Posted on May 11, 1992 in Washington Watch

The verdict in the Rodney King trial and the riots in Los Angeles that followed thrust the issues of race and the decline of urban America onto center stage of this year’s political debate.

The judgment finding four white police officers innocent of the charge of brutality was a shock to both white and black Americans—an embarrassing reminder of the continued existence of racism in American society. The widespread violence, the killings and the wanton destruction of South Central Los Angeles was equally traumatic to most Americans.

A Los Angeles Times poll taken one week after the riots found that 81% of all Los Angeles residents disagreed with the verdict of the jury and 75% rejected the post-verdict rioting as “totally unjustified.” Most interesting, 70% of whites disagreed with the trial verdict and 60% of blacks rejected the rioting!

With the public reaction came the public debate in the national media and in the presidential campaign about the issues raised by the verdict and the violence. For many Americans, this media focus on political issues of substance was a hopeful sign that perhaps now serious discourse will enter into the coverage of the 1992 presidential race.

It has been the lack of serious treatment of issues in the media that has contributed to an erosion of public interest in the elections. Media focus on the minute aspects of a candidate’s personal life, on symbols of “outsider” status, or on catch phrases and slogans has seemed to diminish public confidence in the candidates and in the political process itself. Now in a dramatic, tragic and urgent way core issues have been raised high in the public consciousness and are being addressed.


The question of race relations has been a defining issue in American politics throughout the past 30 years, as both Democrats and Republicans have sought to exploit the issue to their advantage since the election of John Kennedy in 1960.

Racism and enforced racial segregation in the south profoundly challenged the conscience of America in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The picture of blacks denied the right to vote or to eat at “white only” restaurants or to attend “white only” schools provoked outrage throughout America.

Mass demonstrations and peaceful protests organized by blacks (oftentimes resulting in mass arrests and/or violent attacks by southern police) won strong public support for the cause of equal rights and an end to legal segregation.

The Voting Rights Bill of 1964, which guaranteed blacks their political voice by protecting their right to vote, changed American politics. The Democratic Party supported and became identified with civil rights legislation. The party, led by President Johnson, extended that commitment to other issues such as open housing, equal educational opportunity and preferential hiring laws (known as “affirmative action”). These were designed to redress the centuries of discrimination and to increase opportunity for black Americans long excluded from mainstream American political, social and economic life.

This emphasis on the rights of black citizens created a white backlash of resentment. As the Democrats gained black votes in the South, it lost a portion of the white Southern vote that had historically supported segregation. Increasingly, these white voters moved to the Republican Party, as did some suburban and middle class northern whites who came to resent what they considered special treatment for blacks and other groups.

Richard Nixon exploited this resentment in his two presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. Images of blacks victimized by white violence, which had so strongly offended many Americans a decade earlier, were countered by images of black welfare recipients and violent criminals. The resulting shift in voter allegiance was significant. In fact, no Democratic presidential candidate has ever won a majority of the white vote since 1964.

The effects of this shift were clearly felt on the level of policy as well. The “Great Society” programs of the Lyndon Johnson years (including the “War on Poverty”) were challenged and cut back by successive Republican administrations. While some of these programs were, in fact, ill-conceived and ineffective, the absence of a national resolve to address issues of poverty and race led to serious and ongoing deterioration in American cities.

While the poverty rate was cut in half during the Johnson Administration, it has doubled in the past decade. Black Americans have been most hard hit. While blacks are 12% of the population, they own less than five percent of the nation’s wealth. The black unemployment rate is 13%, double that of the whites. The unemployment rate for blacks between 18 and 24 years of age is a staggering 55% while the percentage of black Americans below the poverty level is 37%, which is triple the rate for whites.

Social statistics for blacks are also tragic. The life expectancy of black males in New York City, for example, is 47 years (almost 30 years lower than that of whites). Black infant mortality is three times that of whites. And 25% of all black males in their 20s are either in prison or on parole from prison.

With the cuts in U.S. government spending have come hardships in U.S. cities trying to deal with the issues of crime and violence that often follow in the wake of economic deprivation. During the 1980s alone, federal funding to state and city governments was cut by $78 billion, with many of these cuts negatively affecting educational, job training and housing and urban renewal programs.

Democrats point to the decline in government spending and argue that federal neglect has created the problems in the “inner cities.” Republicans have a different perspective. They have criticized the expanding role of government and the psychology of dependency created by big government. They argue that economic problems will only be resolved by an expanding economy.

President Reagan’s cuts in taxes and social programs and dramatic increases in defense spending were intended to expand the economy and opportunity for all by creating jobs. In fact, while there was a rapid increase in job creation, it did not occur in the inner cities. Instead, jobs became available in suburban areas and whites fled the cities to fill them.

The effect was a declining tax base on top of revenue shortfalls caused by federal spending cuts to the cities. It became all the more apparent that the economic and social gap between whites and most blacks had become wider under the Reagan administration.

Another difference between Republican and Democratic approaches has revolved around the issue of values. While Democrats have historically spoken of compassion for the poor and social justice, Republicans have emphasized the need to reinforce social values such as hard work, family life and respect for law and order.


The last presidential campaign to seriously raise the issues of race and urban decline in the public debate was that of Jesse Jackson in 1988. The victorious Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, in an effort to win white voters, shied away from the Jackson message and did not stress these issues in the fall campaign against Bush. Dukakis did succeed in winning back many of the so-called Reagan Democrats, who had abandoned the Democrats in the 1980s, but his lukewarm response on race and urban issues caused a drop in black voter turnout.

Despite some Republican campaign tactics to reach out to white voters (especially the “Willie Horton” ads that played on fears of black criminals running free in a permissive “liberal Democratic” administration), George Bush in 1988 did not arouse the same antipathy among black Americans that Ronald Reagan had in his two previous campaigns.

Even so, during the first three years of the Bush Administration, the national debate focused largely on international questions. The break up of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War consumed public attention and discussion. When important domestic issues did arise—the Savings and Loan collapse, the budget agreement controversy of 1989 or the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court—they did not draw sustained public attention because of their complexity or because media attention shifted elsewhere.

Not until the media began to focus on the state of the U.S. economy in the summer of 1991, setting the stage for the 1992 presidential campaign, did a domestic issue take and hold center stage.

Now with the Rodney King verdict and the Los Angeles riots, the core domestic issues of race and urban decline are back on everyone’s agenda. With the California’s presidential primary only a month away on June 2, it is certain that these issues will remain central at least until then. It is useful, therefore, to note how each of the major Presidential candidates responded in the week following the verdict and the riots.


While the immediate responses of Clinton and Bush seemed poles apart (Bush saying “the courts have spoken” and Clinton appearing to express understanding for the outrage of the rioters), as the situation developed the positions of both the Democratic challenger and the Republican president evolved and occupied common ground.

In the traditional vein of Republicans, Bush’s initial statements emphasized outrage at the street violence and called for the restoration of law and order. Having established that point, however, the President moved away from partisanship and spoke as no Republican leader has in recent years. He expressed shock at the verdict and asked poignantly how he could explain it to his grandchildren. He informed the nation that he had ordered the U.S. Attorney General to convene a Grand Jury to see if federal civil rights charges could be brought against the four police officers who beat King.

Addressing the issue of the riots, he noted “it’s not a question of assigning blame. It’s a question of realistic assessment. Have we as a country done everything we can to help those people left behind?”

In all of his public comments, the president continued to try and maintain a balance—blending concern with the verdict, outrage at the violence in the streets and with the need to restore law and order and to commit the nation to do a better job on social issues. This is a far cry from a Nixon or Reagan Republican approach.

Bush also released some emergency federal funds to aid in clean up and reconstruction efforts. He sent federal troops to secure the peace and created a special committee that will recommend long-term measures to help resolve inner city problems.

But the President has expressed no interest in resorting to “traditional Democratic approaches” by simply resurrecting “Great Society” programs of the past. Bush is convinced that these programs did not and will not work. He is therefore calling for new ideas and initiatives.

Bush’s “new initiatives” have, in fact, been a part of his program since 1988, but as Bush critics note, have not been actively pushed by the President. These involve proposals supported by the Administration’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Jack Kemp, which create “enterprise zones” in poor inner cities. Investors who create businesses in these zones will receive tax benefits and credits. At the same time, Kemp has proposed programs that would enable residents living in publicly-owned housing to buy those units. He also wants to develop ways to move welfare recipients into paying jobs. The assumption behind these programs is that if the poor can develop a stake in their communities through ownership, then pride and self-sufficiency will follow.

When Bush visited Los Angeles one week after the riots, he surveyed the area and listened to a wide range of opinion about what should be done. While some in the media were critical, most were struck by the President’s uncharacteristically emotional response to what he saw and heard and his appeal for healing and understanding.

While President Bush had to contend with the harsh but increasingly marginalized comments of right-wing opponent Pat Buchanan (who took a simplistic “law and order” approach), his Democratic challenger had a more difficult time dealing with the vociferous and angry views of fellow Democrats.

Bush did not have to convince anyone of his “law and order” credentials and so was able to move beyond that to a more compassionate message. Clinton, who also sought some balance, found the middle of the road more difficult to hold. Nevertheless, he did condemn the violence and issue calls for law and order. It should be noted that Clinton is a conservative Democrat and a believer in the death penalty. His more recent statements on the riots sought to reflect this balance as he termed them “understandable but unforgivable.”

And when it was time to speak of solutions, Clinton sought to mix criticism of Republican neglect of the “inner cities” and the poor with a strong appeal to racial harmony and healing. He proposed a federal program of incentives and workfare that he acknowledged borrowed a great deal from the same Jack Kemp proposals suggested by President Bush.

The third significant candidate, H. Ross Perot, was hurt by his rather flippant response to the crisis. In typical Perot fashion, he answered reporters’ questions about how he would have handled the situation had he been president with a short one-line answer to the effect that he would immediately file civil rights charges against the four police officers and, in the midst of the riots, would fly out to Los Angeles to survey the situation. For the first time an incredulous press challenged his folksy flippancy, noting that he could not have filed a civil rights charges himself—only a Grand Jury could do that—and how dangerous and reckless it would be for a President to fly into the midst of a riot-torn city.

This was, in fact, one of the first times that Perot was caught unprepared and targeted for intense criticism. He was so stung by the growing testiness of the

press with his lack of specificity on the issues that by the end of the week he announced he was taking two months off and would not return to active campaigning until he was ready to formally announce his intention to run and had prepared the issue agenda for his campaign.


The civilized but saddened and angry voices Bush and Clinton heard in Los Angeles after the riots are a reminder to Americans of how far we have to go in resolving core issues of race and urban decline. The rioters are a minority, but the law-abiding citizens suffering in the inner cities are not. If the result of Los Angeles is a serious debate about how to address long-term domestic issues, we may be at an important turning point in the 1992 election campaign.

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