July 16, 2007

Where Are the Riots?

"Why Aren't U.S. Cities Burning?" Michael Katz wonders in the latest issue of Dissent. In 1968, riots broke out in nearly 150 African-American neighborhoods across the country. But since then, save for Miami in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1992, urban conflagrations have been relatively rare. And many of the conditions that caused those earlier riots still persist: Unemployment in the inner cities is still high, black men are still thrown into prison at shocking rates, and police brutality is hardly a relic of the past. So, Katz asks, why have the riots ceased?

Well, one answer might be: Perhaps people don't think rioting is all that productive. Or maybe conditions have improved more than one might think. (Perhaps, for instance, mass consumerism has disguised worsening inequality.) But Katz doesn't go there. Instead, he suggests that large-scale urban disorder started to die out once white families fled for the suburbs, effectively ceding political control of the cities to African-Americans:
Between 1970 and 2001, the number of African American county and municipal officials rose 960 percent and 619 percent respectively. African Americans also made inroads into the police, the most visible and, often, hated agents of the local state.

The irony, of course, is that African Americans inherited city governments at the moment when deindustrialization, cuts in federal aid, and white flight were decimating tax bases and job opportunities while fueling homelessness, street crime, and poverty. Newly African American-led city governments confronted escalating demands for services and the repair of crumbling infrastructures with shrinking resources and power curtailed by often hostile state governments. This kind of governmental power was truly, as a political scientist wrote in 1969, a "hollow prize." Nonetheless, with so many whites gone, boundaries became less contentious, eroding one major source of civil violence.
That's possible. It's also possible that the U.S. crime-control apparatus has been effective at "controlling" urban disorder. In 1968, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which funneled money to state police forces. Since only a third of those funds could go toward personnel, much of the rest was spent on hardware: antiriot tools, helicopters, etc. (The war on drugs has also contributed to the "militarization" of the police force.) It's not clear that "tough on crime" policies actually reduced crime, although mass incarceration did devastate inner cities and disenfranchise millions of African American men. But... it's possible that the new, better-equipped police forces were more adept at preventing and squelching urban riots.

Anyway, Katz also gets into the differences between the ways that France and the United States treat their immigrants--differences that were hashed out pretty thoroughly back when the French riots were taking place in 2005, and differences that redound to our benefit. Honestly, that all seems much more persuasive in explaining "why no riots?" than anything else, but it's still a pretty interesting essay, if extremely speculative.

P.S. The New York Times recently published an interesting retrospective of the 1967 Newark riots--"five nights of gunfire, looting and flames that disemboweled the geographic midsection of the city" and left 23 people dead.

P.P.S. The article's now online.
-- Brad Plumer 7:39 PM || ||