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In the mid-1960s, a series of “ghetto” riots occurred across the United States, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to appoint the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—the Kerner Commission—in 1967 to investigate the cause of the uprisings. Johnson and many other policymakers expected the Commission to uncover evidence of a vast conspiracy, but they were incorrect. Instead, the Kerner Commission reported that the riots were the result of America’s ingrained inequality, which segregated white and blacks so extensively that there were “two” Americas: the affluent society of white middle class and the depressing conditions of African Americans and minorities. To prevent additional riots, the Commission proposed the implementation of additional policies, more comprehensive even than Johnson’s Great Society, to change the structure of American society. Johnson refused to accept the Commission’s recommendations; like most affluent Americans, the President was unprepared to accept the reality of minority protest.
The ghetto riots began in Los Angeles in 1965, where black anger over the slowness of Civil Rights progress combined with other issues, such as economic inequality and police brutality, to turn the Watts area into a scene of rioting. The Watts revolt demonstrated the willingness of “black power” to use violence, and, although the uprising alarmed whites, it had a more negative effect on blacks, because it fed the white separatist movement to the suburbs and further isolated blacks within the city. Whites who moved to the suburbs blamed the economic decline of the inner city for the rise of black violence and rebelliousness. The Watts riot lessened support for government programs like welfare, because wealthy whites thought welfare recipients (many of whom lived in Watts) were becoming more violent.
In the 1960s there were three major Black Nationalist movements: the Nation of Islam (NOI), the cultural nationalists, and the Black Panthers; a fourth group working for black rights, the less radical NAACP, took a more conservative approach and enjoyed greater political influence. However, the NAACP rejected violence as a means to fight racism and thus had limited influence among increasingly radical blacks in the 1960s. The NOI adopted its own interpretation of Islam to elevate the status of blacks, but it alienated some African Americans by its insistence that blacks had ties to Asia, not Africa. Nationwide, the NOI’s image suffered after the assassination of Malcolm X, reputedly under the orders of the group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. By the time of the Watts uprising, the NOI portrayed the white man as a race of “devils,” called the Los Angeles Police Department’s behavior “satanic,” and had decided to separate itself from whites; although this anti-white stance earned it some support in South Los Angeles, the internal divisions and antiChristian views of the NOI abridged its power. The cultural nationalist movement was more successful, and, like the NOI, emphasized black history in order to create a positive black identity. The Black Panthers, the most radical of the three groups, adopted an image of violent protest and cultivated leftist ideology; it had the least success among these movements.
Compounded racism—prejudice between minority groups—increased competition among impoverished minorities, leading to civil unrest. In large American cities, such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York, European Americans, Mexican Americans (Chicanos), Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans shared the same land and fought for the same jobs, exacerbating racial tension. Although African Americans were the most visible—because of the history of enslavement and segregation—they were not the exclusive target of racism, and disparate minority groups often were prejudicial toward others. In 1960s Los Angeles, for example, as noted by historian Gerald Horne, dark-skinned blacks looked down on light-skinned blacks. The rise of Chicano nationalism in the 1960s also affected how policymakers appeased blacks, because officials feared rewarding black violence with concessions and thus encouraging Mexican Americans to use violent measures as well.
Chicano nationalism took many forms, but the most common was increased respect for their Spanish-Mexican heritage. Some Chicano nationalist groups, such as the Community Service Organization (CSO) and the Association National Mexico Americana (ANMA), respected America’s political system. Prior to the 1960s, most Chicanos believed that they could advance socially and materially through the American system; however, continued social inequality broke down moderate Chicano reform movements and led to more extreme resistance. In 1966 the Chicano movement radicalized, and, for the first time, many Mexican Americans directly blamed the American system for their plight and began to fight back. The best example of the new approach was the Brown Berets, a roughly equivalent Chicano version of the Black Panthers. The Brown Berets published a newsletter, La Causa, extolling their “Ten Point Program” to overcome the American system. These Ten Points called for Chicanos to uphold their Mexican traditions and language, for a halt of urban renewal programs (which tended to target minority areas for destruction), and for the election of Mexican American officials in government. The Brown Berets soon adopted an explicitly anti-American stance; the enemy was now the American government, and the Brown Berets lauded any group—including the Vietnamese—that fought against America. Thus the Chicano antiwar effort took on a subversive character, and, unlike many idealistic college student liberals, the Brown Berets saw the Vietnam War as an opportunity to challenge the American government itself rather than its policy in Vietnam. By 1972, after a brief occupation of Santa Catalina Island (meant to symbolize the reclaiming of the Southwest from Anglo American control), the Brown Berets declined as a political force.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, minority groups worked to develop a stronger national voice, and protest movements were one means of achieving that goal. As demonstrated by the Kerner Commission’s 1967 Report, the segregation and impoverishment of America’s minority groups prepared the way for protest through political, cultural, and even violent means. Despite the bloodshed, however, leftist nationalist groups and ghetto riots failed to garner much support, and political reform groups, such as the NAACP, and government agencies, such the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), were more successful in obtaining material benefits for America’s minority groups.
In 1992, minority groups once again turned to violence to express their frustration. Los Angeles was again the site of the most extreme rioting, because of the police beating of Rodney King, an unarmed African American man. Despite video evidence of police brutality, showing several white officers beating King, the policemen were acquitted; as a result, riots broke out across Los Angeles. As in the Watts riot thirty years before, the unrest was not necessarily about the incident that sparked it—although both involved the actions of the Los Angeles police—because minority groups often felt oppressed by the police. The 1992 rioting and looting had scant organization and accomplished little beyond illustrating that racial, ethnic, and class tensions remained high in America, partly because of poverty and its consequences.
Urban riots forced affluent Americans to recognize that society was far from perfect; however, the effects of rioting were not especially positive for low-income minorities. Political activism returns better long-term results for minority groups who want to participate fully in American society. Although protest movements demonstrated that the poor were not meek, violence did little to encourage middle-class Americans to accept low-income minorities; instead, it encouraged social separation: the riots in the 1960s and in 1992 fueled white flight to the suburbs and the increasing isolation of the minority poor in the impoverished old city.
- Chavez, Ernesto, “;Mi Raza Primero!”: Nationalism, Identity, and Insurgency in the Chicano Movement in Los Angeles, 1966-1978 (Berkeley: University of California, 2002);
- Davis, Mike, Dead Cities (New York: The New Press, 2002); Horne, Gerald, Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (New York: University of Virginia Press, 1995);
- Kerner Commission, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington, D.C.: 1968);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000);
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (www.eeoc.gov/).
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