Why Race Riots Happen in US Cities

Recent images from Baltimore of citizens clashing with police, police in riot gear, and burning buildings appear similar to other riotous incidents in U.S. urban history.

One could go back to the late-90s in Wilmington, NC and see much, much worse.

During that urban upheaval, citizens destroyed parts of the town and forcefully removed dozens of members of a recently defeated political party.

But those rioters were white. The victims of mob violence were black. And the late-90s refers to the 1890s.

The Wilmington, NC, race war, like the NYC draft riots in 1863 and the violence that destroyed the Black sections of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, represents one of many moments of urban racial violence in U.S. history.

If one wants to begin to try and understand what currently unfolds in the streets of Baltimore, one should bear in mind a few historical facts.

First, such violence has happened many times before. Urban race riots in the U.S. happened when civil society showed disregard for black life and people had no faith in their justice system.

Second, history matters a great deal in understanding why urban racial violence occurs, when it happens, and why it happens.

Commentators often discuss all of these moments of violence as race riots, as if they were all the same. They are not, especially when we take a long historical view of racial violence in American cities. Urban race riots from the early twentieth century are not even remotely similar to what people in the U.S. have called race riots since the 1940s.

The three examples I mentioned above featured riotous whites killing black citizens, often with tacit approval – and sometimes active participation – of local law enforcement.

The social, political, and historical context of the violence matters.

So does the very long history of this violence in our country.

We cannot understand what happens today without a deep knowledge of how this violence unfolded in the past, and the recent events that triggered a current conflagration.

Despite profound differences between various types of race riots in US cities, the long history of these destructive moments reveal four commonalities, which might help us understand what is happening in our current cities and how these events connect to past moments of urban racial violence.

One, urban race riots occur when large numbers of people have no or little faith in their current legal system to repair widely perceived injustices.

This fact is probably most important. It is why white men destroyed black Tulsa in 1921. It is why black people burned Los Angels in 1965 and 1992.

Two, violent uprisings usually occur in American cities when groups of people congregate, either in unplanned, spontaneous ways or after scheduled gatherings that descend into unfocused action. In Wilmington, NC, in 1898, the expulsion of black voters happened after a planned political coup led by Democrats. In Memphis in the spring of 1968, some marchers who supported the striking black sanitation workers peeled off from Dr. Kings nonviolent protest and broke windows of downtown stores.

Three, a large presence of law enforcement absent direct one-on-one engagement with angry protesters makes matters worse, not better.

No one really knows why riots stop when they do. But military forces and mass arrests, historically, do not help matters, at least not in the short term.

In Detroit in 1967, the National Guard caused even more deaths than happened during the initial riot.  Once the violence ceases, such police forces do keep order, but peace ensues more quickly and with less reverberations when representatives of civil society – mayors, governors, police forces, respected figures from the angered community – show empathy and try to connect with enraged citizens.

This happened in NYC in 1968 when the mayor and local leaders walked all around Black communities after MLK’s assassination. Some sporadic violence occurred in Harlem and Bed-Sty, but those areas did not burn like over 100 other places that April.

Four, riotous violence does long term damage to the social and economic stability of urban communities where they occur. Some people still point to the riots in Newark in 1967 and how the business districts in that city’s black sections never came back after that violence. Same with the once thriving U street in DC, which burned in 68 and was an economic desert until gentrification revitalized it, and not in ways that benefited low-income black Washingtonians. LA burned in 65 and all sorts of revitalization efforts went into effect, mostly through an organization called the Watts Labor Community Action Council. Then in 1992 the riots destroyed the WLCAC headquarters. The white riots in Tulsa in 1921 totally destroyed the Black business district, and the Black community there never recovered fully.

White riots against black people up through the 1940s and black riots against property and police from the 1960s through the present are certainly not the same types of urban violence. Not by a long shot.

But the long history of urban race riots in America and the contemporary case of Baltimore have some similarities and issues one should consider when trying to make sense of what is happening, and might happen in the future.

These riots in Baltimore did not just happen.

They reflect people’s lack of faith in their civil society – all of it – especially the justice system.

They happened when groups of people got together – sometimes in peaceful assembly and sometimes spontaneously – and then vented their anger and frustration through violence. This violence might be focused insofar as it targets specific objects of frustration, namely police officers and businesses; but it is largely uncoordinated.

A bold presence of law and order, absent direct outreach with angry citizens, or major peaceful protests, which are happening in Baltimore, will probably not make matters better in the short run. Most important, police force without empathy and understanding does not repair the initial lack of faith in the justice system.

The violence, the initial spark of Freddie Gray’s murder, and the rebellious violence that followed, hurts the areas where it happens in the long run. Businesses and communities destroyed by violence, especially ones where low-income people live, work and shop, do not do well in the long term after such violence.

A lot of people want to condemn the rioters in Baltimore harder and louder than they seem to condemn the malfeasance and violence that killed Freddie Gray. Others want to – need to – stay on message: the real injustice here is not broken windows, but broken spines, as DeRay McKesson said in a CNN interview. With so much coverage of burnt stores and broken windows and people throwing rocks at cops, the wider public can lose sight that, at the center of all this is another dead black man, and all known evidence indicates that police killed him.

If the U.S.  wants to address the causes of these riots in Baltimore people first need to address what killed Freddie Gray, and so many others: corrupt, brutal, police officers.

At the same time, history of urban racial violence in the U.S. since the 1960s shows that the people rioting may feel good in the short term, but in the long term their actions hurt the communities and the people their anger supposedly represents.

Those communities and people were in bad economic and social shape before the riots, and had been for a long time, and no one outside of them  seemed to care; not really.

If a contemporary urban race riot is “the language of the unheard,” as MLK said, than maybe America should wake up and listen to those people before they speak with rocks and fire.


Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Comments on “Why Race Riots Happen in US Cities

  • Avatar

    Thank you for this astute and insightful analysis of events in Baltimore. You’ve brilliantly and concisely situated the murder of Freddy Gray and the subsequent responses in the long history of American rioting. A very useful post indeed!

  • Avatar

    Excellent analysis Brian. Bravo.

Comments are closed.