Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan didn't visit Gene & Sandy's Fish Market. Neither did Rep. Maxine Waters. Neither did Ted Koppel nor the South Korean delegation that came to town demanding reparations.
Gene & Sandy's Fish Market used to be at Vernon and Vermont, the heart of South Los Angeles and of the riots. It used to sell burgers and burritos, as well as fresh fish. It used to be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Now it is a pile of uninsured ashes, $30,000 in equipment gone.
I know about the fish market because its owner shared an hour-long grocery line and a cart with me on the Friday after the riots began. He talked a lot about the ruin his neighborhood had experienced, especially the supermarket fires that had driven him to West Los Angeles to shop. He mentioned his personal tragedy only as we neared the checkout counter.
Eugene--he didn't give me his last name--is not a Korean immigrant. He is not white. He is an African-American, a decades-long Los Angeles resident who works hard, trusts God and stays out of trouble.
And that is why you won't see him or his market on national television. He doesn't fit the official story, the story politicians and Eastern reporters want to tell.
That story is simple: The riots were a black thing. The victims were whites and Koreans. You could tell the good from the bad by their race--and yours.
The official story makes good TV and, some people seem to think, good politics. It lets ABC feel righteous about broadcasting a 60-minute Willie Horton ad called "Nightline in South-Central," portraying killers and robbers as leaders who speak for black Angelenos. It gives suburban viewers a cheap thrill and confirms their prejudices about blacks, crime and urban life.
The official story lets Pat Buchanan preserve his double standard on issues of crime and justice, a standard that decries crime in the streets but comes to the defense of Yusuf Hawkins' killers and Rodney King's beaters. On a post-riot campaign stop, Buchanan visited Korean-American shop owners and the National Guard; he saw no black riot victims and no Latinos. His vision of free enterprise remains untroubled by dark-skinned entrepreneurs.
The official story props up the hatemongering that Maxine Waters mistakes for power. It orders white America to support her redistributionary programs or face mob violence. (Given the choice, white America will choose Buchanan.) It equates capitalism with exploitation, racism and evil, and thereby condones crimes against private property.
Parts of the official story are true. Black Angelenos are indeed angry about the King verdict and about a justice system that seems quick to deem blacks to be criminals and slow to protect them from crime, official and otherwise. Gangs have indeed wreaked havoc on South Los Angeles. Korean-owned stores were indeed targeted by many rioters. White and Asian motorists were indeed singled out for beatings by black mobs.
But the riots were multiracial--television viewers could see plenty of whites among the rioters smashing downtown, and Latinos among those hauling away furniture, food and other loot from ravaged stores. The victims, too, came in all colors, as did the cleanup crews. To suggest otherwise is not only to grossly distort the truth but to further the fear and bigotry that led to the beating of Rodney King, to the verdicts and the riots.
That bigotry manifests itself in a shortage of what Adam Smith called "moral sympathy"--the ability to see other people as human beings and to picture oneself in their situation. Moral sympathy is not compassion or pity, fear or love; it is far closer to what black Angelenos call "respect."
And it requires seeing one another in more complex terms than the official story, with its heroes and villains, allows. It is fine to single out the brave individuals who rescued motorists from angry mobs. But most of us, whatever our race, aren't heroes.
That's why America needs to hear that there are black store owners in South Los Angeles and black McDonald's managers and black sales clerks. Ordinary Americans need to see that other ordinary Americans--not just heroes, criminals, and posturing politicians--live in riot-torn neighborhoods.
Disturbing the official story makes understanding what happened harder. But real understanding requires that we start with the truth, not a morality play where you can tell the players by the colors of their masks.