response to the 1967 riots, President Lyndon Johnson convened a national advisory commission on civil disorders, chaired by then Illinois governor Otto B. Kerner. The result was a thoughtful report that was ignored then but should be mandatory reading today.
It found that the riots were a response to segregated and unequal schools; segreated and substandard housing; repressive and brutal police practices; disciminatory administration of justice; severe unemployment; ineffective and unresponsive political structures; and inadequate municipal state and federal services. Inner-city frustrations were aggravated by the existence of affluent white suburbs surrounding the black ghettos. The commission concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black one white -- separate and unequal."
The commission's report contained a long list of recommendations to deal directly with the problems that it found had caused the riots. Those recommendations were received by the president, widely applauded -- and promptlly ignored.
Today, just as in 1967, our black and white communities remain separate and unequal. Minorities are confined to segregated and inferior schools; inner-city housing is segregated and substandard; minority unemployment far exceeds white unemployment; the criminal justice system is discriminatory; and federal programs -- because of insufficient funding and leadership -- are inadequate. The quality of life within our cities has continued to decline into ever-deepening unemployment, poverty and despair. Our cities are now blacker and poorer, our suburbs whiter and wealthier.
Is it then so surprising that in 1980, in a city as segregated and unequal as Watts, Detroit and Newark were in the 1960s, a riot would be triggered by an all-white jury's acquittal of four white police officers for the murder of a black man?
To make matters worse, the nation is following a policy that will aggravate the problems that cause the Miami riot. The few federal programs designed to deal with the problems of our cities are now being gutted in a desperate attempt to balance the federal budget. The nation's anti-inflation program seems based on little more than increasing unemployment, which will take its greatest toll on inner-city poor.
If the government again commissions a study to find the causes of problems that are already fully understood, the commission will likely recommend solutions we have long chosen to ignore. And that commission, like the Kerner Commission, will probably call on Dr. Kenneth Clark, one of the nation's most noted sociologists and civil rights leaders, to testify. And Dr. Clark will have to testify before the new commission as he did before the old one:
"I read . . . [the report] of the 1919 riot in Chicago and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot . . . . it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland -- with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction."
Instead of yet another report the nation must deal with the fundamental probem of its racism. In the words of the Kerner Commission:
"What white Americans have never fully understood -- but what the Negro can never forget -- is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it."
Unless we are prepared to deal with this fundamental fact, and to demand that our institutions ensure equal opportunity and equal justice in all aspects of American life, Miami will not be the last urban riot we will read about in this decade.