Sunday, July 29, 2007

"Burn, Baby, Burn"

Between 1965 and 1968, hundreds of American cities, big and small - Detroit, Newark, Harlem, Tampa, Watts, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Rochester, Cambridge, Danville, Chicago... - erupted into racial violence, the legacy of systematic racial inequality, poverty and urban decay. The violence climaxed during the summer of 1967 and in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination in the spring of 1968. Later that year, the Kerner Commission report stated that the civil disorders were the result of racism and poverty and warned that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."

For a time during the late-1960s and early-1970s, there were some who attempted to address the deep problems of urban America and a few modest gains were even achieved, but as Kevin Boyle, author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," writes in his essay (below), "In the late 1970s and '80s, the national commitment to the urban poor unraveled, destroyed by a furious white backlash and a resurgent conservatism that vilified big government and sanctified the free market. With that shift in American politics, hope gave way to neglect. It has been 30 years since the federal government really invested in America's inner cities. The only time anyone talks about segregation is when the Supreme Court prohibits another school district from employing the mildest of racial remedies. The welfare state has been eviscerated, not expanded. Even progressives prefer to focus more on the needs of the middle class than on the burdens of the poor. And on the streets of Detroit and in other urban cores, life grows inexorably grimmer."

Today, the "urban crisis" remains one of the most persistent problems confronting the United States. Unfortunately, for most white Americans, the urban crisis is little understood and often distorted. Mainly it is avoided or ignored. I'd like to suggest that in order to understand the ongoing chasm of caste and class in America, and ultimately fix it, we need to first delve into the roots of the problem. Recently, there have been a flurry of "40 years later" reports in the media about the riots of 1967 and their contemporary meanings. If you want to take a look, here are some examples:

Detroit riot of 1967, the largest of the era:
Kevin Boyle on 1967 Detroit riot, the largest of the era
Detroit News Special Series: "Panic in Detroit: Forty Years Later"
Detroit Free Press: "Lessons from the '67 Riot"
NPR: "Remembering the Riots: Detroit 40 Years Later"
NPR: "40 Years Later, Detroit Slowly Sees Renewal"
NPR: "Mayhem in the City: The Detroit Riots"
NPR: A Voice from the Detroit Riots: Loretta Holmes
NPR: Eyewitnesses to Detroit's Chaos
NPR: Blog of the Nation - A Long, Hot Summer in Detroit
NPR: Painting Depicts Desperation of Detroit Riots

Newark riot of 1967:
NYTimes: "With 40-Year Prism, Newark Surveys Deadly Riot"
NPR: Examining the Newark Riots 40 Years Later
Current TV: Newark Riots Forty Years Later
NPR: 40 Years On, Newark Re-Examines Painful Riot Past
NPR: Newark Still Affected by Decades-Old Riots

Other cities:
YouTube video on Watts Riot
Series of stories by NPR on 1965 Watts Riot
Hough (Cleveland): This One Was Planned (TIME Magazine)
Hough (Cleveland): The Jungle & the City (TIME Magazine)
NPR on 1967 Cambridge, MD, racial violence
NPR on 1967 Plainfield, NJ, racial violence
Chronology of 1967 Milwaukee Race Riot

Kerner Commission, or National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders:
excerpts from the 1968 Kerner Commission report
Kerner Commission, 30 Years Later

The Impact of 1960s racial violence:
Study: Economic Impact of 1960s Riots
Study: Economic Impact of 1960s Riots on Small Businesses
Study: Labor Market Effects of 1960s Riots

Other Relevant Stuff:
NPR: 'Root Shock': Urban Renewal and Black Neighborhoods


  1. Patrick

    I think you capture the import and the "lessons' of the riots well. Yet there are a more important questions as we try to build to the future and they concern what lessons can we take from the 40 years of almost total neglect that followed.

    How were the riots a factor in creating this neglect?

    How do we move toward engagement?

    Is the threat of violence more powerful in shaping public policy than actual violence?

    You get the idea...

    On a lighter note, your post reminded me of my baseball coach's band (Johnny Nance, circa 1970-3), Urban Crisis. Check'em out:


    1. Hey TJ,
      Thank you for remembering your "Old Cosch" and my band Urban Crisis. Actually we were together until c1980 when the demand for Disoo and my services as a DJ went through the roof.
      You were always one of my favorite kids making up for a lack of natural skills with hard core determination that brought you to the top every time.
      I live your entire family. Mom, dad brother and you.

  2. I just scanned the linked PDFs but the two Margo and Collins papers seem to conclude (if tentatively) that the riots did negatively impact the labor market and property values compared to cities which had similar demographics but didn't have riots.

    Were any of the other sources trying to draw quantifiable conclusions? (Not to discount the historical part; I was just inspired by TJ's question about riots being a factor to look for less narrative info...)

    Is it really correct to continue to frame things as an "urban crisis?" I don't have statistics or cites, but I think in Chicago there are really strong trends of underclass migration to remote suburbs and much of the city becomes too expensive for working class folks. I don't know if this happens in other cities, or whether it's really statistically significant even in Chicago -- have you seen much about this trend?

  3. Just a quick response: Clearly the riots hurt these communities. Many white business owners never returned and financial institutions often refused to invest there. White residents are largely scared of these areas, so avoid them. Cities have been revitalized in a way to allow them to do that (note Cleveland, Joe). But, TJ is also correct that social policy since then has neglected urban inequality and exacerbated the problem.

    As for Joe's question, there was an article in the late-90s about Chicago's "white flight" from the inner-rings of suburbs to more distant suburbs to escape the influx of African Americans who had moved from the city to that first tier of suburbs... You can check it out here:

  4. To add onto my previous thoughts: of course, the wholesale abandonment of cities by whites after the riots and the devastation wrought by deindustrialization contributed mightily to current urban ills.

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