THE last time riots the magnitude of Los Angeles rocked the nation, I was leaving a Washington, D.C., high school with no financial prospects for college. Having spent much of my single-parent childhood on welfare and other government programs - like summer jobs programs - I had worked my way through a parochial high school. But college was another matter.
A white high school counselor reminded me that I had won several writing contests, and suggested that I go to one of two local daily newspapers to ask for a scholarship. I was too young to know how ridiculous that was, so I went.
"The riots," the newspaper's publisher told me, "have caused us here to consider increasing our investment in the community." That investment came in the form of a job as a copyboy and a four-year scholarship to Catholic University.
Last year, George Bush said in a speech that the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson had "exacerbated racial hostility." In the immediate aftermath of the riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the president's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, also attributed "the root causes" of the L.A. riots to Great Society programs, which he said "ignored the relationship between people's pride in their community and having a job ... having the hope of income and improving their lives, and being able to own their own p roperties or homes to give them a stake in the community."
Much of the anger that fuels riots stems directly from lies like those the president and his spokesman continue to circulate. My mother worked at least two jobs to get out of welfare, buy a modest house, and send her kids to parochial schools. And while those programs were imperfect and intentionally demeaning to recipients, the indisputable truth is that they were necessary.
Having started my life in poverty, I needed temporary help by the federal government, and affirmative action in the private sector - along with a lot of hard work - to rise in the profession of journalism to the point where, as a White House correspondent for ABC News, I could put questions to Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Jimmy Carter.
ALL this came to mind recently when a local television station, reporting on the homeless, did a piece on my childhood best friend - a boy every bit as intelligent and ambitious as I at the time. Yet he was standing on the corner begging pennies, not because he was a lesser person, but because I got the breaks.
Those breaks, which affected more than a few African-Americans I know, provided a window of opportunity that was slamming shut even before President Johnson left office. His Great Society was strangled by the financial and political demands of the Vietnam War.
When Richard Nixon was in his second term, the programs had virtually ceased to exist. Even President Carter continued the assault. By the time Bush took office, government help to urban blacks and private-sector affirmative action, while remaining hot-button issues in the political debate, existed mostly in history books.
For a president whose party has controlled the White House for 20 of the last 24 years to blame nearly 30-year-old defunct policies for continuing inequities in our society is race-baiting, unequaled in recent politics.
Dr. Charles Jarmon, the former chair of Howard University's School of Sociology and Anthropology, says that African-Americans today are under more stress than at any time since slavery. By every conceivable index - in health, economics, politics, and the law - most African-Americans remain at the very bottom of our society.
And a large part of the reason young blacks are in the streets with bricks in their hands is that today they know with far more certainty than I did 30 years ago that there is virtually no one who will pull them aside and say, "We want to increase our investment in the community."