Several recent posts have focused on periods of civil unrest in other countries — France and Thailand most recently. The United States has its own history of civil unrest as well; and much of that history involves poverty, race, and cities. So it’s worthwhile taking a look at some of the dynamics and causes of the major urban race riots that have occurred in the United States in the past seventy-five years. Detroit, Newark, Chicago, and Watts stand out as particularly dramatic moments in American urban history of the late 1960s, and it is useful to tease out some of the historical contingencies and large social conditions that produced these periods of strife.
At the crudest level, we can tell a pretty compelling story about why these riots occurred. The facts of racial segregation and intense poverty and restricted opportunities for African-Americans created an environment where urban African-American youth had seething grievances and a sense of little to lose; a dilapidated and depressing housing stock reinforced this sense of isolation, anger, and hopelessness; and specific incidents triggered an outburst of urban violence against property (the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; specific acts of police misconduct; etc.). So structural conditions (racism, segregation, economic inequality, poverty, and limited opportunities) led to a political psychology of grievance, anger, and hopelessness in a large part of the urban population; and it was only a matter of time before a spark would fall into this tinder. Riots were predictable given the structural conditions and the resulting psychology.
But this is a commonsense folk theory of unrest; what do the experts think? Janet Abu-Lughod provides a particularly thoughtful and probing history of this subject in Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Abu-Lughod is a noted urban sociologist (though notably not a student of social contention in the Tilly school), and her approach is comparative and spatial. She wants to identify the similarities and differences that exist across a small number of cases of major race riots. She picks out six riots in three cities (Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles) over a period of about seventy-five years (1919-1992) and employs a method of paired comparisons. Her goal is to achieve three things:
First, I hope to illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time, as these have been affected by internal and international patterns of migration, wars and wartime production demands for labor, legal changes governing housing segregation, and the civil rights movement.
Second, I hope to explain variations in riots in the three largest metropolitan regions by examining differences in their demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups within each city, and the degree and patterns of racial segregation in their unique physical settings.
Third, I hope to demonstrate differences in the ways relevant city government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks — ways that reflect the distinctive power structures of each city and the prior “social learning” relevant to race relations that evolved in each place. (8)
One of the things that is most original in Abu-Lughod’s treatment is the primacy she gives to the spatial features of urban geography and the geography of racial segregation in the various cities. She believes that spatial characteristics of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles explain important aspects of the six riots. But another original contribution is the emphasis she places on sequence and learning: an uprising later in time takes a somewhat different shape because of things that insurgents and authorities have learned from earlier uprisings. Both insurgents and authorities have “repertoires” of tactics that are updated by prior experiences.
Spatial considerations come into Abu-Lughod’s analysis in several ways: as a source of conflict (over de facto borders between racially defined areas), and a source of logistical difficulties for the authorities when it comes to the challenge of deploying forces to suppress rioters (in Los Angeles, for example). Urban development plans that intrude into black neighborhoods — for example, the expansion of the University of Illinois campus in Chicago — are also identified as a spatial process that provokes racial conflict.
Abu-Lughod draws several general conclusions based on the pairwise comparisons that she has made. One important conclusion concerns policing. She argues that a well-trained, restrained, and disciplined police force is more likely to sustain peace in tumultuous times and less likely to worsen conflicts when they arise (270); whereas undisciplined and violent police forces greatly worsen the degree and duration of conflict. And second, she argues that the cases suggest that cities in which the city administration has taken steps to enhance trust and collaboration with the organizations of disadvantaged populations will be least likely to suffer major race riots. “Where there is ongoing interaction between well-organized protest movements, with leaders capable of articulating specific demands for change, and a responsive local government, the more quickly hostilities can be brought to an end” (270). So there are specific steps that cities can take to attempt to reduce the likelihood of prolonged major race riots.
But these points don’t address the most basic causes of race riots: poverty, segregation, and severe inequalities of opportunity across racial lines. As she points out, the Kerner Commission in 1968 urged the nation to address these inequalities; the Johnson administration undertook to do so; and very, very little progress has been made in the intervening forty years towards greater social justice along these lines. So perhaps her most sweeping and penetrating conclusion has to do with the depth and severity of the problems of race, poverty, and segregation we continue to face in American cities, and the likelihood this creates for future major disturbances.
Given the obdurate persistence of racism in American culture, and the widening divides in the racial/ethnic/class system over the past three decades (attributable to changes in the international division of labor that have reshaped labor demands in the United States, coupled with massive immigration and a generation of neoliberal national policies that have shred the welfare safety net woven in the Great Depression), I am amazed that major urban rebellions have thus far been so constrained. (269)
One thing that this account has not addressed is the element of organizations and leadership. Abu-Lughod presents the riots she treats as if they were simply wholesale reactions of the mass populations of Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, to a pressing set of structures and grievances. And this appears to make these periods of strife as being non-strategic — reactive rather than purposive, expressive rather than political. But it is a key insight of the resource mobilization approach that we need to spend particular effort at discovering the organizational resources that were available to insurgents; the background thought is that uprisings require mobilization and coordination, and that this is impossible without some sort of organization. So were there organizational resources that helped to sustain and spread the urban riots of the 1960s?
Abu-Lughod doesn’t ignore urban activist organizations altogether; for example, she talks about the role of the NAACP and the Urban League in organizing and negotiating skillfully in support of the economic and political interests of African-Americans in New York during periods between major riots. And she refers to the organizational capacity of the Congress of Racial Equality in New York as a substantial asset in the ability of the black community to organize and sustain protests against police brutality in 1964 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the periods of strife themselves seem to be largely disorganized, in her narrative, and CORE organizers exerted themselves to damp down the violence rather than sustain it. Generally the civil rights organizations appear to have played the role of peace makers rather than insurgents.
A good complement to Abu-Lughod’s analysis is Tom Sugrue’s recent book, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. This is a very careful and detailed treatment of the sustained activism and achievements of major civil rights organizations in the North that were aimed at achieving greater equality for African-Americans. And it gives a very nuanced appreciation of the degree of political sophistication and activism that existed in the urban African-American communities of the north throughout the 1960s. Sugrue documents in great detail the strategies and commitment of organizations such as CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League. But I think Sugrue agrees with the basic view that the rioting itself was not the result of insurgent organization: “There is little evidence that the urban rebellions of the 1960s were planned, coordinated, and controlled. What was most striking about the long hot summers was not their coordination or coherence. Their very spontaneity convinced many leftists that they were manifestations of a popular — if still undeveloped — revolutionary consciousness” (334-35).
If this interpretation is correct (spontaneous rioting without organization through such vehicles as street gangs, underground groups, etc.), then the spatial considerations that Abu-Lughod focuses on really are crucial; our explanations of the spread and persistence of violence in these cities depend on neighborhood-level mobilization alone. And it suggests that American urban riots were somewhat different from insurgency movements in other countries; they are more spontaneous and less organized than the campaigns of the aggrieved mentioned in prior postings (1848 Paris workers, Thai red shirts, student protests in France).