When rioting broke out in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965, African-Americans didn’t — couldn’t — know it yet, but the next three decades would turn out to be a period of sustained gains in terms of income, jobs, education and the status of blacks relative to whites.
The rioting this past week in Ferguson, Mo., by contrast, follows more than a decade of economic stagnation and worse for many black Americans, a trend that appears unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future.
The Watts riots – set off by the traffic arrest of a 21-year-old black driver by a white police officer — left 34 dead, 1,032 people injured, and 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.
The week of violence in L.A. began just five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and 13 months after he had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the impact of which had not yet been felt in the daily lives of African-Americans.
During the decades following this landmark legislation, African-Americans made immense progress. The percentage of blacks over the age 25 with a high school degree more than tripled, going from just under 20 percent, or less than half the white rate, to more than 70 percent, nearly matching the white rate. The percentage of blacks over 25 with a college degree quadrupled from 3 to 12 percent over the same period.
Similarly, black median household income grew, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from $22,974 in 1967 to $30,439 in 2000, a 32.5 percent increase, more than double the 14.2 percent increase for whites. Although black household income remained well below white levels in 2000 – 66.3 percent of the white median – it was significantly better than it had been in 1967, when it was 57.1 percent of white median income.
Things went off track, however, as the 21st century approached. The riots in Ferguson follow a period of setback for African-Americans, despite the fact that we have a sitting black president in the White House.