Chicago & Ferguson: A Comparison

In Abu-Lughod’s chapters on the Chicago race riots, she discusses the grievances and triggers that contributed to the events that unfolded in 1919 and 1968. She points out that as a more Southern city, Chicago’s black population still suffered under “Black Laws” that prevented them from participating in the public arena and enjoying the same privileges as whites. Additionally, she points to tension between blacks and whites in the workforce as an underlying factor, asserting that the competition for jobs led to white violence against black workers. The local government was highly corrupted at the time, with Irish gangs being very involved in the politicians in the area. However, in 1968, as Abu-Lughod describes, racial tensions had changed as the black ghetto population expanded, displacing whites. It was also a time when the Civil Rights Movement was thriving, and Martin Luther King Jr. had chosen Chicago as a target area for expanding the movement. Before the 1960s, “race riots” were usually characterized by whites entering predominantly black neighborhoods, destroying property, and carrying out acts of violence against blacks. After the roots for the Civil Rights Movement began to take hold, however, blacks were beginning to mobilize and concentrate their power towards the goal of abolishing inequality and racism. Abu-Lughod points to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. as the main triggering event for the riot that broke out in 1968. The widespread anger and grief at the killing of such a prominent figure in the movement caused chaos across the country, and Chicago was no different.

In the events that have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, similarities to the race riots in Chicago become glaringly obvious. As we have discussed in class, some of the grievances that contributed to the events that took place in Ferguson, including a suffering economy and lack of jobs, poor housing values, and tensions between residents and local police officers, are all parallels to Chicago’s grievances. The shooting of an unarmed young black teenager, Michael Brown, is generally identified as the triggering event, as well as police and politician’s responses.  When observing areas like this through a historical context, it is evident that the exclusion of blacks in housing markets, elections, and other public opportunities have led to many of the conditions that exist today. The characterization of race riots as being exclusively minorities rioting is a shift from 1919; riots were generally carried out by whites against minorities. Additionally, while the death of MLK led to a strengthening of the Civil Rights Movement, the death of Michael Brown led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to address the disproportionately high number of African-American deaths at the hands of police officers through activism and solidarity. Although laws specifically excluding blacks from public participation and equal rights have been abolished, the movement addresses the underlying structural factors, cultural and social biases, and unequal distribution of power that allows blacks to continue to be marginalized.

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