The Reasons for Urban Rioting

Urban rioting has a long history in the United States, often with one ethnic group turning on another. But modern history is more about oppressed racial communities lashing out at police brutality and government injustice, a phenomenon that requires a new national effort to resolve, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

If one goes to Wikipedia under the subject of “mass racial violence in the United States,” one will find a “timeline of events” running from 1829 to 2015. There are so many race-related riots listed for these 186 years that, from a historical point of view, rioting appears almost normal.

Prior to World War II, these outbreaks mostly involved ethnic, racial or religious groups going after each other: Germans, Italians, Poles, Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, Chinese, Catholics, Protestants were all involved in these set-tos. Often the causes were economic with a territorial overtone – one group moving into the neighborhood of another group and/or taking their jobs. When the violence came, it was group against group.

A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)

A screen-shot from a video showing Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. (Video via the New York Times.)

In the post-World War II era, the nature of the still numerous instances of rioting changed. The group-versus-group scenario gave way to group-versus-state. Most of the categories listed above had successfully assimilated under the heading “Caucasian,” and religious affiliations no longer seemed worth bloody murder. The arrival of new immigrants could/can still instill anger in citizens who mistake foreigners for the cause of problems they themselves have caused, but the result of late has rarely been rioting.

Actually, in the present era, the cause of rioting has mostly been black resentment over prevailing inequality: why the distribution of wealth seems never to work to satisfy the needs of African-American poor. Thus, all too many African-Americans, particularly men, have little opportunity for a decent life, while simultaneously having every opportunity to end up in confrontations with the police and then land in prison.

It is these ubiquitous confrontations with agents of the state that are now the standard trigger to the phenomenon of modern American rioting.


Inadequacies of the Civil Rights Acts

The ongoing  phenomenon of urban riots involving African-Americans suggests that the civil rights acts that followed the widespread unrest of the mid-1960s have proved inadequate. In part this is so because their enforcement, such as it has been, was restricted to the public realm. That is, the effort to do away with discrimination went no further than preventing such acts within institutions serving the public: public schools and housing, restaurants, hotels, theaters and the like.

There were other aspects to the civil rights acts – grants to minority businesses, for instance – but they all just scratched the surface. As a result, the number of African-Americans made upwardly mobile by this legislation was less than optimal. A black middle class did emerge, but it was small relative to the numbers who needed help.

To say that the civil rights acts proved inadequate in the fight against nationwide discrimination is to say that they proved unable to reorient America’s discriminatory cultural mindset. That mindset was the product of, among other things, nearly 300 years of institutional racism.

To change things was going to take the consistent reinforcement of the idea of racial equality over at least three or four generations. This would have to be done mainly through the educational system, yet no specific efforts were made to this end. Indeed, even attempting to integrate the public school systems could provoke their own riots, as the “Boston busing crisis” of1974 proved.

Another sign of this problematic cultural mindset is that, as far as I know, there is nowhere in the U.S. where one can find serious empathy for the fate of the inner cities amongst the vast, mostly white, population of the suburbs.

For instance, in the wake of the recent riots in Baltimore, the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, commented, “local government cannot itself fix problems of violence and unemployment.”

This is absolutely true, but Nutter has looked in vain for any meaningful help from a state legislature controlled by a hinterland of conservative whites who may not feel they belong to the same species, much less the same broader community, as those in the inner cities. The suggestion that they should send their tax money to help the residents of Philadelphia appears to be beyond their understanding. I doubt very much if it is different elsewhere in the country.

The Police

The police, of course, cannot stand outside the general discriminatory orientation of the culture. So the limited impact of the civil rights acts meant that the police were not reeducated to the new standards of public behavior now sanctioned by law.

To do so would have required more than simply increasing the number of black officers to at least match the racial demographics of American cities. It would have required extensive retraining and testing of those who sought to be part of law enforcement.

There is an entire industry out there to train and test people to safely drive cars. I know of nothing beyond piecemeal efforts to train police to act in an equable and lawful manner toward all the different sorts of people they come into contact with (plus to handle other problems that seem to affect the police as a group, such as stress and anger management).

Nor are standardized ways of testing candidates applied so as to make sure that only the trustworthy in this regard are on the street. Because we do not do this, we risk having police who themselves may act in a criminal manner toward economically disadvantaged classes, thus expressing discrimination in a way that is violent enough to trigger mass unrest.

Indeed, as of now the preferred personality type for the position of police officer seems to be the same as that for professional soldier, which may be why it has been so easy to “militarize” American police forces. This effort, along with the “home security” business, has become a multibillion-dollar industry (major players in which are Israel companies, which now train an increasing number of U.S. police departments in techniques developed while enforcing the occupation of Palestine).

Police departments and their suppliers have teamed up to lobby cash-poor municipalities for all manner of lethal gewgaws ranging from automatic weapons to armored cars. Military-grade riot-control equipment is now de rigueur for most large police departments. So great is the demand for these deadly toys that the Defense Department now has a committee appointed by the president to look into what constitutes  appropriate equipment to hand out to the cop on the beat.

What Can Be Done?

What this sad story tells us is that the United States has a very big problem of discrimination and exploitation of the urban poor that goes beyond the ideologically induced greed of a capitalist class. That is not to say that the capitalist structure of the American economy hasn’t played havoc with the aspirations of poor blacks to get out of poverty. There is a very good essay by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute that provides insight into the government’s role in this aspect of the problem.

However, it is wrong to believe that after 300 years of racist acculturation the problem of endemic discrimination would disappear if, however unlikely, the nation was to move in another economic direction. Americans would still have retrain themselves in order to overcome the racist cultural addictions acquired over their history.

It is relatively easy to write down some of the things that would have to be done to break these addictions. For instance:

– Tolerance and an attitude of community inclusiveness have to be taught to American children and done so consistently for multiple generations. This has to be done with consistency and not interpreted by the political efforts of those who believe teaching kids tolerance of other racial, ethnic and religious groups is doing the work of the Devil.

– The educational opportunities (including affirmative action programs), job training and meaningful low-cost housing programs that have been implemented piecemeal for the last 50 years have to be seriously revived, and seriously funded by taxing the wealthy upper 20 percent of the population. Alternatively, the money can be taken from the bloated defense budget.

– No one should become a police officer (and while we are at it, a prison guard) without undergoing rigorous screening. And that screening should look to eliminate all those who have authoritarian personalities underlain with problems of impulsive anger. This is such a no-brainer that one wonders why it is not already being done. Perhaps part of the problem is that, in most cases, the police set their own criteria for admission into what has become a trade organization with the characteristics of a college fraternity.

Cultures can be both wonderful and horrible things. They tell us who we are and how we should act. To exercise some control over cultural evolution to accentuate commonsense beneficial ends such as tolerance and community inclusiveness is a worthwhile undertaking. But isn’t it a restraint on individual freedom to insist that people not behave in racist and intolerant ways?

Sorry, that sort of “freedom” has already been made illegal at the institutional level within the public sphere. But it is not enough. We must insist that the effort go further until the culture is wholly transformed.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

8 comments for “The Reasons for Urban Rioting

  1. Peter Loeb
    May 11, 2015 at 06:03


    Heard through the din of police response about responsibilities,
    obligations, duties was that to protest property.

    That has been the traditional primary obligation of police and also of the
    State. Think for a minute of the immediate action to take the part
    of employers against labor over a hundred years ago in the US. Workers
    were arrested en masse because they threatened property. They are
    often convicted of treason.Or espionage.

    In fact, the very first duty of all law enforcement officers (or “cops” to
    many) should be the preservation of life. That includes the life
    of an officer to be sure. But even if a person has committed an
    illegal act, it is not for the law officer to deprive him/her of life.
    The officer should protect him/herself but also have as a primary
    goal the preservation of human life, even of the guilty.

    That is what a judicial system is for.

    As it is today, many of us live in areas where a cop is an enemy.

    In 1938 the black poet and Professor, Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989)
    wrote the following bitter poem:


    Let us forgive Ty Kendricks.
    The place was Darktown. He was young.
    His nerves were jittery. The day was hot.
    The Negro ran out of the alley.
    And so he shot.

    Let us understand Ty Kendricks.
    The Negro must have been dangerous,
    Because he ran;
    And here was a rookie with a chance
    To prove himself a man.

    Let us condone Ty Kendricks
    If we cannot decorate,.
    When he found what the Negro was running for.
    It was too late;
    All we can say for the Negro is
    It was unfortunate.

    Let us pity Ty Kendricks.
    He has been through enough.
    Standing there, his big gun smoking,
    Rabbit-scared, alone,
    Having to hear the wenches wail
    And the dying Negro moan.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. Brad Owen
    May 11, 2015 at 04:45

    I see that all the things that need doing, as you set out, at the end of your article, would be tended-to, if we took our Covenant (our Constitution; summed up in the Preamble) seriously. These ideals of a Republic, our Oath to one another as citizens-of-The-Covenant, writ large to endure in perpetuity, trump all of the old “Blood-and-Soil” cultural precedents. The General Welfare clause especially applies, to redress long-standing citizens’ grievances. Far from being the Devil’s Work, Tolerance (and one or two steps FURTHER; having a serious and SUBSTANTIAL CARE for the Welfare and well-being of ALL citizens-of-The-Covenant, including those of African origin) is The Lord’s work, as in His 2nd Commandment to LOVE one another. A police force should be similar to being called to Knighthood, with a lively remembrance of The Covenant, and how it applies to daily life in the Republic, making them as much Social Workers as enforcers of the Law/Covenant.

    • Brad Owen
      May 11, 2015 at 04:50

      Of course we, as citizens of a Republic, have the same common enemy as I described in the article on the failure of Austerities, who has a lively, intense interest in “Divide-and-Conquer” tactics.

  3. Leo
    May 10, 2015 at 19:40

    I came to this article hoping to find some answers, but alas I did not. Only recommendation number three regarding reform of institution of law enforcement seems possible, but even that recommendation rings hollow. Yesterday, two black men murdered a black and a white officer in cold blood during a routine stop. Riots lend support to the need to “militarize” police, especially those protecting large urban areas. Granted de jure discrimination in education, accomodations and the work force in general, housing and so on has been made illegal, but de facto segregation is legal as is discrimination on the basis of wealth, or class. The first two recommendations are politically impossible to implement. It is disheartening to recognize that there appears to be no magic potion that will remedy the ills that this writer attributes to riots. I don’t believe doing away with “war on drugs” will cure much, nor do I believe there is much correlation between the number of inmates to the rhetorically loaded prison- industrial complex. I suppose simply abolishing all drug, traffic and misdemeanor offenses would work faster and include a greater segment of the poor and working poor. A “full” pardon after successful completion of all terms and conditions of felony sentence should be allowed along with prohibiting employers from asking anything other than, “Are you currently on probation or parole?” Unfortunately, I think the core problem is with a minority within the majority minority. Perhaps by 2045, when caucasians become just another minority the desired changes might come about, buf I’m not in the least optimistic.

  4. nmb
    May 9, 2015 at 17:06

    “It’s not accidental that the arms industries demonstrate new weapons designed to be used inside urban areas for suppression of potential riots. There will be no “outside enemy” in the future. The threat for the dominant system will come from the interior, the big urban centers. Soldier-robots will protect worker-robots and resources.”

  5. Jay
    May 9, 2015 at 13:13

    “No one should become a police officer (and while we are at it, a prison guard) without undergoing rigorous screening. And that screening should look to eliminate all those who have authoritarian personalities underlain with problems of impulsive anger. This is such a no-brainer that one wonders why it is not already being done.”

    And many big city police departments have the tradition of the father being a cop so the son becomes one.

    So there’d be all those “traditions” to break up. And then the complaints that cops have it too good for pensions and retiree medical would start to be really shrill.

  6. dahoit
    May 9, 2015 at 12:53

    Stop the stupid drug wars which divide police and populace,bring back viable well paying jobs by abrogating traitorous trade deals,create an inner city WPA or some type of job corp,and stop our depredations overseas and right our nation.
    Simple solutions,but the simpletons in power are blinded by mammon,have no honor and are the most corrupt humans in world history.

    • Joe
      May 10, 2015 at 07:45

      Agreed. Those in power serve only money, which controls mass media and elections and judiciary, so that democracy cannot be restored. The middle and lower middle class would be fortunate if inner city blacks terrify the oligarchy enough to surrender democracy, but they cannot. Economic totalitarianism is here to stay.

Comments are closed.