Vice President Humphrey said a year ago that if he were bottled up in a rat-infested ghetto--as most of the Negroes who voted for him in 1964 are--he "could lead a pretty good riot." Yesterday, when asked about the probable causes of riots, President Johnson said, "Basically, I do not have knowledge of the whys and wherefores and causes.
In the past few weeks, Humphrey, his boss, and the entire governmental establishment of America have nervously watched the chickens come home to roost. Urban America, or ever increasingly Black America, is bolwing up.
It all isn't very difficult to understand. The last decade, in particular, has taught black Americans that the attainment of legal rights which should have been theirs as a matter of course didn't mean much either. A cup of coffee in a Southern cafe. The cance to urinate next to a white man in a washroom. The opportunity to spen da night in a decent hotel room.
But the pre-1966 civil rights movement which fought "legal" segregation did not secure him the equality of social and economic opportunity he desired even more. He had won some grudging respect as a legal person, but his frustrations deepened.
In fact, it has become perversely clear that as the black American gained a vestige of legal equality, his economic position relative to the average white declined. Since World War II, America as a whole has prospered fantastically. But there has been a sharp increase in the concentration of Negroes in the nation's core cities--and these core cities have come more and more to represent the most filthy, degrading aspects of American life.
In addition, the Northern white has fled these areas, segregating the Negro in a perfectly legal manner. Invariably, the effectiveness of public services in these areas--ranging from schooling to garbage collection--have sharply fallen off.
Two factors further embitter this depressing situation. The first is that the white man continues to rule the ghetto and dominate its economy. He takes the black man's business--at often exorbitant rates--and siphons off the profits for his own use.
Even more frustrating and productive of angry, spontaneous violence is the inability of many Negroes to climb the economic and social ladder. The mode of existence that deaf, dumb, and often blind whites have often unthinkingly forced on them makes "self-starting" frequently impossible. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book that has gained status as a sociological document, suggests that it is natural for many Negroes in the ghettos to drift into bitterness and search for constanct kicks.
The Negro in the cities requires a better education, extensive job retraining, and a massive pool of steady labor opportunities to break the vicious poverty circle in which he swirls about. Yet this has not been forthcoming. The Federal anti-poverty program has done little moren than tantalize him. A lot of talk from Washington and the politicians--and very little action or money. The Vietnam war and a disastrously reactionary Congress are to blame for the shortage of funds and programs.
There is much that could be done in the cities, however, within this sad situation. Urban administrators, for example, could have used their influence to assure that Negroes received the same quality of municipal services as whites. Until very recently, this grating inequity was ignored.
More to the point, these same administrators should have realized the tinder-box situation inherent in the continually exacerbated state of police-Negro relations. They could have forced labor unions working on municipal projects to ineegrate.
The governmental organs of the United States, then, have been derelict in their care of the ghetto situation. In the last week or so, a total breakdown of law and order across the nation belatedly pulled the blinders off many officials, like the President.
The riots, as acts of protests, are regrettable. For the angry devastation the nation's Negroes save wreaked in the past month may only hurt their own cause. The torn ghettos, if the aftermath of Watts is any lesson, will not be reconstructed. And sadly, most whites lack the intelligence and magnanimity to realize that compassion and sharply escalated governmental spending and attention are called for. They will look for conspiracies, fix their gaze on the H. Rap Browns, call for stricter police control, and encourage their Congressmen to continue reducing anti-poverty spending.
It would be catastrophic if these voices continued to dominate. It would also be tragic if governmental officials, like the President, continued to think that a non-crisis in Vietnam deserved more attention and funds than a rising domestic calamity.
The rioters, and the overwhelming majorty of black Americans who refused and will always refuse to join them, are mad. They have good reason. Their anger is a moral stain on our society. This stain must be removed if it is not to eat away at our core.
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