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.” 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.
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.
 “Racism Resurgent,” The Progressive¸ January 1992, p. 7.
 Charles Murray. “Causes, Root Causes, and Cures,” National Review, June 8, 1992, p. 30.