From Watts to Ferguson: Persistent Structural Inequality

Some students will instinctually be familiar with structural inequality in the United States just by lived experience. Others may be unclear on how this dynamic impacts individuals and society. The following class exercise aims to give students insight into what structural inequality means, and its effect on non-white Americans, during the latter half of the twentieth century and today. The lesson begins with an investigation of the McCone Commission Report issued in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riot, and concludes with analysis of recent economic data. (Students should already be familiar with early historical context including slavery and racially-discriminatory laws that existed well into the twentieth century).

It is important to remind students that conditions today and in the 1960s are not a direct equivalent. The economic climate is different for one; America was also a much less diverse place in the 1960s due to decades of restrictive immigration policies; and many fewer non-whites held high-powered and influential positions in government and in business. Nevertheless, studying this historic event provides depth to any discussion on current events.

In August 1965, despite the recently-passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Watts Riot in Los Angeles revealed the frustration, anger, and desperation of the many African-Americans who had been kept from participating in the vibrant post-war economy. Governor Pat Brown convened a commission to investigate the roots of the riot, and the McCone Commission determined that African-Americans, as well Mexican-Americans and other non-whites, faced a number of obstacles that affected everything from their work options to their quality of housing to their health. Below are many of the key findings of the McCone Commission. Have students read these over, and then work at defining what structural inequality looks like, at least in the case of these Watts residents. They will have to infer what was lacking in this neighborhood based on the prescriptions for improvement.

Excerpts of key findings of the McCone Commission:


1. There should immediately be developed in the affected area a job training and placement center through the combined efforts of Negroes, employers, labor unions, and government.

2. Federal and state governments should seek to insure, through the development of new facilities and additional means of communication, that maximum advantage is taken of government and private training programs and employment opportunities in our disadvantaged communities.

3. Legislation should be enacted requiring employers with more than 250 employees and all labor unions to report annually to the State Fair Employment Practices Commission the racial composition of their work force and membership.


1. Elementary and junior high schools in the disadvantaged areas which have achievement levels substantially below the city average should be designated as "Emergency Schools". In each of these schools, an "Emergency Literacy Program" should be established consisting of a drastic reduction in class size to a maximum of 22 students and additional supportive personnel to provide special services. It is estimated that this program will cost at least $250 per year per student in addition to present per student costs and exclusive of capital expenditures, and that it must be continued for a minimum of six years for the elementary schools and three years for the junior high schools.

2. A permanent pre-school program should be established throughout the school year to provide education beginning at age three. Efforts should be focused on the development of language skills essential to prepare children to learn to read and write.


1. A Public subsidy in one form or another to give SCRTD financial ability to provide an adequate and reasonable bus transportation system throughout the metropolitan area.

3. The establishment of transfer privileges in order to minimize transportation costs.

4. With respect to the Watts area in particular, immediate establishment of an adequate east-west cross town service as well as increasing the north-south service to permit efficient transportation to and from the area.


1.  A new, comprehensively-equipped hospital in this area.

  1. 2.  The Los Angeles County Health Department should increase the number and services of public health and preventive medical facilities in the area and that similar program improvement should be undertaken by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, the Visiting Nurse Association of Los Angeles, and other voluntary health agencies.

Urban Renewal:

1. The implementation of a continuing urban rehabilitation and renewal program for south central Los Angeles.

2. Regulations of the Federal Housing Authority be revised so as to liberalize credit and area requirements for FHA-insured loans in disadvantaged areas. This would encourage residents to rehabilitate as well as to acquire property in the area. Similarly, we urge that the regulations applicable to savings and loan institutions be revised in order to offer an incentive to such institutions to participate in financing the purchase, development, and rehabilitation of blighted areas.

And, improved police-community relations.

These recommendations were all intended to create change that would improve the conditions, opportunities, and well-being of Watts residents. Sadly, few of these shortcomings were sufficiently addressed, and a report in the wake of the 1992 L.A. Riots determined that housing and education opportunities had actually deteriorated for non-whites in the region since 1965. In keeping with that finding in 1992, reports in recent years reveal similar challenges and discrepancies between opportunities for whites and non-whites across the country. 

The recent recession has hit disproportionately hard on non-whites. For instance, housing foreclosures meant a considerable loss of wealth for millions of Americans. African-Americans lost roughly 50% of collective wealth, and Latinos 67%, during the Great Recession. An extended research study lasting from 1984 until 2009, studying 1,700 American households, determined that the wealth gap between white and black families has almost tripled in that time period, so that the median net worth of the white households is a quarter of a million dollars more than that of the black households in the study. This Brandeis University report identifies key discrepancies between the races that contribute to the wealth gap: years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, a college education, and inheritance/financial assistance from families or friends. See the report here:

Ask students to look at the above report, and/or this Pew Research report on wealth inequality that indicates that white households have twenty times the wealth of African-American households, and eighteen times that of Hispanic:

After reading the 1965 report and at least one of the recent reports, ask students to consider how conditions have changed, and what challenges remain, over this fifty-year span? How does this knowledge influence the way they view the recent events surrounding Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths? How do these challenges help explain the common protestors’ refrain “BlackLivesMatter”? How does the information in these reports relate to their personal experiences? Hopefully students will see areas of improvement when they consider race relations over the past fifty years, but they should also understand that the country’s long history of discrimination has created an economic disadvantage that is still felt today, and is at least one factor in the recent civil protests.


McCone Commission Report can be found here:

Additional background information can be found in the Current Context issue, "Civil Protest."