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The `Healing Process,' Yet Again

ONCE again, we're appointing task forces to tell us why black people rioted. We really needn't work so hard at it. The Los Angeles riot occurred because a predominantly white jury again proved that much of America thinks black life isn't as valuable as white life. Nothing shocking there.

There are some surprises, however, in the nature of the riot that followed. As a newspaper reporter who covered civil rights in the 1960s, I saw all-white Southern juries at work and witnessed the summer, 1964, riots in the North. A comparison then and now might help.

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In 1964, violence usually began when a white policeman attacked a black person suspected of some trivial infraction. The Harlem riot of that year started when an off-duty white cop killed a black youth. The jury's verdict in the Rodney King case certainly amounts to such an assault, since it condones an open season on black people who are not sufficiently subservient.

The '60s riots galvanized the local white establishment into action that showed they had no clue about what to do next. The galvanic process usually included the appointment of an ineffectual blue-ribbon task force. That scenario, too, seems not to have changed much, except that now the mayor of Los Angeles is a black man.

That leaves looting to consider. There we have a real departure. Looting and gratuitous property damage occurred in the riots of the '60s, too. But a lot of it was clearly based on anger. The mobs took revenge on neighborhood merchants whom they accused of selling inferior merchandise at high prices and usurious credit terms. The rioters did not hesitate to point out that many of the merchants were Jews.

In Los Angeles, Korean merchants took the place of Jewish shopkeepers. We don't know whether this is because blacks have any real grievance against Koreans or because the Asians simply represent an identifiable ethnic group that has made faster economic progress than black Americans and that happened to be on the scene. The difference comes in the conduct of the rioting itself: Looting based on indignation or revenge in Los Angeles gave way quickly to looting based on the simple desire to exploit an out- of-control situation and obtain free TV sets, $200 sneakers, and disposable diapers.

An intriguing sub-question arises. Much of the destruction seems to have taken place because the police didn't show up to stop it. Were they showing the general population what they showed Rodney King?

So what might we learn from all this? I'm afraid the answer is that rioters are right in step with society's other movers and shakers. The world we inhabit in 1992 is much more brutally materialistic than the world of 1964; not only is human life valued less (which might explain the 1992 riot's higher death toll) but so are honesty and common decency.

WHEN a scandal erupted a few years ago at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, most Americans yawned. Would they have yawned in 1964? What about the savings and loan scam? Bhopal? The Gulf war? Fallen television evangelists? The Clarence Thomas confirmation? Congress's problems?

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Either we used to be much more moral or we were more ashamed of being labeled immoral. Now everybody's doing it, and many are getting away with it. Is perhaps rioting a less sophisticated version of a Wall Street wizard's stealing from widows and orphans?

There's another bit of wretched proof that some things never change. Soon after the rioting in Los Angeles began to wind down, the press announced that "the healing process" had begun. Some good might come out of this tragedy, the big thinkers said.

What a sad cliche! How many tragedies such as this must we have in order for good to finally triumph over evil? It's been 373 years since white Americans began the tragedy of stealing people into slavery. It's been 135 years since our Supreme Court ruled that Negroes weren't citizens, 96 years since the court said separate meant equal, 38 years since it hesitantly reversed itself, 31 years since the Freedom Ride, 28 years - a generation - since the first modern wave of Northern black riots, the wake-up c all that we slept through.

How long are we supposed to wait for our racism to disappear? If having it on videotape won't help, what will? Does white America, given its own sorry record, have a right to be indignant or even surprised that the minority, when massively provoked, occasionally takes up the riot that the majority has been conducting all along? And when it happens again, will we start "the healing process" yet again?

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