When Rioting is Rational

"Riots" aren't random occurrences. They're a reaction to structural oppression.

Buildings burning during the Watts Rebellion. New York World-Telegram / Library of Congress.

In recent days, a parade of white power players has descended on Brooklyn to denounce the Black Lives Matter movement. In dueling press conferences and TV appearances, they have tied protests to riots, riots to criminality, and criminality to economic calamity. In so doing, they have shifted the onus from the police to the policed.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Long before broken windows, the partisans of law and order claimed that protests are bound to cause riots, and that riots are bound to cause violent crime and neighborhood decline. In the decades since the urban uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, the myth of the “riot effect” has been deployed to rationalize the massive expansion of urban police forces and with it, the escalation of policing to the level of low-intensity warfare.

Fifty years after the Watts Rebellion, and more than four months after the first shots were fired in Ferguson, we continue to hear the same refrain. Here is Time: “Can Ferguson Recover? The Lasting Economic Impact of Violent Unrest.” USA Today: “Some Fear Rioting May Seal Ferguson’s Fate for Decades.” And National Review: “Businesses and neighborhoods may never recover from the present anarchy.”

The recent revival of urban protest has prompted a revival of that hoary urban legend, in which property owners and officers of the peace are the hapless victims, while targets of state terror are the aggressors. The riot is made out to be the root of all evils, the rioter the source of all maladies. But the legend quickly unravels in the face of the facts.

In the 1960s, many white liberals responded to the riots in America’s urban centers with measured condemnation, mixed with equally measured denunciations of institutional racism. They held the white power structure to be “essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities,” in the words of the Kerner Commission.

Other white liberals professed that the trouble in the inner cities was the product of a “tangle of pathology,” one which was “capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” These Great Society liberals would soon find themselves in the company of law-and-order conservatives, who seized upon the writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other liberals to buttress their contention that black America was to blame for “urban decay” and ghetto poverty.

Along with the “culture of poverty” mythology, the riot effect gave white conservatives a convenient cudgel to wield against Black Power and the New Left. The alleged link between urban disorder, violent crime, and economic decline appeared early and often on the campaign trail, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 and continuing with Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial run in 1966, Nixon’s presidential bid in 1968, and the rise of the New Right in the 1970s.

Ten years ago, a pair of economists — one of whom was William J. Collins, later a senior economist in George W. Bush’s administration — finally came up with some findings to endow the riot effect with a veneer of scientific validity. In a series of studies for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Collins and his collaborator found that the cities that experienced the most severe riots from 1960 to 1970 saw the most significant declines in family income, employment prospects, and property values from 1960 to 1980.

On its face, the story they told seems plausible enough: a riot occurs in a northern city with a high concentration of black residents. Other things equal, the riot will have spillover effects in the riot zone and beyond. These effects will be especially bad for black property owners. Insurance premiums will rise, shops will shutter, businesses will relocate, and there will be trouble in the municipal bond markets. The authors conclude that riots can best be described as “shocks… propagated into ‘bad ghettos.’”

Some of the most celebrated writers on the Right later expanded on the theme by arguing it wasn’t structural racism, but rioters (read: black people) who were to blame for the growth of the racial wealth gap. More recently, the story has been trumpeted from the talk show circuit to the front pages of newspapers, the dismal scientists trotted out to dutifully explain to our reckless youth that “rioting is a terrible deal.”

But the “riot effect” narrative contains a fatal flaw betrayed in the terminology itself: it rests on the assumption that “riots” are essentially random occurrences. For those who blame black America for black poverty, riots are distinguished not by their contingency or their spontaneity or their political cast, but by their irrationality. On this misreading of history, civil resistance has nothing to do with the underlying conditions that make it rational to rebel, or with the relations of power that make other avenues of action unavailable to the urban poor.

To justify this assumption, the economists quote a forty-year old study purporting to show that “the severity of a disturbance, as well as its location, appears not to have been contingent upon Negro living conditions or their social or economic status.” And on the basis of this outdated observation, they see fit to eschew all alternative explanations for the condition of the black ghetto over the last several decades.

What, then, are those alternatives? The first is an economic one. Serious social scientists have long linked the crisis in the cities to the collapse of their industrial base — the result of which has been a decline in demand for less-skilled labor and the growth and ghettoization of a surplus population. The effects of job losses have everywhere been disproportionately concentrated among black workers and black communities. In many of the “riot cities,” it is worth noting that the process of industrial restructuring predated the eruption of mass unrest by a decade or more.

A second explanation centers on the role of institutionalized racism. Aptly labeled “American apartheid” by sociologists Doug Massey and Nancy Denton, the urban regime of residential segregation created a “federally sponsored ‘second ghetto’ in which blacks were isolated by class as well as by race.” Segregation went hand in hand with practices like redlining and blockbusting, driven by private developers, mortgage lenders, and the white elite. Such practices likely did more to depress property values than a riot possibly could. More importantly, they maintained a black ghetto wildly profitable for white capital.

A third alternative links the fate of the inner city to the dynamics of class struggle in the North. Rebellions have tended to occur in cities where black workers also engaged in other forms of disruptive power, such as strikes and demonstrations. Riot or no riot, under such conditions, it is reasonable to assume that white business owners might feel compelled to take their money and run. It is also reasonable to assume that white politicians would be inclined to punish the rebellious poor with policies of planned abandonment.

Scholars differ on the forces and factors that explain the scope and severity of urban rebellions. But beyond the looking-glass world of neoclassical economics, there is a growing body of evidence that the consequences of such structural forces were far more significant, persistent, and pernicious than those associated with the alleged riot effect.

What effect, then — if any — does this type of resistance actually have? One possible answer is that it gets the goods. Historically, there is some evidence to support this hypothesis: take Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s work on poor people’s movements, or Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s research on democratization. But in the age of austerity, cities and states with rebellion are more likely to see resources redirected toward security services than social services.

Another answer could be that a riot provides a pretext for elites to do what they were going to do anyway. Business owners can take the opportunity to move out of a neighborhood, but they can just as easily take the opportunity to move in. State managers can use rioting as an excuse for planned abandonment, or they can use it as an argument for redevelopment — as they have done to great effect in gentrifying areas of Oakland, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. On this reading, the riot effect is not only a ruse, but also a rationalization of existing interests.

It is as rational for communities capitalism deems superfluous to rebel as it is profitable for capital to keep them in their place. But when the apologists for this state of affairs turn to social science for backup, it is worth remembering that their claims to truth remain as questionable as their claims to legitimacy.