Race, Riots, and Then and Now

In the first chapter of Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s book, Race, Space, and Riots, she discusses different riots that shape the structure of American societal change through the twentieth century. Immediately, she introduces an argument against the Kerner Report. Her argument is such: the authors of the Kerner report failed to take into account not only most of American civil disorder history, but also the systemic and long imbedded issues which those communities who rioted were facing. She counters this argument with her study on six riots that occurred in the three largest metropolitan regions in the United States: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

In Chicago, she studies the white-on-black race riot of  1919 and the black (and separate Latino) West Side ghetto riots of the 1960s. In New York, she studies the African American uprisings in Harlem in 1935 and 1943 as well as the Harlem/Bedford-Stuyvesant uprising of 1964. In Los Angeles, she studies the Watt riot of 1965 and the 1992 South Central riot. Within each of these cities and their corresponding riots, she discusses a spacial and a time aspect for the riots and a generalized history behind their cities’ African American socioeconomic situations. Her goals of this project is the ability to achieve the following through analyzing these six riots:

  • “illustrate the changing conditions of urban race relations over time…”
  • “explain variations in riots [through] demographic compositions, spatial distributions of racial and ethnic groups…”
  • “demonstrate […] ways [which] relevant government regimes have responded to sequential outbreaks”(page 8)

Of each city, Abu-Lughod brings up a theme of underlying history. One of the most detrimental things of a written work is a lack of prefacing explanation for the ideas discussed in said work. This book does the opposite, in that Abu-Lughod explains a generalized version of the leading up to why and how the riots came to be. She discusses briefly the systemic socio-economic problems that were at play prior to the riots, such as lack of public amenities such as transportation, quality education, jobs, and a flowing economy. She also talks about what lead up to the riots depending on the city, such as migration, economic surpluses or deficits, wars, and industrial increase or decrease.

The next apparent theme in this chapter is the sole selection of big cities as locations for the riots she will study. Her reasoning for choosing large cities is to create a substantial study group in which to gain a wide range of knowledge about the riots. She states that when “studies focus on individual riots, [their results become so muddled] with description that they fall short on analysis” (page 9). The way this study is designed is that it enables a constant: the size of the city, creating a control in the study.

Another theme within the chapter is the theme of race and the role it has played in civil disruptence. While each of the riots studied involves the African American race in some way, Abu-Lughod also studies a “white-on-black” riot, as well as riots involving a team of African Americans and Latino Americans. She discusses, briefly, that race is somewhat of a social construct, and that with that imbedded social construct lie certain occurrences allowing for inequalities to grow and solidify into the social situations which in many ways influenced the riots studied within the book.

The final major theme in this chapter is the theme of spacial commonalities and differences within each city. The first city, Chicago, is nearly completely segregated, making its spatial makeup unique against that of New York and Los Angeles. It acts within a system of one theory of racialized peace: that when two “combatants”, ie. whites and blacks, are separated, there will be peace. This has, according to Abu-Lughod, not been affected by an influx of other races into the city. Los Angeles, unlike Chicago, has been affected by incoming minorities. This has affected the spatial makeup of the Los Angeles inner city, creating a community of not only African Americans, but also Latin Americans. In New York, the boroughs of New York City are studied. In New York City, Abu-Lughod maintains, the ethnic aspects of the city make it so that there is little white dominance spatially that is unbroken by minority or neo-white (Irish, Italian, the like) inhabitants. Each of these have totally different spatial makeups enabling a differencing variable within each individual riot’s location.

By pulling the variables within this case study and analyzing current riots happening within the United States, it begs the question of what factors affected the period of time and the citizens living within the city of the riot. These spatial, racial, political, social, and historical sides to the story of a riot such as those in Baltimore or Fergeson are often inappropriately overlooked. I would argue however, that one variable that should have been touched on within each of the riots, or at least the prefacing information to the riots, would be the media’s interpretations and publications of the riots as well as the group initiating the riots.

Especially now more than ever, the media – social and professional – has such an influential say in how things are said, meaning they also have a say in how events are interpreted. For example, with the Black Lives Matter movement, social media was able to influence citizens not only in the city where riots were occurring – Baltimore, for example – but also citizens all over the country. This enabled the riots to gather faster attention from all social roles – politicians, educators, professionals, students, citizens, etc. And while there was no social media, no Facebook or Twitter, during the riots studied in this book, there was newspapers, radio reports, and television newscasts that had huge influences on the riots and their aftermaths.

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