The Watts riot was rooted in contempt–for those who ignore the suffering and squalor of a community.
Thirty-one dead, over 700 injured, 2,200 under arrest, 1,000 fires, property damage of $200 million—such is the preliminary toll for the long weekend of rioting in the Watts area of Los Angeles. A feverish search for scapegoats is now under way and will no doubt continue through the 1966 gubernatorial campaign. High on the scapegoat list is the self-righteous Chief of Police who dismisses as a "canard" the charge that the Los Angeles police could ever be guilty of brutality; apparently Chief Parker doesn’t watch television. Then there is Sam Yorty, the agile Mayor, playing political tricks as always; warned of the possibility of riots, he did nothing. The list is long and includes The Heat— a favorite scapegoat in all race-riot investigations—and Social Conditions. Here Watts qualifies on all counts: dropouts, delinquency, disease and dependency. But none of these social factors alone or in combination necessarily "cause" race riots, actually it is when conditions seem to be improving that the riots usually explode. Predictably the forthcoming investigation ordered by Governor Brown will stress the same tiresome cliches: police brutality, inadequate leadership, The Heat, slum conditions. All the while the truth about Watts is right there in front of people, in plain boldface type, for all to read; simple that it is incredible. The hatred and violence of race riots is triggered by contempt, and of all forms of contempt the most intolerable is nonrecognition, the general unawareness that a minority is festering in squalor. Until the riots began, Watts had simply been forgotten by the encompassing "white" community.
A sizable Negro community began to develop in Mud Town, as Watts was then called, after 1916; the community later spread along Central Avenue with the influx of Negro migrants from the South which came after World War I. In the 1920s, Watts was a well-known slum—the unfailing butt of bad jokes by comedians on the Orpheum circuit. But it did exist; people knew about it. Anna Bontemps wrote a novel about it (God Sends Sunday, 1931), while Gilmore Millen wrote a novel about the rise of Central Avenue (Sweet Man, 1932). For the new residents of the 1920s and 1930s, Watts was a fact: perceived, studied (a bit) and understood (to some extent). But the big post-World War II migration and boom changed all that.
Today there are thousands of new residents who have never seen Watts. They may have driven through it or over it, or around it, but never to it, nor have they ever stopped there except to change a tire. Artfully isolated from the disagreeable, the haute bourgeoisie of Brentwood, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills can shop lunch and play games for years on end without seeing a Negro except as a domestic. The new middle class living in jerry-built "lily white" subdivisions, each with its own shopping-center, can honestly claim to be no more aware of Watts than the nice Germans were of Belsen. For the highly paid technicians at the Jet Propulsion Lab, Watts might well be an unnamed crater on the moon. If the culture-conscious upper middle class, currently preoccupied with new music and art centers, has heard of Watts at all it is probably as the site of the three bizarre and oddly beautiful Watts Towers. This universal unawareness of the squalor and misery that is Watts has fostered the illusion not merely that Los Angeles is without a serious "race problem" but that it is a much better city, in this respect, than Chicago (see p. 92) or New York which, for a time, was true. Anna Bontemps and Jack Conroy found that Negro migrants had made a better adjustment in Los Angeles than in any other American city, a circumstance they explained by suggesting that the Japanese- and Mexican-Americans had drawn off much of the racial hostility which otherwise would have been concentrated against Negroes (They Seek A City, p. 205), but this has long ceased to be the case.