But 20 years later, the shelf of books addressing the disaster is threadbare, conditional even, as if we've never figured out how to write about these events.
My explanation for this is that the most true and interesting things anybody can say about the Rodney King riot are A) that it was a shameful tantrum by African-Americans (which of course few aesthetic writers dependent upon grants would dare say), and B) that blacks actually were embarrassed enough by it to slowly start behaving better.
By a variety of measures, the early 1990s represented a crisis among blacks. The most obvious is the peak in the black homicide offending rate, especially among very young blacks. But lots of other things went wrong: test scores went down and teen fertility was up.
The invention of crack in the mid-1980s was obviously one big problem, but another was rap, especially as it evolved toward celebrating criminality in the late 1980s. Put crack and rap together and what do you get? In the intellectual sphere, the early 1990s were the peak of multiculturalist postmodern whoop-tee-doos in the academy.
On a more conscious level, blacks were even more embarrassed three years later by their celebration of O.J. Simpson getting away with murdering those two white people. That led quickly to Minister Farrakhan's Million Man March, which had a remarkably penitential aspect to it by the standards of anything black-related. But, I think the aftermath of the Rodney King riot was the moment when blacks collectively stared into the abyss of where they were headed and started to take a few halting steps back toward collective sanity.