On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, after hearing that the officers who beat Rodney King had been acquitted, I headed with a friend down to First A.M.E. Church in South-Central Los Angeles to attend a rally. We never made it.
As we closed in on Western Avenue and West Adams Boulevard, our car was stopped by scores of people, mostly black men, milling about in the streets; the air was thick with a gathering anger. Minutes later that anger morphed into action — thrown bottles, a hurled trash can. It was clear that things were getting out of hand, and so we turned around.
But what struck me then and for years afterward was the sight of all those men who had been able to turn out so readily at 3 in the afternoon. Their presence made dramatically visible what had been ignored for too long: the high rate of black unemployment.
Everybody agreed back then that the root of the unrest was economic, yet 20 years later, blacks are still the ethnic group in Los Angeles County most likely to be unemployed or underemployed. In 2010, the Economic Roundtable found that a staggering 66% of black men ages 16 to 24 in Los Angeles County, and 68% of black women in the same group, were unemployed. The recession hit people in Los Angeles particularly hard. The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that, between 2006 and 2011, the black jobless rate in the L.A. area ballooned from 8.6% to 19.3%.
When I got my first full-time job as a journalist, not long after the 1992 unrest, black people were still talking about all the unfulfilled promises made after the Watts riots in 1965. But I really thought ’92 would be different. People all over the world saw the events unfold in real time; I was confident they would see the graphic need for change, and that it would come quickly. It hasn’t.
In some ways, all the media attention was part of the problem. It’s easy and even thrilling to show fires, beatings, looting and fury at an unjust verdict. But the underlying economic issues, the frustration over a chronic lack of jobs — those things weren’t particularly suited to television.
The rioting on TV looked multiethnic, and it obviously affected a wide geographic swath of L.A. But at its heart it was a product of black rage — at racist policing, at the criminal justice system, at injustice, period.
Nevertheless, the search for solutions that followed focused on multiculturalism, as if the only real issue that needed addressing was summed up in Rodney King’s heartfelt plea that we “all get along.” Instead of zeroing in on economic inequity, civic leaders began talking about how we needed to form coalitions and cooperate.
This kind of multiculturalism, though important in a diverse city like Los Angeles, is in some ways a hollowed-out form of affirmative action: It encourages diversity but lacks the teeth of real policy. It is optional. It’s also a visual that the media can easily grasp — four faces, four different races — that by its very nature obscures injustices and imbalance. The debilitating economic crisis that has gripped black people for so many generations is beyond any solution multiculturalism has offered so far. Even when pledges are made to increase “diversity” in hiring, black people are often left out of the equation.
One example of the intractability of the problem, and of our continued indifference to it, is the fact that the extensive rebuilding after the riots failed to bring a significant number of blacks into the construction trades. These failings have been difficult to address in an ever-more-conservative political climate that has all but shut down serious discussions of racial inequity and discrimination and left black leaders tongue-tied about what used to be obvious issues. Even the Urban League, an organization founded a century ago to bring blacks into the workforce, often downplays that idea in deference to the multicultural mandate of serving all.
I’m for lifting all boats. But that can’t happen if some of the boats that are underwater don’t get the attention and resources they need to get back to the surface. Even in these bad times, there are still opportunities, but they must be accessible to those who need them most and have needed them for a long time. None of us — black, white or any other color — can afford to still be having this conversation 20 years from now.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to The Times’ Opinion pages and the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line.” She sits on the advisory committee of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center.