Maybe God Will Come and Clean Up This Mess

How do ghetto Negroes look at the white world outside their decaying neighborhoods? And how do they explain or respond to the spontaneous violence and destructiveness of slum rioting? A partial answer comes from Dr. Robert Coles.

Civil rights marchers in Chicago's riot-torn Southwest Side, August 1966. (AP)

By and large, racial riots have occurred somewhere between June and September, and it is not very hard for anyone familiar with ghetto tenements to explain why. In Harlem or Chicago’s South Side men have no boats to haul by car to a beach. They don’t own summer homes or air conditioners, and their children have no nearby lakes or oceans to visit, or cars to take them to distant resorts. In July and August the sun beats down without letup on those flat-roofed buildings, and after a while they become unbearable. Rodents and bugs leave their hiding places; flies and mosquitoes are everywhere, and screens are rusty or simply absent. There is no wind, and there are no open spaces to give one respite, a sense of air and freedom. Rian brings not relief, but leaks, floods, more bugs.

It is terribly unsettling, even to a visitor who knows he can leave whenever he wishes: all those people, living at such close quarters, with little money, amid broken-down furniture and uncollected garbage in buildings whose walls are peeling, whose windows don’t work, whose hallways never see light, whose stairwells have treacherously loose and broken railings that go eternally unrepaired, whose plumbing is unreliable at the very best. I go into such buildings for an hour or two, and come out tired or angry. I often wish millions of other Americans could see such places; perhaps then they would know what a sweltering, suffocating July evening does to ghetto people—who are chronically “on edge” about where the next dollar is coming from anyway, and who have only the crowded street for “escape” or relief.

To a panicky, fearful white nation (more guilty than it knows, and therefore more willing to strike back at the people whose actions summon that guilt) the lesson should be clearer than I think it is: the rioters are not nearly as wanton and “irrational,” as thoughtless and heedless, as we would like to believe. They know they are in a distinct minority. They talk about “black power,” but in their bones they recognize and pay their respects to white power, to the millions of white people in this country who own its wealth and make very little effort to share it with the black porters and bellboys, the black handymen and garbagemen, the black maids and janitors, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of idle black men who have to flee their homes so that their wives and children can get a few stingy dollars of relief money.

I have talked with a number of men and women involved in riots in Boston. The longer I have talked with them, the more I have been reminded of the injunctions I hear negro parents hand down to their children. Here, for example, are the words used by a mother whose children I see every week:

I tell my boys to watch their step. It don’t make any difference what they do here, inside, or in the alley; but when they’re outside, going to school or like that, the white man can be around, and there’s trouble where he is. So, they know that you can’t take on the white people no matter what; whether you’re right or wrong, it don’t make no difference. Now if Arthur comes home—take him for instance—and tells me he’s got it in for some white man he saw on the street—well, then I say, no. I don’t want him fighting with anyone, mind you, but it’s different with your own, that I know.

She recently moved north from a small town in South Carolina. Any “sassy manners” there on her part or on her children’s part would have brought swift and awful retaliation, and she always knew that. She was raised to fear the bossman: “He has the power of life and death over you down there.” She may be far away from “there” right now, but it is asking a lot to expect her to forget a lifetime of cruelly oppressive treatment—that is, nothing less than a continuing caste system in this very democracy.

Now here is what one rioter told me:

Well, I joined in. Why not? I figured it was between us, right here on this street. Those cops invaded us, and started swearing and hitting, so we fought back. I can tell you—we’d never go looking for the kind of trouble they bring. That’s for sure. You don’t understand. No white man does. We just try to mind our own business, and stay clear of whitey—stay as clear, as clear of him as we can, because we know it’s no use doing anything else. He don’t like you, and he don’t want you, and he’ll cross you up the first chance he gets—and I mean bad. But if he comes right into our backyard, and attacks us, that’s different. That’s what the police do; they push us around all day, and then people like you expect us to “mind them” like we were bad kids. My people, they were lynched, lynched all the time. My mother used to tell me the stories: how they’d come in and kill one or two of us if they felt like it, if you so much as looked at them right in the eye about something. And I used to ask her why we didn’t fight back—I mean why they didn’t fight back. We’re going to fight back. That’s it. That’s what all the commotion is about. That’s what all the rioting is about. We’re fighting back, for the first time. If the white storekeeper calls us a name—they look down on us like we were as low as can be, and they’re missionaries out here, except to make money instead of preaching the Word of God—well, he’ll get it back a thousand times. Let me tell you, the people here are sick and tired of wisecracks from those storekeepers. And even the cops, if they push and shove and shout “nigger, move on,” well, they’ll hear what we have to say back.

But if they leave us alone, we don’t want any trouble with them, and that’s the truth that every colored man in America knows—at least if he’s in his right mind. Have you seen us going outside, trying to find trouble? Man it’s whitey coming in here and forcing us back to the walls of our own houses, our own lousy houses—and then we fight back. And, of course, once you start fighting, you settle a lot of accounts. I mean a lot of them. But none of this would happen in the first place. None of it. We’re told to watch ourselves, and avoid that white man like he was Death Itself. Which is what we do, until He comes in here, right up to our noses. And then, that’s it.

At twenty-eight he is years away from hearing his mother’s warnings, like those quoted above from a neighbor of his. Yet they agree with one another, the mother and the rioter. He still remembers what she still teaches her young children: watch the white man, fear him, remember his strength, fight him on home grounds, tell him what you think, but tell him from your own turf. For generations Negroes had to do otherwise—submit, surrender, oblige. One need only read John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town, written three decades ago in the thirties, to understand the psychological heritage of today’s rioters. The Southern Negro had to learn how to endure overwhelming brute force—ready in an instant to crush him; and he did learn. He learned to turn his anger inward, to fight and kill his friends and neighbors, to drink himself insensible, to smile and placate the white man and at the same time hate himself. Judges, lawyers, sheriffs applauded and rewarded that psychological achievement. Years ago, when I lived in Mississippi and first started studying white and Negro families in the South, a policeman I knew who worked for one of the state’s more enlightened towns, situated on the Gulf Coast, told me what I had to realize:

We leave them alone, so long as they keep everything to themselves and don’t bother us. it has to be pretty bad in nigger-town for us to take much notice. The way I see it, they have to get it out of their systems, especially on Saturday nights, so they drink and fight and carry on. That’s the way it is in every town in the state—and all over from what I hear.

Of course it never occurred to him that he and his kind were what the Negro has to “get out of his system.” Nor does it occur to some of us right now to ask about the history of the negro’s relationship to the law or to the police—both of which we of the white middle-class world urge so insistently, correctly (and nervously) on him today.

Here is a middle-class Negro speaking, a lawyer. He is opposed to the summer riots that broke out in Boston: in fact, he was outraged and horrified at what he saw. Yet he couldn’t help looking back in time as well as at the present awful turn of events:

It’s been the worst week of my life. I can’t tell you what it does to someone like me. We feel so ashamed ourselves, and we feel so weak. We want to stop what’s going on, but we can’t. White officials come to us and want to know why we can’t “control” our own people. The fact is they’ve been under “control” so long that it’s ironic hearing “control” suggested—from the mouths of white people. But I agree; it would be fine if all the people in the ghetto were sensible and “rational”—if they knew how to be endlessly patient. I’m not sure it would be “fine” for them, but it would for everyone else, me included, I admit. We lose ground with white people when riots happen, and they forget that it’s the Negroes who suffer from the riots, the Negroes and a few white shopkeepers or property owners, who already have made plenty of money from the slums, even taking into account what they lose during a riot.

The thing white people most forget, though, is how long Negroes have been having business with the police. I was born North, and so were my parents. But I’m a relative exception. Most Negroes in Northern cities have come up in the past twenty or thirty years, and they’ve grown up to fear the cops and to hate them. They’ve seen people beaten and even killed by them. The nation takes notice when a Mississippi sheriff and his deputy are charged with taking part in the murder of white students from the North, but to Negroes it’s a fact of life that—as my grandfather used to say—“breathe wrong and they’ll be down on you, the police.” Say a thing to defend yourself in this city—and any other one, from what I hear—and likely as not the police will beat you so bad you die, or you might just as well be dead. Talk about “riot-control,” we need “police-control” and “riot-control.”

He wanted to know how I expected people to change their attitudes and their “perceptions,” their fears and doubts, within one generation’s time, particularly when often enough they have no reason to do so:

They come up here, and it’s better for them, in the sense that they aren’t hounded down automatically, and at least they can vote and get halfway adequate welfare or medical care, though not always, I’m afraid. But after a while they become disillusioned. They can’t get jobs. Life in the ghetto is rotten, rotten, rotten. The cops up here swear and cuss at them, just like down South. It grows on them that for all the travel they really haven’t got very far: they’re still way at the bottom, and there’s no place they can go to make it better.

Again and again I hear his observations confirmed by others, the poorer Negro people he described. Ironically, the recent civil rights struggle, largely fought in the South, coincided with the onset of real disenchantment and bitterness among the Negroes who only recently left the South. I know from my work with Negro families in Boston how stirred they were by the sight of other Negroes marching and demonstrating in Selma, in Jackson, in New Orleans. At the same time they themselves, now in the North, were beginning to wonder what the point of it all was: the search, the change, the transplantation from the familiar oppression of the rural South to the impersonal and frigid kind that prevails up north.

“You come here hoping,” one man said to me three years ago, “but you find you’ve put out too much hope on the line, and you’re not going to get anything back. So you just sit and make yourself at home; you and the rats, and you and the broken glass.

“We were fed up long ago, to tell the truth,” he went on.

We didn’t want to go back, and we don’t find it any good up here. They don’t want us here any more than they did down there. They used us down there until they had nothing more for us to do, and then they were glad to be rid of us. So we came up here, and there was some work in the factories while the war was going on; but then things started to slump, and now they don’t want us up her either. Then, the last few years, we thought it somehow might get better, because of the civil rights movement, you know. But nothing happened. They got the vote back home, and up here they made a few jobs for younger kids, and they said we could have the hydrants open for the little children, if we wanted, and they said to wait, and everything would be OK by the year 2000 or 3000, or some time like that. Well, if it does get better by then, I know one thing now, it won’t be because of anything the white people in this city do. Maybe God will come and clean up this mess the way He promised He would. That’s the only time it’ll get better in this neighborhood, if you ask me.”

Why did he recently join in a riot, the man who talked like that to me three years ago? There are no sweeping or categorical answers to such a question. One ghetto youth likened the process to a stew, with one ingredient following another—until “it’s there, all done and boiling away.” Start with centuries of slavery and its persisting consequences, and add widespread Southern poverty with the resulting shift of millions of bewildered, hungry people from a rural to an urban situation. Add television, with its ability to bring news immediately and vividly to an incredibly wide audience, to “illiterate” people who nevertheless can see and “get the picture,” so to speak. Throw in hot weather and a confusing war that has stalemated much of the progress that was being made or could be made.

And finally, don’t forget the densely packed people, so chronically fearful, so naturally vulnerable to all the rumors and crosscurrents of any crowd that forms. They all accumulate, and people like me call them “factors”: the incidents and “underlying conditions,” the “national atmosphere,” and the specific outrages. Then, suddenly, the explosion comes. The weather is especially sticky. The Congress has been unusually insulting. I wish some of those congressmen who laughed off the floor of the House of Representatives a proposed law to combat rats could have seen what I did, the faces of bat rats could have seen what I did, the faces of ghetto youths as they heard about it all on the evening television news programs. I also wish some of those congressmen would see some of the rat bites I have had to treat. We underestimate the ability of the “poor” and the “illiterate” or “disadvantaged” to pick up quite clearly what is important, what will help them, or what will once more make a mockery of their aspirations and difficulties; and yes, what is going on in the Congress. Finally, an incident occurs. A slur is uttered. A mistake occurs in an arrest, or for that matter a quite legitimate arrest is attempted. A provocative gesture is made by a youth, by a policeman, by anyone. And basta, enough, “that does it.”

Once the riot is on its way, the absurd possibilities, the absurd, illogical desires that lurk in all of us, have no trouble finding expression. It should come as no surprise that poor people try to seize possessions, and gloat at the success they can achieve at least as vandals and looters. In point of fact, from what I have seen, there are several different kinds of rioters. Some are essentially of the middle class—educated Negroes who are very much identified with the civil rights movement and feel cheated at its demise in the North. Some are working men and women, with jobs and modest means, who nevertheless feel they are treated like no one else in this country. A report of police brutality does not cause them to hesitate, to investigate the truth of the charge. They believe the white world capable of anything, and can usually offer personal experiences as proof. Then, in very significant numbers, one finds the “ghetto poor,” people on welfare, who barely make a go of it from day to day. They will often join a riot that has started, and can be heard saying “That’s the limit” or “We can’t take anymore, so let’s show them how we feel.” Finally, there are certain kinds of “leaders,” some of them shrewd and unscrupulous people who are quite willing to exploit the grievances o their people for all sorts of dishonest and hysterical politicians. Negroes have stupid and wild men trying to take them over, even as the corn belt and the cotton belt have produced their share of demagogues; and white demagogues become governors and senators, while their Negro counterparts are usually more pathetic than effectively sinister. From what I have seen in several Northern ghettos, we are fooling ourselves badly if we think a few loudmouthed and absurd political extremists are responsible for the widespread and continuing disorders in our cities today.

We are lying through a terrible historical irony. It has to be said again and again: the law which rioting Negroes now defy once decreed them to be chattel, pure and simple; and until recently that law, that order, that “way of life” denied them—in their American homeland, the South—even the right to vote. Negroes now seize property, but once they were property. One hundred years ago the nation had to fight a bloody civil war before white men could even grant citizenship to black men. Today millions of Negroes still feel apart, hopelessly and impossibly so. They are a nation within a nation, and until that awful division of territory, money, and power is somehow bridged, until studies and inquiries and prescriptions become actions, rioting will continue.