On August 11, 1965, a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a black man named Marquette Frye because he believed that Frye may have been driving under the influence. Out of that one traffic stop grew one of the largest urban riots in American history--the Watts Riots. From the Los Angeles Times:
"The riots that summer were sparked by the arrest of a black motorist, Marquette Frye, for drunk driving. When Frye's mother intervened, a crowd gathered and the arrest became a flashpoint for anger against police. The deeper causes, as documented by the McCone Commission, which investigated the riots, were poverty, inequality, racial discrimination and the passage, in November 1964, of Proposition 14 on the California ballot. That initiative had overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which established equality of opportunity for black home buyers.
"After nearly a week of rioting, 34 people, 25 of them black, were dead and more than 1,000 were injured. More than 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Thriving business districts, their stores mostly white-owned, were burned to the ground. Eventually, the National Guard put a cordon around a vast region of South Los Angeles that ranged as far east as Alameda Street, as far west as Crenshaw Boulevard, and from just south of the Santa Monica Freeway to about Rosecrans Avenue."
Watts was by no means the only large-scale urban riot that occurred during that tumultuous decade. As a youngster I remember walking through sections of Washington DC still physically scarred--30 years later!--by the violence that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. The list of cities similarly afflicted goes on: Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland ...
The question is this--how much progress have we made since those acrimonious days when a single traffic stop could set off an orgy of racial violence?
Jennifer Lee's book Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America suggests that interracial relations in the inner city may be a good deal more "civil" than Hollywood and the media would have you believe. While movies like Menace II Society depict the Korean-owned grocery store, for example, as a site of tension and violence, the vast majority of these outlets function with a reassuring normality. Lee also covers the moments when small-scale clashes erupt into larger episodes characterized by violence, offering a perceptive analysis of the causes of these increasingly rare occurrences.
Jonathan Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times had the following to say about Civility in the City:
A brighter and more surprising picture of life in California is painted by sociologist Jennifer Lee in Civility in the City, a remarkable book that focuses on the mom-and-pop businesses in the inner city as a laboratory where we can study how blacks, Jews and Koreans actually perceive and deal with each other. Lee's conclusions contradict what we were shown in Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing or the news footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: "Civility prevails in everyday life because merchants and their employees actively work to preserve it."
Civility in the City is now out in paperback and is available in our online store.