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Drawing the Wrong Lessons from the Rodney King Riots

April  29, 2012, marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. As with all such prior anniversaries of riots, in the days ahead the black poverty industry will predictably mobilize to tell us that we have not done enough to eliminate the root causes of the riots.

There will be the worn and angry calls for more poverty programs and greater redistribution of wealth. In the past, on these anniversaries, some have self-righteously spoken of our obligation to ambiguous notions of fairness and social justice, amid a heavy claim on our “responsibility” to those who ran through the streets of our cities while pillaging, burning, and killing.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the famed but flawed Kerner Commission Report on the riots of the 1960s, Vera Kimble, of the Eisenhower Foundation, called for nothing less than an infusion of thirty billion dollars into America’s ghettos. Certainly, this would have been as successful as all the prior government programs that threw money at the inner city.

For the racial industrial complex, a riot is a crisis not to be wasted: The seeds of a future eruption are contained in the past one. Only by spending more government money, on the urban sinkholes where riots erupted, will we spare ourselves from dealing with the conflagration next time.

The truth about riots is that after tens of millions of dollars in research funding, we really have no idea why they occur. Yes, we know the precipitating events of riots, but root causes are nothing more than another series of liberal myths. They are the preordained conclusions of social science research that is strong on ideology and embarrassingly weak on science.

In this world of faux science, relative or actual economic deprivation, status inconsistency, anomie, and even the creation of a new black middle class all emerge as causes of black riots.  All of these are variants of the frustration-aggression (if frustration, then aggression) hypothesis, which allegedly manifests itself in black rage.

Black rage, according to its proponents, is a seething and explosive phenomenon lying dormant in the black community waiting to come to the surface.  White racism causes black rage.  Blacks are not responsible for its consequences.

Colin Ferguson, a black man, slaughtered six white commuters, random victims, on a Long Island commuter train. Leftist attorney William Kunstler argued, unsuccessfully, that Ferguson, whose actions were dictated by black rage, was also a victim, a victim of white oppression that created black rage.

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.