Watts: Fifty Years Later

Before the summer of 1965, it was always easy to define the South - especially Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi - as the American embodiment of racism. There was Sheriff Jim Clark of Alabama with his feet on the desk, overseeing beatings of protesters; there was Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver who said, "No, not one" black child would ever go to a white school; there was NAACP field director Medgar Evers, murdered in hate-filled Mississippi; and there was little Ruby Bridges, escorted into an all-white first grade in Louisiana.

Then, fifty years ago on August 11, 1965, simple definitions changed forever: racial hatred and violence were not solely the provenance of the South. Watts went up in flames and for the first time concerned white liberals from California could no longer point fingers at the former Confederate States. They - no, we - all had to look in the mirror.

Projection involves attributing an unwanted thought, motive, or character trait to someone else and disavowing that feeling in oneself. Until Watts, racists had Southern accents, spit a lot, and carried burning crosses. They were the ultimate not-me people. In August 1965, they suddenly became one's neighbors or members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Conditions in Watts and Compton suddenly were not much different from those in swaths of New Orleans or Atlanta.

On that hot August day, I woke up from being what I thought was a politically savvy second year medical student, home in LA for my summer holidays of beach and friends. I didn't have words for what was happening in my hometown, because I was in shock. I thought police brutality only existed in the South south, and certainly not in my beautiful Southern California. I recalled a book on my parents' book shelf titled "It Can't happen Here" and realized that Sinclair Lewis was warning deniers that it - whatever "it" was - could very clearly happen "here".

Sheriff Clark is in the dustbin of history, as are Vandiver, Faubus, Maddox, and other once-reviled white supremicists. But even at that time they felt remote in a sense. They were embodiments of the South where evil lurked, where injustice reigned supreme.

It was the dawn of my recognition - without yet having the terms to describe it - that I was projecting and identifying the sources of my outrage as stimulated by southern racist hatred. What soon became clear was that it's easier to see evil outside the self than inside. Moreover, what started to become painfully clear was my own denial that something similar to southern violence was going in my own backyard.

It is easier to point fingers outward than redirect them against the self. And that's the lesson of Watts for me - a political version of the axiom "physician, heal thyself." We need to look inside first before judging others. Projection involves attributing unwanted parts of the self to other people, partly to manage anxiety by avoiding the anxiety of self-confrontation. Watts changed all that, for the first time. And Watts pointed the way to recognition that what we often accuse others of doing is something we either want to do ourselves or are already also doing.

Outrage persists today, and the recent murders in Charleston led to the removal of
The Confederate flag from the state capitol. But racism nonetheless persists, and what Watts taught me is that that it is not simply a southern problem. We Americans cannot anymore look in the mirror solely to put on make-up or comb our hair.