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The Riots: `Just As Much About Class As About Race'

Cover Story: Commentary


Beneath the dense smoke that hung over Los Angeles in the violent days of early May, parallel racial nightmares seemed to come to life. To many blacks, the Rodney King jury verdict confirmed an age-old cry of despair: There is no justice for us in a white man's world. To many whites, the subsequent violence fulfilled an equally traditional fear: This lawless bunch hurts and steals and destroys when things don't go its way. And each group, remembering the 1965 Watts uprising, looked at the other in weary reproach: Haven't they learned anything in a quarter of a century?

In short, if you were looking for evidence that prejudice still flourishes in America, you got all the proof you needed. And that's how many outsiders viewed the crisis: "Racism a way of life in white U.S.," screamed a headline in The Toronto Star on May 3--one day before Toronto itself erupted in riots sparked by the police shooting of a black man, a suspected drug dealer.

But to see the verdict and the riots as just more evidence of the racial divide in America is to ignore a potentially more dangerous split: The growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Says Comer Cottrell, chairman of Pro-Line Corp., a black hair-care products company in Dallas: "These riots have been as much about class as about race."

TRICKLE UP. Just look at who got involved in the violence. The looters included blacks, whites, Hispanics, and a handful of Asians, and the property they pillaged was owned by blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. Observes Pierre van den Berghe, sociology professor at the University of Washington: "When a person who is black loots a shop owned by a Korean, it's not black vs. Korean. It's underclass vs. middle class." Or, as a young, white Seattle looter shouted into TV cameras: "It's not black vs. white. It's rich vs. poor. And we're poor."

The poor, of course, we will have with us always. But rarely has their distance from the wealthy been so apparent. The 1980s now seem to have boomed for very few: The Internal Revenue Service reports that the richest 1% of U.S. households owned 36% of the nation's wealth in 1989--up from 31% in 1983 (page 22). And the Congressional Budget Office says that most of the income gains over that period went to the same group.

As the gap widens, blacks are often disproportionately affected, but not because of their race, says Christopher Winship, professor of sociology, statistics, and economics at Northwestern University. Rather, they are being hurt by society's structural changes: stagnant wages, disappearing jobs, inadequate education, and eviscerated public programs. The point is, many whites also get caught in the same traps.

The analysis gets confused, Winship argues, because "making poverty a black issue obscures the chasm between rich and poor"--an issue that many politicians would just as soon keep under wraps. For example, it's convenient to invoke the single mother, an exploiter of the welfare system, as a code for "black." Yet, since 1968, the number of impoverished households headed by white women has grown dramatically, too--in fact, the number has grown at virtually the same rate, 33%, as black female-headed families have.

DORMANT VIRUS. Yes, class distinctions clearly matter more than ever before--a most un-American idea. But the very fact that politicians can still score easy points with racial rhetoric shows that bigotry retains its potency. "Race is never separate from class," says Lorenzo Morris, professor of political science at Howard University in Washington. "Rodney King was subject to arbitrary police violence because he was black. But the fact he was black gave them no doubt he was poor. It would have helped him if he'd been middle class."

Morris, who is black, speaks from personal experience. He was once taken to a police station--in handcuffs--for driving with an expired license. But when the officers learned he was a professor, the cuffs came off. "You should have told us before--we wouldn't have arrested you," he remembers them saying.

In the end, it may be futile to try to pinpoint where racism ends and classism begins. A more useful exercise is to set about improving schools, work skills, housing, health conditions--solutions that cut across lines of race and ethnicity. William J. Haskins, vice-president for programs at the National Urban League, sums up the answer: "Jobs."

But policymakers should never forget that racism is like a virus lurking in the body politic: When hard times lower the body's resistance, out it comes. Haskins traveled by plane the weekend after the riots. As he settled in his first-class seat, an elderly white woman next to him got up, had a furtive word with the flight attendant, and switched to another seat. Class doesn't always tell.Troy Segal

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