America Might Not Be Far From Having Riots Of Its Own


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In one of those lapses of news judgment that with regrettable frequency make mainstream journalists resemble characters in Scoop, the media herd that gathered in Wisconsin to chronicle the great Democratic triumph in the state senate elections has gone back to the coasts — and missed what could grow into a much more consequential story than the failure of organised labour’s second attempt to punish the Wisconsin GOP: the outbreak of racial hate violence at the Wisconsin State Fair. A story that involved Scott Walker getting his just deserts, even if it didn’t quite work out that way, was infinitely more interesting to our national press than a deeply disturbing gaze into the fragile nature of our social peace.

A look at this analysis in the Financial Times of the sources of the UK violence shows why Americans have cause for concern:

In the 1980s there was generalised distrust at many levels between a police force that too often lived up to its racist reputation, and a local community divorced from those who were supposed to protect it. Today, relations between police and community figures in places such as Tottenham have improved, at least on the surface. But, underneath, relations with young black men, and especially those who are economically disadvantaged, have actually worsened.

Black youths in London’s most deprived areas are now more self-reliant and inward-looking, even more than their counterparts in the 1980s. A minority rely on drug dealing and petty theft. The social cohesion that once came from youth clubs and churches has too often been replaced by the structure and sense of “belonging” of a gang – a social role with its own morality and self-esteem, but at least one that counts for something in a world of limited prospects. This is a crisis not of straightforward police racism, but of communities facing external economic pressures that, in turn, have exacerbated internal divisions.

This analysis fits many American inner cities and runs parallel to the arguments I’ve been making for some time that the poor urban Black community is in a deepening crisis of social dislocation and economic marginalization and that while the national conversation has moved past the issues of the inner city, those problems are becoming more dangerous.

Gradually, the press is taking more notice; unlike the French riots of 2005, the UK riots of 2011 are a wake up call to the United States.  Britain Today, America Tomorrow? asks Raymond Bonner at The Atlantic.  The old liberal position — that it was racist to raise this possibility — seems to be morphing into a new conventional wisdom that the existence of this possibility shows how racist America really is. The conceptual leap that turned the unspeakable into the inevitable appears to be the connection of violence with austerity: once responsibility for any inner city riots can be laid at the Tea Party’s door, the subject can safely be discussed.  Indeed, it must be discussed.

In any case, the subject of contagion is in the air.  Former State Department head of policy planning Anne-Marie Slaughter links to a blog citing an academic paper arguing that fiscal austerity promotes riots.  ABC News also expresses worry that the US is on Britain’s path.  On the New York Times website, bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Reihan Salam debated that possibility.  At TPMCafé Thomas Lane posits trouble when austerity begins to bite — perhaps around 2o14.

At the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy connects common themes linking youth riots in Birmingham and London with recent incidents in Philadelphia and Milwaukee.  Youths with serious economic and social grievances, says Milloy, are dismissed and insulted by officials on both sides of the Atlantic.  The result is unjustifiable but all too predictable violence.

The signs on the ground are not good. In East St. Louis, Senator Durbin has asked federal law enforcement to help locals bring order to a troubled public housing project. The Philadelphia DA upped the ante in his battle to crack down on racial violence in the City of Brotherly Love, speaking of possible hate crime investigations against those involved:

“Obviously everyone understands that if packs of white teens were going around assaulting African Americans some people think that was a hate crime. We have to have appropriate evidence and probable cause to charge for hate crimes and if we have it, we will,” Williams said. “But that’s minor in some ways. Some of these teens have been charged will aggravated assault — a felony of the first degree, which is the maximum we have short of homicide. We’re vigilant of this and I’ve instructed my charging unit to ascertain as many facts as possible and if appropriate, to charge them with hate crimes.”


[credit provider=”Nighttime in Philadelphia via Wikimedia” url=””]

Philadelphia’s African-American Mayor Michael Nutter told an afternoon press conference yesterday that the police would crack down on the violence.

“We need to remember that most of our young people are doing the right things. They do not participate in random attacks on our citizens or visitors,” Nutter said. “Unfortunately there is a tiny minority of ignorant, reckless fools who are engaged in random acts of violence across the city. They seem not to grasp the full consequences of their actions. So I’m going to lay it out for them and for everyone else — these are rare occurrences, but they have a wide-ranging impact on our community. We are acting quickly, flexibly but forcefully.”

Random events like those in Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Ohio and other places do not make a trend and there is no inexorable march to violence, but they suggest that we are in a danger zone.  Sparks fly, and there is TNT in the room. A tropical wave is approaching, and the conditions favour development.  Nothing is inevitable, and the timing on these things is by nature uncertain, but year by year we are heading deeper into the risk zone, and one of these years things will likely go bang.

In any case, riots in the United States would be significant because race relations are so deeply embedded in our politics and culture.  Managing the relationship between the races has long been a major preoccupation in American politics, and the political architecture of the United States has always been profoundly affected by the politics of race.  That is still true today, and as it happens the current model of race relations that dates back to the 1970s is under increasing strain. 

New outbreaks of significant urban violence at a time of government austerity and social change would raise basic questions about the American order in a way that riots in London don’t for the UK.  Those questions are bound to be asked sooner rather than later; urban violence would precipitate some very charged discussions about the next stage in American race relations.

Before the Civil War, Americans primarily dealt with the issue of race relations under the rubric of slavery, and political bargains over slavery were one of the core issues in American politics.  The Constitution itself was a complex compromise on slavery made possible in part by a widespread belief that economic development would make slavery obsolete throughout the country.  When the cotton gin plus the industrial revolution made cotton the key to the manufacturing economy, slavery persisted and even grew; in 1820 and 1850 the original bargain was adjusted in the light of changing circumstances. But growing support of slavery by the increasingly powerful cotton interest in the South and growing opposition in the North doomed these bargains to failure.  The Civil War transformed the slavery question into the modern race question: what would be the relationship of the two races once slavery disappeared?

The end of Reconstruction was in effect a new great compromise like those of the Constitution, 1820 and 1850.  The Compromise of 1877 not only traded the election of Rutherford Hayes for the end of military occupation in the South; it abandoned the North’s effort to ensure equality for freed slaves in the South.  The South gave up slavery and dreams of re-secession; the North abandoned efforts to regulate civil rights on a national rather than a state-by-state basis.

The series of post-Civil War compromises and arrangements that culminated in the Compromise of 1877 allowed the South to disarm Blacks (many Civil War veterans), deprive them of the vote, and install a system of racial segregation guarded both by law and mob violence.  The mass of southern Blacks were kept uneducated and tied to the land; a small elite managed to get access to higher education and laid the foundations of the modern Black middle class.

By World War Two the Compromise of 1877 was showing its age.  As in the Civil War, Black participation in the military led to demands for equality in civil life; desegregation of the military under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower challenged the racial hierarchies of 1877.  The Black middle class became large enough, rich enough and savvy enough to fight segregation in the courts and on the ground, and less affluent Blacks were gradually becoming better educated (again some of this reflected their military experience) and better able to fight for their rights.  The mechanization of southern agriculture sharply reduced the interest of southern farmers in maintaining the old sharecropping system that bound Blacks to the land; meanwhile, the growing presence of national companies and industries in the South created a demand for nationally standardized civil rights and labour practices.  Racism was generally losing its hold on the American mind; fewer and fewer whites were comfortable with the hatred and contempt permeating traditional attitudes towards Blacks.  Increasingly, even conservative evangelicals felt a tension between America’s traditional racial attitudes and the teachings of Scripture.

A generation of strife and negotiation led to what could be called the Compromise of 1976: a new basic understanding of the relationship between the races.  Not only would the formal segregation be abolished; the Reconstruction program of the 1865-1876 era would be revived.  The Civil War era constitutional amendments would be enforced; effective civil rights and voting rights legislation was passed and, unlike such laws in the past, the new ones were enforced.  More, good faith efforts to overcome the effects of past discrimination would be made. 

African Americans would benefit from affirmative actions in hiring and education and the actions of both government and private employers would be scrutinized to ensure that African Americans did not suffer “disproportionately” from tests or other factors in hiring policy.  The construction and consolidation of a Black middle class became a priority for domestic social policy; minority set asides and greatly expanded government spending in urban areas were efforts to help this middle class grow.  Elites launched a multi-generational effort to ensure that the American political and business elite contained more than a sprinkling of Black faces as the great educational institutions and others launched affirmative action programs that went well beyond those required by law.  Together these efforts made up the Great Society racial settlement.

In its original, Great Society form, that settlement was not tenable.  The public fears of undisciplined, violent or criminal Blacks (mostly in the form of adolescents and young men) were too strong to be ignored — especially after the urban riots of the late 1960s.  Epidemics of violent crime alarmed everyone and threatened the vitality of major cities; the Great Society commitment of affirmative action was supplemented by a national crackdown on crime.  Aggressive policing targeted primarily at minority youth combined with a harsh stiffening of criminal sentencing succeeded in controlling the crime wave at great human cost.

For “good Blacks”, education, opportunity and a road to the middle class.  For “bad Blacks”, prison.  This mix of policy is the racial system that we live with today.  It is not without flaws but it also has many merits and is incomparably better than any of the earlier racial settlements we have had.  Many of its goals have been achieved and most Americans, whatever their race, can be grateful to this settlement as far as it goes.

However, the Compromise of 1976 is now showing its age.  The policies intended to build the Black middle class are collapsing in disarray.  The housing meltdown wiped out much of the capital the Black middle class had managed to accumulate.  Many of the employment opportunities that held the most promise to put more Blacks into the middle class are rapidly diminishing: federal, state and local governments (plus the Postal Service) will be retrenching and cutting wages for some time to come.  Manufacturing will not be adding workers.  Small, entrepreneurial businesses are often found in places like the exurbs where Blacks are relatively scarce and small, informal start ups tend to hire through the entrepreneurs’ social networks in which few Blacks may be found.  Anti-discrimination laws work best at large, bureaucratic institutions: exactly the kind whose hiring rates are likely to slow.

Additionally, as austerity and the general crisis of the American middle class hit more non-Blacks, support for affirmative action will continue to wane.  The bipartisan elite that has upheld the consensus for affirmative action, multicultural immigration and expanding entitlements since the 1960s is the prime target of the populist rage now shaking the country.  If the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House after 2012, we could see some serious legal push back on some forms of affirmative action — and a few more court appointments could have the same impact.  But that many whites are thinking about how to “sunset” affirmative action while many Blacks are worried about losing their hold on middle class living is not good.

It has been a long time since the two races had such fundamentally different appraisals of the country’s situation.  Most whites, including even the liberal whites who have long been among Black America’s strongest non-Black advocates, believe things are going well.

Obama Inauguration

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This is partly the result of liberal euphoria over President Obama’s 2008 election.  The unexamined illusion that electing an elite African American whose deepest personal roots were in the white Midwest, black Kenya and the Ivy League would somehow magically heal America’s deep racial wounds held many white American liberals in its grip back then. President Obama’s inauguration felt like the successful climax of the Compromise of 1976: Mission Accomplished.

What has happened since has revealed the increasing hollowness of the racial status quo.  The Black middle class is in trouble, and that trouble is likely to get worse.  No level of government has the money to keep expanding services and employment in the inner city or anywhere else.  The underclass never got all that much from the compromise — and its frustration has grown as the Obama presidency has little or no impact on urban conditions.  It is hard to think of any institution or condition depicted in the HBO series “The Wire” that has changed for the better since January 2009.

Large scale urban violence in the US would be disturbing simply as a fact; what would be more disturbing would be the lack of national consensus that the ensuing discussion would reveal.  We do not know what the next iteration of America’s race policy can or should look like; events may force us to figure that out sooner than we wish.  A new national conversation on race now, divorced from partisan politics and addressing the questions holistically and in the large context of the crucial role race has so frequently played in American life, might give us a start in imagining a new framework that can help the United States move closer to the common national dream of a truly equal society.

This post has concentrated on the special problems of Black urban violence, but I would not want to leave readers with the impression that African Americans are the only people in the United States with the potential to behave badly.  There are many people in this country who have grievances of one kind or another, or who simply wouldn’t mind the opportunity to get in some good looting while the anarchy lasts.  We have our share of infantile leftists, whose ignorant, petulant narcissism leads them to identify with important world historical revolutionary figures and movements like their fatuous predecessors did in the 1960s.  And there are the handfuls of deranged religious nuts whose personal vision of the apocalypse (whether some para-Christian or para-Islamic weird cult or some even weirder more idiosyncratic flavour à la Manson) lures them into mass murder.

Those dangers are always with us and the state of the country in this third glorious year of the Obama presidency is angry and impatient enough that storms could blow up from almost any quarter.  Student riots, terror attacks, leftie bomb plots and Aryan Nazi nut job murders can shock and harm us, but racial upheaval shakes America to its depths.  The national conversation about race ground to a halt 20 years ago in a stale mix of PC platitudes, interest group lobbying, name-calling and bureaucratic turf war.  The conversation needs to restart, and it would be much better if it starts before we are all staring at television footage of angry mobs and fiery streets.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.