The L.A. Riots, the Mystery of 25, and Those Damn Jobs

Most people know that 7 is lucky and 13 is cursed. But there’s also something about 25.

Every 25 years black America’s relationship with the police explodes into the national conversation. The current era is defined by Black Lives Matter and countless videos of black and brown people being harmed by law enforcement. But 25 years ago this Saturday, a lower quality video of a black man being savagely beaten by police officers sparked the L.A. Riots. And 25 years before the L.A. Riots, multiple American cities (including Detroit and Newark) were on fire.

Police practices tend to light the fuse. But there has always been more to the story. Economic opportunity is a frequent theme in the aftermath of massive protest and riots. The words “jobs” and “affordable housing” are put on repeat. They are the unofficial mantras of advocates, researchers, and policymakers.

When investigating 1960’s era riots, the Kerner Commission exhaustively examined jobs and housing. Its bottom line was clear: “Only a greatly enlarged commitment to national action — compassionate, massive, and sustained, backed by the will and resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on earth — can shape a future that is compatible with the historic ideals of American society.”

So, how did that go?


This may be shocking to learn, but those massive and sustained efforts never happened. Conservatives say otherwise, regularly decrying explosive growths in spending on anti-poverty programs. Technically, they’re right. The dollar amounts have increased — but so have other factors.

There are simply more Americans sharing in available resources. In 1967, the population count was 199 million. Today our nation is 325 million people strong. The Gross Domestic Product or GDP (a measure of the size of the U.S. economy) has also increased in the periods between major riots and protests. One thing not on the upswing is America’s commitment to its people and workforce. Federal spending on education, job training, and social services typically amounts to less than 1 percent of GDP. That much has not changed since the 1960’s.

And let’s be honest, anything allotted less than 1 percent of a nation’s resources is simply not a priority. Decades of political pronouncements, research reports, and legislation have not changed that. Nor has any riot or social movement.

The results have been clear. One of them is that black workers continue to have higher rates of unemployment than white ones. The most recent year bears witness. The average annual rate was 8.4 percent for African Americans, which was about twice the rate for whites (4.3 percent).

The employment disparities that many believe contribute to riots still exist. They have never been addressed by a significant and sustained governmental effort.


Dating back to the Kerner Commission, there have also been concerns about housing. The Great Migration north was associated with black families being trapped in urban ghettos.

Between the time of the L.A. riots and 2000, there was a slight nationwide decrease in concentrated poverty. But then the trend made a U-turn, increasing in the new millennium. Today, Americans are more likely to live in concentrated poverty than they were at the time of the L.A. Riots. A staggering 50 percent of black people live in these communities. Investments in the Housing Choice Vouchers (aka Section 8) and other programs have been insufficient. They haven’t stopped the trend.

There is another major problem — skyrocketing prices in the private rental market. Families across the country are on the hunt for housing they can actually afford. An astounding 7.2 million more affordable rental units are needed for the nation’s lowest income people. A conversation around family homelessness has emerged. And educators have been identifying greater and greater numbers of homeless children.

Housing challenges have morphed somewhat but still exist 25 years after the L.A. Riots.

Trump’s America

The problem of underinvestment is likely to grow worse in Trump’s America. Questions still hang over the budget and appropriations bills to be passed by Congress this year. However, the president has declared his intentions.

He would cut the Department of Labor’s budget by 21 percent. On the chopping block are adult job training programs and Job Corps Centers reaching youth. Trump would also reduce HUD’s (Housing and Urban Development) resources by 13.2 percent.


Over the decades, the nation has simply refused to properly invest in its people. This includes black Americans living in and around cities that experienced riots like the one that occurred in Los Angeles 25 years ago.

This raises certain questions. Will any of these problems be fixed 25 years from now? Will change occur before frustrations once again reach a fever pitch?

(Originally Posted on Extra Newsfeed on April 28, 2017)

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