Ride the Whirlwind

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In our shock, we get myriad analyses of what went wrong, sermons about healing the racial and social wounds of this society, and all kinds of promises of panaceas that will ensure that "this will not happen again."

Well, it will happen again unless politicians stop encouraging racial polarization and class strife and now appeal to people to be as decent as most Americans would like to be.


Los Angeles was begging for this kind of blow-up. It has a laid-back, patrician black mayor of 19 years, Tom Bradley, and an arrogant white police chief of Third Reich mentality, Daryl Gates. The two had not spoken to each other for 13 months. It was a city in which millions of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and poor whites regarded the police as their enemies, but civilian leaders had rendered themselves impotent to rein in Chief Gates.

A sign that deep troubles lie ahead is the fact that conservatives refuse to believe that social injustice sparked the conflagration. They want to believe that the Rodney King case was merely an "excuse" for "hoodlums" and criminal "gang members" to loot stores and pillage communities. There can be no "healing" where the perpetrators and tolerators of gross injustices will accept no measure of guilt.


In the first hours of explosive anger over the Rodney King verdict, a young black man said on TV: "If I go into this store and take a Twinkie and get caught on videotape, I'll spend six months in jail. Those cops were videotaped beating King horrendously, and they walk free. What the hell is going on?"

He knows what's going on -- a double standard of justice. We hate looting -- "uncivilized behavior" -- so much that the 9,000 people arrested will be punished, perhaps most doing time in jail or prison, because the political fad is to cry out against "coddling criminals."

And that will not heal anything. It will add to the polarization between those Americans who cry "law and order at all costs," and those who argue that violent racial eruptions are inevitable as long as the criminal-justice system puts more young black men in prison than positive forces can put in college.

What the presidential candidates do and say will have a lot to do with the time lapse between this Los Angeles tragedy and the next one, if there must be a next one. H. Ross Perot, the likely third-party contender for the presidency, on Sunday denounced the 1988 George Bush campaign's "featuring" a black rapist-murderer, Willie Horton, and suggested that it created a mood in which the jury in the King case could side with the police.

Republicans reject angrily all suggestions that the playing of "the race card" by Presidents Reagan and Bush sowed the seeds of social disaster in Los Angeles and other cities.

Mr. Bush now seeks ways to rebuild the destroyed sections of Los Angeles, a colossal challenge considering the fact that the riot corridors of Washington, D.C., have not been rebuilt almost a quarter-century after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The big cities have been given short shrift for more than a decade because the people who live there, especially blacks, vote Democratic rather than Republican. Can we expect an end to the deliberate neglect and contempt now?

Ensuring that we do not get more eruptions like the Los Angeles outburst requires facing up to some unpalatable truths about this society -- especially the role of politics, and the willingness of some leaders to appeal to the darkest instincts of voters. Either we face those unpalatable truths or we ride the social whirlwind into the destruction of America.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.