The recession of the early 1990s was caused in part by consumer and corporate debts incurred during the eight years of President Ronald Reagan's administration that implemented deregulation as a key component of reducing the size of the federal government. The government spent far more than it received, and these debts limited the ability of consumers, corporations, and the government to spend and invest.

The impact on the U.S. was devastating, as banks and S&Ls failed at levels that had not been seen since the Great Depression. Airlines went defunct, bankruptcies plagued famous department store chains, and by 1992, around 10 million Americans were out of work, in addition to another six million who swelled the ranks of the underemployed.

The early 1990s would see mass migrations of unemployed people seeking jobs in other states, and homeless estimates in America were as high as three million. And it was not just the problem of joblessness that America grappled with during a time that the economy grew extremely slowly under the watch of President George H.W. Bush’s administration. Many who were among the homeless lacked any type of family support. Those who are homeless do include deinstitutionalized mental patients, runaway children, battered women, and those addicted to substances.

The American inner cities were not spared the ravages of the recessionary economy of the early 1990s, and the inner cities were dealt the toughest blow when it comes down to recessions. On March 3, 1991, in Los Angeles, motorist Rodney King was pulled over by the LAPD for speeding, but King attempted to elude the police in pursuit because he was on parole for a robbery conviction, and King feared an acceleration of sentence if arrested. He was apprehended that night, and officers savagely beat King, who was unarmed. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said: “We believe the officers used excessive force taking him into custody. In our review, we found that officers struck him with batons between 53 and 56 times.”

On April 29, 1992, the four LAPD officers charged in the King case were acquitted, and it was only a matter of hours before the city of Los Angeles exploded in rioting that left 63 people dead, over 12,000 arrested, and property damage of $1 billion. In the final analysis of the L.A. Riots of 1992, it was racial outrage and injustice that sparked the rioting, yet L.A. and other American cities are a tinderbox. And the recession, poverty, and homelessness drastically impacted minorities living in the inner cities in the early 1990s. In the wake of the L.A. riots, conservatives were quick to point the blame for the riots on liberal welfare programs they claimed weakened individual initiative, while liberals placed the blame on the overall neglect of American inner cities during the Reagan-Bush years.

Currently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through recessionary times, and it could take years, not months, for full economic recovery to take place. Two weeks ago, I watched rioting unfold in the midst of peaceful protests around some of the nation’s largest cities. In the aftermath of this recent rioting, with cities enveloped in smoke and flame, what is at the root of the problem? In response to the civil unrest in Detroit and Newark in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Kerner Commission laid responsibility for the conditions in minority ghettos at the feet of white society.

Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with an emphasis on civics and history.

Recommended for you