Where Have All the Rioters Gone?Roundup
tags: MLK, riots, MLK assassination
… Most white Americans blamed the riots on “looters and undesirables,” according to opinion polls; most black Americans saw them as a reaction to “discrimination and unfair treatment.” What lawmakers saw was a fast-unspooling crisis. So they acted by providing more educational and welfare services, and by establishing seasonal programs for young people—cheekily referred to as “antiriot insurance.” Most important, having long refused to criminalize housing discrimination, Congress pushed through the 1968 Civil Rights Act, commonly called the Fair Housing Act. It was the outcome King had fought for, brought about by methods he had condemned. Fifty years later, our cities, in both the North and the South, remain sharp-line segregated. Not only that, but the decades following the Holy Week Uprising have witnessed a surge in mass incarceration that has disproportionately caged poor black men; a loss of manufacturing jobs that has left many black men unemployed; soaring housing costs and an epidemic of evictions, felt most acutely in low-income communities of color; and the gutting of welfare, which has led to a spike in extreme poverty.
By these measures, things have grown worse. Yet the streets, for the most part, have remained clear and quiet. Only two significant riots have broken out since the early 1970s: in Miami in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1992, both of them in response to the acquittals of police officers who had beaten unarmed black men. Recent years have witnessed spates of unrest protesting police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond, but these have been short-lived affairs resulting in few serious injuries and restrained arson. The 2015 unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody resulted in an estimated $9 million in property damage and no deaths. The 1992 L.A. riots, by comparison, caused more than $1 billion in property damage and 63 deaths.
Why don’t American cities burn like they used to? The late urban historian Michael Katz observed that the federal government’s response to the Holy Week Uprising—criminalizing residential segregation—wound up reorganizing city neighborhoods in ways that tempered unrest. For much of the 20th century, riots often erupted after black bodies touched white bodies, were accused of violating white bodies, or even floated into white-claimed waters. In northern cities, riots broke out most frequently after blacks streamed in but before whites packed up and moved. Once housing discrimination was no longer legally protected, middle-class black families began leaving the ghetto; in turn, white families moved to the suburbs. “With so many whites gone,” Katz wrote, “boundaries became less contentious, eroding one major source of civil violence.”
At the same time, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had a massive impact. In the 15 years after it became law, the number of black elected officials nationwide jumped from 100 to 1,813. Major cities elected their first black mayors, and toothier antidiscrimination laws opened opportunities for black people in business and real estate. Yet just when they were making inroads into positions of influence, white flight eroded cities’ tax base, which worsened the plight of poor blacks left behind and muddied who was to blame. “People said that we burned down our community,” Tommy Jacquette, a participant in the 1965 Watts riot, recounted in the Los Angeles Times four decades later. “No, we didn’t. We had a revolt in our community against those people who were in here trying to exploit and oppress us. We did not own this community.” But as the years passed and blacks did, in fact, come to own their communities, it wasn’t so clear anymore whose windows to smash in response to persistent oppression....
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