U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The 1992 LA Riots and Intellectual History

For the last few weeks I have examined how African American intellectuals tackled the long, hot summers of the mid-1960s. Today I’ll fast-forward in time to 1992. The Los Angeles Riots of that year were some of the worst in U.S. history since the 60s. There had been other riots between the late 1960s and 1992—my hometown of Augusta, Georgia had a particularly nasty riot in 1970, Miami in 1980, and Crown Heights in New York City in 1991. But the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 have stayed in public memory for a long time. The timing of the riots—and the response to the riots—need to be thought of in a post-civil rights era context.


By 1992, liberal and left-wing intellectuals complained about the Reagan-Bush years as an era of reversal for civil rights. For example, editors at The Progressive argued “Ronald Reagan and George Bush…made racism respectable again.”[1] Such harsh rhetoric deployed by a left-wing publication months before the Los Angeles Riots is but one example of how debates about race raged across the country in the early 1990s. On a policy level, arguments over the failed Civil Rights Act of 1990, and its successor the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (which was passed) showed the continuing importance of race in public policy. We often focus on the symbolism for both feminism and black identity politics with the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings of 1991. But we can’t forget that other events—the Civil Rights Act of 1990/91 debates, Crown Heights—were running alongside that monumental event.

Culturally, the era also reflected a concern among a wide variety of African Americans about the future of race relations. Public Enemy’s rap albums from the period reflect a simmering rage over racism in American society. But they weren’t the only rap artists to talk about race and American society in the early 1990s. Ice Cube’s lyrical skill was often put to use to talk about the relationship between African Americans and the police, among other topics. I’ll return to hip hop and the early 1990s in a later post, but this cultural moment can’t be ignored when considering the intellectual debates about race circa 1992.

As stated elsewhere on this blog, Shelby Steele’s writings from this era on colorblindness also merit serious attention. The national dialogue on race (which really never seems to end, it only changes shape) in the early 1990s focused on issues such as affirmative action, “cultural pathology,” and qualms about reverse racism. The end of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles started a renewed conversation about the legacy of the Great Society. By extension, the achievements of liberalism in the 1960s—and their weakness as a political force by the 1980s—were central to the debate about how best to respond to the riots.

Conservatives such as Charles Murray were critical of the Rodney King verdict in April, 1992. However, he argued that the verdict should not have been surprising. In fact, it was understandable. “The Rodney King verdict was an expression of white fear about black crime, and this fear is grounded in reality,” he wrote. He also understood how the debate about race had changed since the riots of the 1960s. “The white reaction to the riots will be profoundly different from the reaction in the 1960s,” Murray believed, “because a consensus of whites no longer accepts that whites are to blame for black problems. This shift in opinion is also grounded in reality.” The War on Poverty lay at the root of the riots, Murray believed.[2]

While I’m only providing a cursory look at the debates about race surrounding the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, it’s important to note how important these debates are to the present day. There’s no going back to the Great Society or the War on Poverty as public policy solutions. No one in Washington is talking about massive, anti-poverty programs. But Americans are still wrestling with the legacy of the 1960s. The legacy of the Great Society often lay at the heart of debates about the 1992 riots. I’ll be talking more about this legacy in my next post.

[1] “Racism Resurgent,” The Progressive¸ January 1992, p. 7.

[2] Charles Murray. “Causes, Root Causes, and Cures,” National Review, June 8, 1992, p. 30.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Robert. Don’t forget about some of the debates that took place in the aftermath of the LA Riots. For example, Clinton had his “Sister Souljah moment” and Dan Quayle blamed the LA Riots on the crumbling black family–in the context of criticizing Murphy Brown! Weird.

    • Indeed both of those are very important. I think the Sista Souljah moment was critical in showing the Democratic Party’s move towards the center in 1992–and, probably, also shows a serious humbling of Jesse Jackson’s political power within the party.

      I think both of these moments actually say a great deal about our current political situation in regards to race and gender! Very, very important events. Thanks for bringing them up!

  2. Great post. It made me think of how as an adolescent I witnessed these events unfold…mostly through the lens of MTV, which always has had an ambivalent relationship with hip hop culture. Of course, hip hop is now an utterly different phenomenon. As some defenders of the old-school era argue, it has lots its political fangs in becoming another mainstream commodity that can be easily appropriated by white artists, who disregard the history of hip hop and its subversive undercurrents. Q-Tip’s wonderful take down of Iggy Azalea follows this logic: http://jezebel.com/q-tip-schools-iggy-azalea-on-hip-hop-history-and-were-a-1673811788

    • I thought that Q-Tip twitter essay was great, too. It’s funny though because as you said, it’s being spread around on the internet as a “take down,” but actually he seems to make a sincere effort at it NOT being perceived as a take down, but an earnest attempt to get Azalea to consider where concerns about the rise of white rap are coming from.

      That’s just on my mind after the exchange with LD on my blog post from two weeks back. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good take down, and lots of times it is totally appropriate, and I would have been happy had Q-Tip here intended it as such (as I think it would have been appropriate!) But I wonder when even attempts to avoid the form of the take down get constructed, by other people, as take downs. Is there a way to inform someone that they are dramatically, painfully wrong and/or misinformed about something without it becoming a take down? That’s an actual question. And if there is, how important is that really? Do we view “having productive discussions” where we aren’t all being defensive all the time as strategies that could actually alter the course of history and politics?, or is that just one of those liberal myths we all love to cling to? Again, actually asking.

      • It’s an excellent question, which depends, like all questions, on the context. And I believe in the case of Azalea it reads take down because of the flagrant racist ignorance on her part. Even if it is true Q-Tip is truly sincere in educating her, his show of knowledge still “takes her down” in the view of most. The form here is essential: he is no telling her, hey, read Tricia Rose or Jeff Chang on hip hop, he is giving her a lesson. And lessons involve authority, power. The truth in the end, regarding your question about “productive discussions,” is that there will always be instances in which there isn’t a willing listener. I don’t really think Q-Tip believes Azalea is going to say, oh, that’s right, I am sorry for my ignorance, his message is not directed to her but at the broader public. I am all for dialogue, but as we are witnessing right now in the US part of understanding “how to alter the course of history” (if we are to fall into that voluntarist logic) means understanding when other means beyond discussion are necessary.

      • Oops, I left an important element regarding the “take down” question in connection to form: twitter, which connects again to the idea of not talking so much to Azalea but to the public. Twitter can be great, but perhaps there’s a negative affect built into trying to have dialogues through it, like critics have suggested, which is enforced through its immediacy and briefness.

  3. I completely agree that there is an important distinction to be made about whether or not one truly hopes to reach, or is really talking to, the individual being addressed. Obviously as Azelea’s subsequent reply indicated, she wasn’t worth talking to directly/ie in private.

    I often get asked why I bother engaging in long, drawn out debates with various people on Facebook who clearly aren’t going to respond to evidence or even consider changing their minds. I always tell people I’m not really talking to them; I’m talking to the eavesdroppers.

    And as to other means than discussion being necessary: yes, yes, and yes again.

    (Sorry Robert for hijacking your comment section here a bit to talk about this related issue, but I hope it still seems pretty relevant! At least in my mind it is; the very recycled nature of the “public discussion” on race every time the country is forced to really think on it again seems related to an ongoing project of trying to figure out what a productive discussion on race would even look like.)

    • Yes, we went off on a tangent, but the issue is still pertinent to what Robert has been ruminating on in his posts: how to have a “productive discussion” about race, what are both the limits and possibilities of said discussion, can it be truly inclusive, how does it shape the different spheres that constitute the fragmentary US mediascape nowadays. Going back to the original questions of the post, one could historicize this tension between protestors and the police state. What does the discourse of “Fuck tha Police,” as NWA put it in their famous song, mean for not only African Americans, but the US broader publics. Evidently, as Robert is suggesting, there are undercurrents that connect that period–and and what one could call the deep history of racial violence and structural racism in the Americas–with the one today. Perhaps what is different, as you suggest in regards to Facebook, beyond the sense of the failed promises of civil rights era, is an accentuated visibility and sense of immediacy that simultaneously accentuates how we experience antagonism.

  4. Oh no, please don’t apologize! I’ve been busy with Christmas shopping and family activities, otherwise I would have responded sooner. No, I think what everyone has said here is quite relevant to my post. I like to think of the blog as a Jazz ensemble, especially the comments section. So don’t think of them as tangents–more as solos!

    Ultimately, these questions of what constitutes a “national dialogue on race” are important. I think they’re important in a modern context because, while the dialogue never seems to really end, the terms and questions surrounding the debate always change. And as you’ve both pointed out, in the era of social media the dialogue has many, many voices trying to raise so many questions–and a few answers.

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