Looking at the 50th Anniversary of the Watts Riots–Thanks, Ronald Reagan!

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Watts Riots. I often have an unusual, fairly controversial take on famous historical events, and this is no exception. Most riots have a variety of causes, and the 1965 Watts Riots were no exception. However, I also believe that there was a major cause of the 1965 Watts Riots that has often been overlooked and that this cause involves Ronald Reagan, back in the days when Reagan was a popular actor and up and comer in California politics. So without further adieu, here is a story that you have probably never heard!

If California were to adopt a new state slogan, the perfect choice would be, “Rumors of Our Liberalism Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” During the Civil War, many Southern Californians supported the Confederacy. The state was a hotbed of anti-Asian xenophobia in the late nineteenth century, and this persisted into the twentieth century. While California can lay claim to being the first state to have an interracial marriage ban struck down by a judge, it is also true that this event did not take place until 1948. In the meantime, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Minnesota had never banned interracial marriage at all, while Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Mexico, Illinois, Washington State, Maine, Rhode Island, Ohio, and even Kansas had all repealed their bans prior to 1890. In 1959, however, a bleeding heart liberal named Edmund G. Brown, better known as “Pat Brown” was elected governor. Brown had a strong commitment to civil rights. In 1963, he signed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, a bill championed by black state legislator, William Byron Rumford, which banned racial discrimination in public housing and all residential properties with over five units.

The backlash was swift. Opponents of fair housing, including the John Birch Society and the California Real Estate Association, mounted a campaign to put an initiative called Proposition 14 on the ballot, which would repeal Rumford’s bill. By the 1960s, California’s GOP was split between Goldwater-style conservatives who were well to the left of Southern Democrats on civil rights but opposed strong anti discrimination laws, and Rockefeller Republican civil rights stalwarts. With Goldwater himself offering support for Proposition 14, other Republican institutions on record for the initiative included the California Republican Assembly and, reflecting the shift taking place in the GOP, the Young Republicans. On the other hand, other prominent California Republicans such as Senator Thomas Kuchel, Assemblyman Caspar Weinberger, and Mayor George Christopher of San Francisco denounced the proposition either before or after it was initially placed on the ballot. One Republican who came out in support of Proposition 14 was a man who had moved to Southern California to star in various Hollywood films. His name was Ronald Reagan.

Reagan once summed up his position as “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his home, he has a right to do so.” Later in this article, we’ll cover the inconsistency and hypocrisy in this statement coming from Reagan. But unfortunately, about two thirds of Californians voted for Proposition 14, stripping nonwhite Californians of the limited protections against housing discrimination that they had previously been given under the law. Unlike in Seattle or Tacoma, more liberal locations that had rejected fair housing via referendum, California voted on the initiative during a presidential election. Logically, this would have led to a higher voter turnout more representative of the general population than in Seattle or Tacoma, where the people who voted were probably disproportionately composed of bigots flocking to the polls to stop blacks and Hispanics from moving into their neighborhoods. Over eighty percent of registered voters turned out for the vote on Proposition 14. And of all the counties in California, only Modoc County voted “nay”–by 19 votes. While over sixty percent of people in Berkeley voted “nay,” Alameda County voted “yay.” Nine months later, the Watts Riots broke out.

It would be misleading to say that the repeal of Proposition 14 was the only cause of the Watts Riots. The frustrations of Los Angeles African Americans could obviously not be boiled down only to housing discrimination. But the impact of the repeal vote cannot be dismissed. The first staff director of the California State Fair Employment Practice Commission, Edward Howden, stated that “Negro and other nonwhite residents felt this as a stinging and deeply damaging expression of persistent and implacable racism.” A young activist named Richard Townsend, who cofounded the Student Committee for the Improvement of Watts, described the issue of fair housing and the controversy over repealing it in California as “really important” to black Angelinos. “Even the blacks who couldn’t move anywhere discussed it,” he stated. “Everyone was angry,” that the referendum had even been proposed, and their fury only increased when Californians voted by a wide margin to turn back the clock on civil rights. “Everybody in Watts,” Townsend maintained, “was aware that they were being rejected by somebody, somebody white.” Some people might point out that because the Watts Riots took place nine months after the passage of Proposition 14, it does not make sense to identify this as a cause. Setting aside the fact that Proposition 14 was part of a cumulative process that led to the riots, as opposed to the single cause, it is important to keep in mind two points. For one thing, nine months was enough time for Proposition 14 to wreak significant havoc on the lives of blacks in Watts interested in saving their money and moving out of the ghetto. It provided ample time for black people in Watts who had saved enough money to afford housing in lower middle class or working class, predominantly white neighborhoods, to be turned away by discriminatory realtors. For another, the fact that the riots took place in August and not November makes sense in light of the fact that riots are consistently more likely to take place in the summertime. This obviously does not mean that there are not concrete issues of injustice that cause riots, it simply means that as the weather grows more sweltering, people’s willingness to tolerate these injustices tends to decrease.

Some people may raise the argument that those who rioted in Watts were too poor to afford housing outside the ghetto anyway and thus not tangibly affected by Proposition 14. There are two reasons why this argument does not hold. Firstly, as referenced earlier, there is no reason to think that some blacks in Watts could not save up enough money that, while insufficient to buy a house in Beverly Hills, would have allowed them to afford housing in a part of the city less downscale than a ghetto. This is born out by a study cited by author Christopher B. Strain that found that two-thirds of the men arrested and convicted in the riots were employed, and one-third were making at least three hundred dollars a month (about $2270 in today’s money)–precisely the people in Watts most likely to be able to afford better housing in the absence of direct discrimination. Secondly, to go back to Townsend’s point, the passage of the referendum sent a clear message to African American residents of Watts: the majority of white Californians don’t like you, the deck is stacked against you, and no matter how much you work hard and play by the rules, you won’t succeed, because we’ll make sure you don’t.

In a statement that revealed either extreme ignorance or deliberate dishonesty, the conservative-led McCone Commission in charge of investigating the cause of the riots cited a 1964 study by the Urban League that ranked Los Angeles the best city for African Americans to live in. However dubious this assertion was in 1964, it was obviously based largely on information gathered before the repeal of fair housing in November of that year.

How did Ronald Reagan respond when a policy that he had championed played a considerable role in causing a riot? He doubled down, continuing to oppose fair housing during the 1966 gubernatorial election and sparring with both his GOP primary rival, George Christopher, and his general election rival, Pat Brown. (It might be worth noting that this same year, over a third of U.S. Representatives from California voted against federal fair housing legislation, while only a quarter of Pennsylvania Representatives, less than five percent of New York Representatives, and no Representatives from the rest of the Northeast did.) The irony of Reagan’s insistence that his views were based on a belief in limited government bordered on comical: while claiming that Brown was too supportive of government intervention to prevent discrimination in housing, he also insisted that the state government was not doing enough to censor obscene material. In a shining example of chutzpah, he even blamed the riots on over-reliance on government. The implied premise of Reagan’s pontificating? If someone refuses to sell another person a house because of skin color, that’s a personal decision. But if someone wants to buy porn, that’s a horrible crime that demands government intervention. Hopefully, this blog post has shed some light on a neglected cause of the Watts Riots and also demonstrated that any conservative who praises Ronald Reagan while calling Al Sharpton a race hustler needs to reexamine the facts.

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