The riot as politics

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    Devin Bent

    In the 1960s America's cities were shaken by a series of urban riots. The most severe disorder that took place in Detroit in the summer of 1967 resulted in more than 40 deaths--primarily blacks at the hands of the authorities--and in excess of $40 million in property damage. The major riots provoked a number of attempts to explain intercity differences in riot experience. These studies generally agree that region and total population (or numerical black population) are important in the explanation of inter- city differences--i.e., that riots are more likely to occur, and to be severe, in northern cities with large numbers of people (or Blacks in particular). Beyond this there is little agreement among the studies, although perhaps the modal finding is that controls for region and total population negate the explanatory power of any other variable. Explanations of riot variation based on political structure, per capita spending, relative deprivation, ab- solute deprivation, social disorganization, and segregation all fail of con- firmation, i

    This study will offer a political explanation of the major urban riots of the 1960s. It is argued that the grievances underlying the major riots of 1964- 68 were not directly produced by the problems, be they conceptualized as relative deprivation, social disorganization, or what-have-you. Rather what is required for a major riot--an uprising of the nature of Watts, Detroit, or Newark--is the belief among the politically oriented segments of the black population that the government will not respond to demands for change. 2 I am not arguing here that all of the rioters were politically motivated. Obviously the rioters may have been individuals of varying degrees of political interest and motivation. Robert M. Fogelson, in his analysis of arrest records from 19 cities, found that the arsonists were the most likely to be under 25, employed, skilled, and born in the North--

  • 478 The Review of Black Political Economy

    factors generally associated with militance in the black community. The looters were the most likely to be over 25 and unemployed, and second most likely to be unskilled and born in the South--a pattern that suggests greater economic motivation. The assaulters--throwing stones, obstruct- ing policemen, and carrying weapons--fell between the two extremes.3 A major uprising requires the support of the politically oriented rioters, who would turn to arson or battling with police rather than looting and would thus play a major role in breaking the control of the authorities. As long as the politically oriented segments of the black community refrain from participation, the ingredients for a major upheaval are missing.'

    It might have been possible prior to the riots to survey black attitudes toward local government responsiveness in a set of cities and then correlate attitudes with eventual riot experience. In practice, of course, surveys of this nature were conducted after the riots had begun. While these surveys did find greater dissatisfaction in riot cities, it seems likely that these attitudes were as much a product of the riots as a cause. 5 Thus, for this study it will be necessary to infer the attitudes from the actual public policies of the cities--i.e., to assume that Blacks have more confidence in local government responsiveness when local government has actually re- sponded to their demands for change. While it may seem questionable to infer black attitudes toward local government response from the actual response, certainly the inference is as defensible as the common practice of inferring relative deprivation or grievance levels from census data.

    A question that arises, however, is: Does greater response lessen disaf- fection or might it actually increase disaffection? One hypothesis, associ- ated with Alexis De Tocqueville, is that public policy response generates higher levels of expectations and thus eventuates in greater dissatisfaction.6 This latter hypothesis is based explicitly on the notion that government action or inaction will significantly influence the level of expectations. This may be true in many instances, but it was probably not true of large cities and their black citizens in the 1960s. It seems more reasonable to assume that the expectations of Blacks were influenced by forces that were national or international in scope--the activities of the civil rights move- ment, the policies of the national government (including the Supreme Court), and the independence of African nations.

    If black expectations were not significantly influenced by local public policy, then local government response could only increase satisfaction by narrowing the gap between expectations and performance. Thus, the hy- pothesis of this study is that the more responsive a city to black demands the less likely it was to have a major riot (assuming that factors such as region


    and city size are controlled). The hypothesis will be tested twice with two groups of cities: first, the nine non-southern municipalities with the numer- ically largest black populations, and second, an additional set of 27 cities. The independent variable will be the actual public policy response of the cities to a set of black demands. The nine cities will be ranked on eight public policies that are in sufficient agreement to provide the basis for a summary measure of response. Four of the eight policies are in particularly close agreement and provide the basis for a second summary measure of response for the nine cities. The same four policies are then used to estab- lish a similar summary measure of public policy response for the 27 cities. The dependent variable is riot magnitude using the best available data for each set of cities.

    It might seem reasonable to combine the two sets of cities into one; however, the two sets will be kept distinct for two reasons. First, the data are much better for the nine non-southern municipalities with the largest black populations. Combining the two sets would necessitate use of the less adequate data of the second set of cities. Second, as I have already suggested, there may be different types of rioters distinguished by their motivation. Similarly, there may be different types of riots. A number of observers have suggested riot typologies, and some have critiqued riot studies for their failure to distinguish between types. 7 Different types of riots may have different correlates; thus grouping all types together would blur relationships. The nine municipalities experienced all but one of the major uprisings of the 1960s." Separating out the nine allows a focus on this particular type of riot.


    The first set comprises the nine non-southern municipalities with the numerically largest black populations (see Table 1). The nine range in 1960 total population from 7,800,000 (New York City) to 400,000 (New- ark), and in black population from 1,100,000 (New York City) to 140,000 (Newark). The 27 cities of the second set were selected using five criteria: (1) a 1960 population in excess of 50,000; (2) a black proportion greater than 10% and less than 45 %; (3) municipal authority to enact civil rights ordinances and to construct public housing; (4) mayor-council or council- manager form of government; and (5) location in the northeast quadrant of the United States. The end product is a set of 27 cities located in a nearly contiguous belt of states--Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. They range in total population from

  • 48O The Review of Black Political Economy

    TABLE 1 Summary Response Rankings

    City Eight Central Po l ic ies Cluster

    Phi ladelphia 1 1.5

    New York 2 1.5

    Chicago 3 5

    Baltimore 4,5 3

    St. Louis 4.5 6

    Newark 6 7

    Los Angeles 7 8

    Cleveland 8 4

    Detroit 9 9

    604,000 to 51,000 and in black population from 109,000 to 5,400.


    The Nine Cities

    Eight measures of policy response to black demands have been devel- oped. Each measure ranks the response of the cities in the 1960s to a discrete controversial policy claim raised by Blacks and their allies. The cities are ranked by their response to the following demands: (1) a broad and enforceable fair employment ordinance; (2) a broad and enforceable fair housing ordinance; (3) a legally empowered, durable civilian review board; (4) the construction, acquisition, or leasing of public housing (not including that designated for the aged); (5) the hiring of black police officers in proportion to black population; (6) the promotion of black officers to the rank of captain and higher in proportion to black population; (7) target area control of the Community Action Program (CAP); and (8) the sparing or nondestmction by the city's urban renewal program of the housing of non-white families. Summary titles and dates of the eight rankings are shown in Table 2. The eight measures are the dependent variable of an earlier article and will not be individually discussed here. 9


    TABLE 2 Policy Measure Intercorrelations

    Fa i r Employment (1965) - -

    Fa i r Housing (1965) .64" - -

    C iv i l i an Review (1965-8) .71" .55 - -

    Pub l i c Housing (1962-5) .61" ,82"* .68* -- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Police Hiring (1967)

    Police Promotion (1967)

    Control of CAP (1967)

    Nonwhite Housin~ Spared ~1962-5~

    Significance levels: ** .01;

    Central Cluster

    .39 .63" .32 .55 - -

    .61" .30 .29 .33 .64" - -

    .07 - .16 .51 .13 - .13 .01