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Drawing the Wrong Lessons from the Rodney King Riots

The one thing all of these explanations have in common, aside from being unsupported, is that they exonerate the rioters. Rioters do not make individual decisions. According to the liberal view of society, rioters are victims of social forces beyond their control.

There was no Damian Williams beating Reginald Denny, the white truck driver nearly battered to death during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. There were simply black people who were acting out in response to social forces. The larger society, not Damian Williams, was responsible for Denny’s beating.

Prior to the latter part of the 20th century, most race riots in America resulted from white rioters assaulting black communities. Yet I cannot recall one social science or historical study that undertook the same type of insipid analysis. No one ever wrote that a lynch mob was a product of white rage. No one wrote that the way to deal with white oppression against black communities was to search for the underlying root causes of the oppressors’ behavior and to create a series of government programs that would eliminate the conditions that give rise to white violence.

The absurdity of such a proposal is palpable. Yet, this, in reverse, is precisely what both students of black urban riots and the poverty industry propose.  The absurdity escapes us because it is so ingrained in our culture and in our discourse on riots that we take it for granted.

As early as 1971, sociologist Clark McPhail shattered the frustration-aggression hypothesis of the riots, showing through an extensive examination of the social science research that the hypothesis was absent confirmation. McPhail later became president of the American Sociological Association, and his penetrating research should have ended the discussion, but it did not.

The frustration-aggression hypothesis, like black rage, plays into the narrative of both the liberal and poverty establishments.  This is too good a myth to let go. It simultaneously justifies the barbarism of the riots while creating a moral claim on the redistribution of wealth to prevent the next explosion in the ghetto.

The first draft of the Kerner Commission Report is titled “The Harvest of American Racism.” Robert Shellow, who authored this draft, glorified the riots of the 1960s as a major black revolt that demanded nothing less than the complete transformation of the black community. More than a quarter of a century later, Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters echoed the same nonsense in describing the Rodney King riots.

When we justify lawlessness and barbarism in the name of race and use race as  validation for the redistribution of wealth, then we have taken one more step to Balkanizing our society and giving license and affirmation to the next urban riot. Regrettably, we continue to learn the wrong lessons from the urban riots.