Watts at 40: John McWhorter on Rebellion

On the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, John McWhorter has some reflections on the romance of rebellion in this Washington Post op-ed:
On Aug. 11, 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles broke out in flames on the nation's television screens. Many cherish the memory as the moment when the militant became mainstream in a "fed-up" black America, replacing the nonviolent, gradualist efforts of old-guard civil rights leaders. The Watts riot indeed shaped modern black American history more decisively than the Voting Rights Act. The question is whether it was in a good way.

In comparison with the polite sleeve-tugging and forms of nonviolent protest typical of the earlier civil rights generation, the sea change in 1965 may seem at first glance to have been an overdue response to the injustice that black America had endured for so long. But after researching the riot and the policies established in its aftermath, I have come to a different conclusion. In teaching poor blacks that picturesque battle poses were an "authentic" substitute for constructive intentions, the "Burn, Baby, Burn" ethos ultimately did more harm than good to a people who had already been through more than enough.
The Watts riot began when white police officers stopped an intoxicated black driver in South Central Los Angeles. He resisted arrest and was forcibly subdued. [Sounds awfully familiar. -aa] A rumor quickly spread that the officers had beaten a pregnant black woman, and a growing mob started throwing rocks and bottles at the cops. The incident snowballed into a five-day conflagration, with blacks destroying a thousand businesses. Thirty-four people died, more than 1,000 were hospitalized and nearly 4,000 were arrested.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that blacks were rebelling against the conditions they were forced to live in. I was born two months after Watts, but growing up, this was the justification I heard time and again.

But. There were a few things about the Watts riots, McWhorter says, that didn't quite add up. For starters, these were the first race riots instigated by blacks, and not by mobs of white bigots. And yet, "black rioters in Watts ruined black-owned businesses as lustily as white ones." Then there's another curious thing: "the worst riots happened in places where conditions for blacks were best" - nothing comparable to the Watts riots happened in Atlanta or Birmingham.

Not wishing to presume any further on the writings of a fellow word geek, I'll stop quoting here and let you go read the rest at the link. Pay attention as McWhorter describes the lethal mix of rebellion for its own sake and a carefully cultivated entitlement mentality, and the devastating effects this ideological "Molotov cocktail" had on African American society.

Revolution, Communism, and the legacy of racism are the subject of Neo's fascinating three-part study on Paul Robeson and his friendship with the ill-fated Russian Jewish poet Itzhak Feffer. Feffer - an early casualty of what probably would have become Stalin's "final solution" - desperately signaled his impending death to Robeson in their last meeting - but to no avail. Robeson kept quiet about Feffer, and - with the exception of a purely symbolic, and utterly useless, protest in the form of a Yiddish folksong he performed publicly - about Soviet Jewry in general. Some highlights from Neo's series:
The trajectory of Robeson's life is a highly cautionary tale of the ideological seduction of a gifted man by what was originally an idealistic dream, his failure to see the horror that dream had become, his severe moral compromise as a result, and the cost of that compromise to him and others. Robeson was a perfect example of just how very difficult it can be for a mind to change, no matter how insightful or otherwise intelligent that mind might be.

So it seems that Robeson's love for Communism was rooted in his idea that it was the antidote to the racism that had tormented this very proud man all his life. In this, of course, he was utterly mistaken, but it was a powerful dream that he could not relinquish: "Here, for the first time in my life...I walk in full human dignity." When push came to shove and Stalin's crimes became known, Robeson, like so many others, faced a choice between clinging to an ideal and rejecting that ideal because of the horrifically flawed reality that it had become. Like so many others, he clung to the power of the dream rather than face a harsh reality. (Once again, in describing this, I am not offering an excuse; merely an explanation. Robeson is responsible for his own moral failures.)

What is it that ultimately distinguishes those such as Robeson, who refuse to abandon the cause even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, from others who are able to renounce the cause in which they once believed? We cannot know for sure. But my guess would be that it depends partly on how deeply they need to believe (the deeper the need, the more difficult to face reality), and how much they have already compromised their own integrity in the service of that cause.

For some, perhaps the implications of having to face their own guilt are simply too great....

I'm not going to try to make a direct connection between Neo-Neocon's article on Robeson and John McWhorter's piece on the Watts riots; but I do think that they both provide insights into how the drive for justice and the quest for the greater, common good - both noble pursuits in themselves - can become distorted into an atavistic, destructive force that brings only destruction. Today's liberals would do well to pay attention.