The Watts Uprising: Sears & McConahay’s Politics of Violence

In The Politics of Violence, Sears & McConahay offer a detailed and academic study of the Watts uprising, sometimes known as the riots. Their goal in their own words:

This is a book about the political and social psychology of the Los Angeles Watts Riot of August 1965, an event that changed the course of American race relations. We shall attempt here to formulate, and to subject to rigorous empirical test, a comprehensive social psychological theory of urban mass violence. Two basic questions will be addressed: (1) Can riot participation rightfully be interpreted as a political act? (2) What were the major political effects of the riot? (vii)

The framing of this isn’t quite the way I’d go about it, but what it comes up with is very interesting. They follow these two main goals up with additional questions they believe are important, and that in themselves are insightful into the ways that the Watts uprising has been understand and the questions that it has raised for the wider society:

(1) Why did the riot happen in 1965, of all times, in the midst of what was apparently an unprecedented national civil rights effort, with the most sympathetic white public, President, Congress, and judiciary in history, and in the midst of great prosperity? (2) Why did it happen in Los Angeles, of all places, generally thought to be among the most pleasant, open, and egalitarian of American cities? (3) Was the riot politically meaningful in origin; that is, did it grow out of no longer tolerable social conditions that had to be reformed if further riots and miseries were to be avoided? Or was it a politically meaningless explosion, generated mainly by criminals, malcontents, or a few agitators, who managed to dupe hapless innocents? (4) What were the political consequences of the rioting? Did it lead whites to further sympathy for black people, and at long last spur them out of lethargy into remedial social action, or did it create a massive backlash that abruptly terminated the sympathetic consensus and thrust for civil rights progress? Did it horrify and terrify decent black citizens into a renunciation of all forms of confrontation, or provide for a general uplift in black pride and black solidarity, or fuel the advocacy of militant action and racial violence? Did race relations move into a more mature and realistic era, or regress into greater suspiciousness, hostility, and distance? (viii)

I liked this especially:

For simplicity’s sake, though, we have decided to use the term “riot” because it was used overwhelmingly in the media and by most of our respondents. Our data indicate, as will be seen, that it was more of a “rebellion” than a “riot,” but we will let our data speak for themselves and not try to prejudge the case by selecting a less commonly used word (ix).

Also this:

Blacks in Los Angeles had been angry for a long time, perhaps since first Negro arrived and the Los Angeles Times began printing a column (c. 1880)entitled “News From Nigger Alley. Nevertheless, most whites were unaware of the extent and depth of black grievances until after the rioting of 1965 (55).

But their findings on whites are more interesting really. They write:

One consequence of these mild peculiarities of the early settlers, and of the life style they created for themselves, was a profound degree of black invisibility–both before and after the mass immigration of blacks to Los Angeles. By “invisibility” we mean an absence of blacks in the perceptual world of white Southern Californians. Whites were (and are) physically isolated from blacks (134).

In analysing the reasons for this, Sears & McConahay come up with a list of explanatory factors: ‘The Naive In-Migrant’, often from the Mid-West and unused to Black folks and believing the West was free of such problems; ‘Racial Isolation’, a disperse urban pattern and segregation kept them apart and interestingly this: ‘the uniquely retreatist or privatistic life style of today’s new American suburbs has flourished in Los Angeles for many years, further diminishing the opportunities for interracial contact (135); ‘De Facto Segregation’ both in residence, but also shopping patterns and lack of public transportation causes greater isolation; ‘Invisibility in the Media’ (there is an amazing graph on this).

I’m not sure I buy their analysis that L.A.’s version of racism was primarily symbolic–having researched and read enough horribly vile leaflets and letters against integration, and given the Klan’s popularity. This sort of nastiness most associated with the deep South (from whence many whites moved to L.A.) was alive and well alongside more puritanical judgements, fear of the unknown and etc. I don’t believe much tension arose from whites attempting to impose traditional puritanical mores onto different cultures, alternative values and lifestyles — Douglas Flamming’s work, for example, on African Americans in L.A. seems to show at least a large portion of the community were just as believing in hard work and striving for middle-classness as anyone else. Where it does make sense is this world view demanding belief that each individual is what they make of themselves with no allowance for racism’s structural features.

So it’s a interesting line they take, mostly using ‘Black invisibility’ to argue that whites just didn’t know what was happening. I’d say more that they didn’t want to know, but this is really interesting:

Finally, it is this combination of invisibility, indifference, and ignorance, on the one hand, and the moralism of symbolic racism, on the other, that evoked, we believe, one of the oddest and least expected aspects of the riot; namely, the widespread feeling among blacks that the riot was a demand for attention more than an effort to redress specific and concrete deficiencies in their lives (144).

And again, they refer to this spatial aspect in which L.A. is a prototype rather than exception for sprawling development:

In the near future, at least, it appears that the dominant suburban pattern will be traditional values and privatize life styles in an ethnically homogeneous retreat from blacks who are isolated in the central city (even when the retreat is homogeneously populated with Roman Catholics espousing Protestant virtues). In this sense, then, Los Angeles differs from the rest of America only in that it is the most American of all (146).

So responses:

The racial polarization of local black and white leaders was duplicated almost immediately in the responses of the black and white publics, These descriptions of and feelings about the riot were as different as night and day and they formed the basis for a broad initial polarization over the issue of the riot, with blacks joined by a few liberal whites on one side, against most whites on the other….Most blacks perceived the riot as (1) a purposeful symbolic protest (2) against legitimate grievances, (3) designed to call attention to Blacks’ problems…When asked directly, a majority felt the riot did have a purpose or a goal, felt that the targets deserved attack, and agreed that the riot constituted a black protest. Also, when given a free choice of descriptive terms, a surprisingly large minority [38%] chose to talk about it in revolutionary or insurrectional terms… (159).

It continues: ‘Most though Whites had become more “aware of Negroes’ problems” and more sympathetic to them as a consequence of the riot’ (161). Also that ‘The blacks’ sympathies generally were with the rioters, not with the authorities. Disapproval of the rioters was not as common as it was of the riot itself’ (163).

It breaks my heart to read the contrast:

The story told by whites and Mexican Americans was quite different. Many (especially those close to the Curfew Zone) felt fear for their own safety or for their families’ safety during the disturbance. The Mexican American respondents in our sample (all of whom actually lived in the Curfew Zone) were particularly frightened: 52 per cent reported feeling a “great deal” of fear. Fear among whites was greatest in Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, two integrated communities on the edge of the Curfew Zone (35 per cent reported a “great deal”) but, even in affluent Pacific Palisades 20 miles from the riot, 12 per cent reported “a great deal” of fear.
Accompanying the fear was much serious thought about obtaining guns for armed counterviolence. Forty-two per cent of the Mexican Americans and 29 per cent of the whites said “yes” to the question, “Did you at any time consider using firearms to protect yourself or your family?” Also, 5 per cent of the whites and 7 per cent of the Mexican Americans reported that they actually had bought firearms or ammunition as a consequence of the riot (164).

Almost all Whites and Mexican-Americans supported the tough, uncompromising stand toward the rioters that chief Parker and the other California law enforcement authorities established. Both groups almost invariably praised the authorities or criticized them for not being even tougher…Whites and Mexican Americans did agree, in general, that it had been a black protest but they were extremely unlikely to describe the riot in revolutionary terms…Finally, then, it should come as no surprise to learn that whites and Mexican Americans thought the riot would have quite unfavorable effects for blacks (165).

The impact this had on perceptions and strategies for struggle in teh Black community are also revealing:

Thus, our hypothesis was that the junction of the New Urban Blacks and “Watts” would leave the younger generation (irrespective of background) more drawn to imaginative and unconventional strategies, particularly those emphasizing protest and violence.

Participation in the Watts Riot itself was one key indicator of this effect. We have seen in Chapter 2 that youth was a critical factor in riot participation and in Chapters 6 and 7 that it was not merely “animal spirits” that led the young into the fray. Rather, they engaged in the riot from the same sense of grievance as older rioters.
Willingness to engage in future protest demonstrations and preference for the use of violence in the future both showed the same effect. The young were much more drawn to both protest and violence than their elders.

Malcolm X, the continuing rise of the Nation of Islam, U.S. and the Black Panthers…hardly a surprise. The authors tie the riots into a rise in Black Pride:

‘a new and more positive conception of what it meant to be black emerged in the aftermath of the violence. The riot ideology was intimately involved with this post-riot increase in positive black identity. Specifically, it seems to have occurred as part of the interpretation of the riot as a collective symbolic protest.

And this is beautiful really, in spite of painfully moralistic language and class expectations:

We have seen repeatedly that local grievances, riot participation, and the riot ideology were not to be found merely in a few deviants, isolates, political “kooks,” or half-socialized idiots. They were to be found at least as often (and frequently to an even greater degree) in the best educated, most sophisticated, most completely socialized, most modern blacks in Los Angeles. And the same is true of positive black identity: it was, in the aftermath of “Watts,” truly a mainstream value in the black community (189).

The conclusion actually does recap in detail the entire argument, and contains this nice summary of the various theories also put forward to explain the Watts uprising–and demolished quite convincingly by this book:

We constructed and then rejected empirically one formal nonpolitical alternative to our politics of violence theory, “the random outburst theory”…We also presented the far less formalized “theories” offered by authorities and by the general public. We described the conspiracy, contagion, riffraff, underclass, family life breakdown, and southern newcomer “theories” and indicated that, with the exception of unemployed males, who were quite active, they did not fit the data…The most systematic alternative formulation we considered was Banfield’s (1970) “fun and profit” theory. We described and refuted empirically his three main propositions: that the rioting simply reflected greater propensity to violence among lower classes, southerners, and the young; that it was merely a rampage or foray for pillage, rather than being motivated by identifiable and genuine discontents; and that the riot ideology merely represented post hoc rationalizations. (201).

And then in a fairly damning indictment, they list all of the recommendations made by numerous commissions on violence and rioting beginning in 1919, that are almost word for word the same:

The recommendations invariably called for a reduction of unemployment, opening of the job structure to blacks, reform of education and of programs to improve the scholastic attainments of blacks, reform of the welfare system (to cut costs) and to give the recipients “who wanted to work” assistance in getting a job, improvement of housing quality and availability, and, finally, suggestions for future police strategies. With the exception of this last [Kerner Commission], none of the recommendations made since 1919 has been pursued with any vigor and most have remained entombed in the bound official reports to be resurrected after the next series of riots (292).

The authors go further than these ‘liberal’ formulations. Ones I think the course of histor since 1973 has challenged (along with their theorization of ‘symbolic racism’) but here they are:

Jobs, housing, education, anti-discrimination laws–all of these are necessary, but insufficient answers to mounting black disaffection. In addition, symbolic gestures are called for, to deal with symbolic discontents. That a presidential candidate or a mayor would walk through the streets of Harlem or Watts or that a President would use the phrase “we shall overcome” in a message on civil rights has a profound positive effect….
With these cautions we conclude our “recommendations.” It is obvious that America does not lack for recommendations. What she lacks is equally obvious and very simple: the will to implement them. Since we doubt that white America is on the verge of suddenly acquiring this will, we feel little compulsion to add further to the list of recommendations (205).

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