The Fire This Time

The black-white divide is in sharp focus again, 22 years after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the not-guilty verdict in the police beating of black motorist Rodney King were probably the last time the fraught relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement galvanized as much attention as it has since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The King verdict, and the anguish and violence it ignited, flared late in the 1992 presidential primary season, and it prompted Bill Clinton, then nearing the Democratic nomination, to ditch his schedule and fly to Los Angeles. As the political reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I shadowed him through battered streets in South Central L.A. where he stood before smoldering buildings and bent low to talk with residents who sometimes shook with sadness and rage.

In everything he said then, Clinton acknowledged that while the King beating provided the spark, the explosion also tapped much deeper frustrations. Speaking at a black church in Washington, D.C., just before he flew to California, Clinton powerfully framed the underlying issue. "We must not allow this country to drift apart further by race and income," he said. "Let us pray for the United States that somehow, some way, we will learn the deeper lesson of the last few days: that we are drifting apart when we ought to be coming together."

Twenty-two years later, the acrid aftermath of Brown's death offers an opportunity to measure how well the U.S. has met Clinton's test of bridging racial divides. In some respects, the situation of African-Americans has improved since 1992; in others, conditions are worse. But the overall picture is of disappointingly little change: The African-American community faces many of the same barriers, and jagged racial disparities, as it did when L.A. burned.

The most positive trend is in education. Just over one in five young African-Americans (ages 25-29) now hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with about one in eight two decades ago, census figures show. Those educational gains have slightly swelled the black middle class: Measured in constant dollars, more than 34 percent of African-American households now earn at least $50,000 annually, compared with just under 30 percent in 1992.

Yet the overall income picture for African-Americans isn't as encouraging. After increasing by nearly a third during Clinton's presidency—over twice the gains among whites—the median income for blacks since 2000 has fallen much faster than for whites. The result is that the typical African-American family is earning only about 10 percent more than in 1992, a meager gain. Today, the median African-American family earns only about three-fifths as much as the equivalent white family—not statistically different than in 1992, or even 1972.

The gap in poverty rates for blacks and whites has narrowed somewhat since 1992, but blacks (and black children) remain about three times as likely to be poor. Partly because African-Americans suffered more from the housing crash, the median white family now holds more than 14 times as much wealth as the typical black family, a gap about one-third wider than in 1992.

Blacks are also much more likely than whites to be isolated in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Studies using census data have found that the overall level of housing segregation has (very) slightly declined since the 1970s—partly because that growing black middle-class has greater capacity to leave troubled neighborhoods. But that migration, along with the wealth gap and other factors including residual housing discrimination, have left poor black families much more likely than poor whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. "Poor blacks are definitely isolated from middle-class blacks, and very isolated from middle-class folks in general," says Sean Reardon, a Stanford University education professor who studies residential trends. That in turn explains why nearly three-fourths of young African-Americans, compared with three in 10 whites, attend public schools where most students qualify as poor.

The doleful statistics now grabbing headlines on African-Americans' experience with violence and incarceration represent only the dispiriting end of this dreary pipeline. Although it has declined since 1992, the homicide rate for black men remains 17 times the level for white men. And while the incarceration rate for black men peaked in 2001, it remains slightly higher than in 1992—and over six times the level for white men. Other relevant indicators, from student reading scores to single parenthood, show similarly stubborn racial gaps.

The political debate over these disparities usually pits conservatives focused on personal responsibility against liberals stressing social and economic forces. But as Clinton passionately argued back in 1992, any serious effort to improve conditions must link opportunity and responsibility.

"It is certainly the case that personal responsibility contributes to success," agrees Richard Reeves, policy director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families. "It is also true that the prospect of success in life is essential to helping people develop personal responsibility. It cuts both ways."

Remembering that may be the key to slicing through the Gordian knots of poverty, isolation, and alienation that still entangle too many African-American communities 22 years after the fire last time in Los Angeles.