From Harlem to Baltimore: The Cycle of Race Riots in American Ghettos

For much of American history, race-related rioting has been a common occurrence in large cities around the country, and especially in Northern cities. In “Race, Space, and Riots,” author Janet T. Abu-Lughod covers six different race-related riots that occurred between the 1960s and the 1990s, examining them in-depth to discuss possible causes and results of the riots, as well as to compare and contrast them. Unsurprisingly, many of her findings can be found in more recent race-related riots, and in particular, in the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. Both in the cases presented by Abu-Lughod and the more recent cases in Ferguson and Baltimore, the riots, while often triggered by instances of police violence against African-Americans, often had underlying causes that societal and governmental parties have seemingly failed to address, therefore resulting in the circular trend that made Ferguson and Baltimore possible so many decades after Watts or Bed-Stuyvesant.

At first glance, the cause of nearly all race-related riots seems to be a simple variation of Breakdown Theory, in which police violence is perpetrated against an African-American (usually male, as incidents involving African-American women tend to receive less attention), usually resulting in death, and in response, the nearby community retaliates in anger and frustration. This appeared to be the case in then Harlem riots in 1964, where the “trigger was an altercation . . . that escalated . . . after an off-duty white policeman shot and killed the youth” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 24). However, an entire riot cannot be summed up so easily, and in truth, 1960s riots “were not just about police brutality,” usually occurring “in the context of an economic recession whose effects appeared first in black areas” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 25). In this, the riots of the 60s, while perhaps set off by police violence, were often a culmination of poor conditions, with goals larger than mere accountability and police reform.

In the incidents explored in Abu-Lughod’s book, all of the riots took place in “’ghettos’” that “exploded in anger and frustration in the 1960s,” with the ghettos of course being impoverished and usually overpopulated city areas of segregated African-American communities (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 23). This statement touches upon the fact that each of these incidents of non-routine collective action occurred not within a vacuum, but within a situation of decades upon decades of inequality, segregation, and poor economic standing, wherein attempts to peacefully resolve these issues were often met with excuses and assertations of impossibility. While Abu-Lughod does not necessarily claim that the main cause of the riots in the 60s and 90s was segregation and economic inequality, it is made clear that they were major contributing factors.

Despite this, responses to the riots in both understanding their causes and attempting to prevent further violence mostly failed to consider these aspects. Even when the federally funded Kerner Report recommended housing reform, these recommendations went “unfunded until concern receded, along with the violence, lapsing into . . . neglect until the problem resurfaced a generation later” (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 7). Then, of course, it resurfaced the generation after that, with the potential to continue on in a cycle unless these larger issues are resolved. In the case of Chicago, the city “remained as residentially segregated as it had been before the 1968 riot,” even despite attempts to address the segregation (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 28). Again and again, the response to race related riots was the same, with onlookers and media outlets asking “not why African Americans were confined to “ghettos” but why “they” were burning down their own communities,” entirely ignoring the factors that led to the riots, as if seeing them as simple examples of Breakdown Theory (Abu-Lughod, 2007, 3). Just as issues of segregation and economic inequality have persisted alongside police brutality, this type of viewpoint of riots has carried on to more recent events.

Often when today’s media talks about the events of Ferguson and Baltimore, it focuses both on the killings of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray that preceded these riots, as well as the issue of African-Americans in each place destroying property in their own communities, treating the riots as sudden outbursts of anger, and usually ignoring the long, ongoing histories of racial inequalities in each location. In the Washington Post article “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Consequences of government-sponsored segregation, Valerie Strauss focuses on these inequalities and how they have built up to the riots seen in these places.

Strauss even brings the discussion back to the 60s, wherein “following hundreds of riots in black neighborhoods nationwide, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that ‘[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal’ and that ‘[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans’” (Strauss, 2015). This statement speaks to what Abu-Lughod was discussing, and Strauss goes even further to discuss that lower class African-Americans “are more segregated now than they were in 1968” (Strauss, 2015). In Baltimore, for example, the city “is now 64 percent black while the suburban counties surrounding it . . . are only 23 percent black” (Strauss, 2015). As such, in this same city where racially-charged riots broke out earlier this year, there were segregated conditions similar to those in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City in the 1960s. Furthermore, Strauss discusses similar persisting economic equality in which “the African-American unemployment rate is 18 percent, more than twice the white rate of 7 percent,” and in which “nationwide, black family incomes are now about 60 percent of white family incomes,” and “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth” (Strauss, 2015). The conditions in Baltimore leading up the riots then, were deplorable for African-Americans, and much was the same in Ferguson.

According the Strauss, “virtually every one of the racially explicit federal, state, and local policies of segregation pursued in St. Louis has a parallel in policies pursued by government in Baltimore,” meaning that, as Abu-Lughod suggested, little has changed in US cities regarding segregation and economic equality, therefore leading to a continuation of those riots which occurred decades ago. Even while Abu-Lughod and Strauss each acknowledge the not unimportant role played by violent and lethal incidents of police brutality, Strauss sums up the argument by explaining “the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing,” but about addressing systematically produced inequality in wealth, income, and housing (Strauss, 2015). They each then discuss the true fear, which is that “without suburban integration, something barely on today’s public policy agenda, ghetto conditions will persist, giving rise to aggressive policing and the riots that inevitably ensue,” and will inevitably never stop until the country addresses the underlying, systematic institutions of inequality that create these conditions (Strauss, 2015). While there is no doubt for either author that racially-charged riots have made some achievements and have well-thought out goals, it is clear that the reaction of media and those in power to the riots have resulted in reactions which fail to truly address what is occurring. If the pattern continues, then, so will the riots.


Works Cited

  1. Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  1. Strauss, Valerie. “From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Consequences of Government-sponsored Segregation.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 3 May 2015. Web. 2 Dec. 2015. <>.