What causes racial riots?
In recent years, especially following the disturbances that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland following the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, pundits and editorial writers have offered many different explanations for what causes riots. Conservatives and most mainstream media outlets often view these disturbances as “riots”—uncontrolled and irrational spasms of reckless violence usually instigated by a handful of unrepresentative malcontents and always the result of a breakdown of respect for authority. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to take a more sympathetic view of the riots and the rioters, blaming the unrest on deep-seated racism and the economic disadvantage that it produced.
The reality, however, is far more complicated and exposes the limits of the conventional wisdom on both sides of the ideological spectrum. In fact, the last time the federal government took a hard look at the causes of urban unrest was in the late 1960s, the most complex findings proved too controversial to be politically palatable. So they were excised from the final report and physically destroyed.
The year was 1967, and the nation had just experienced a series of long hot summers of rioting that culminated with the conflagrations in Newark and Detroit. While the fires were still burning in the latter city, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, to identify the causes of the disturbances and to propose solutions to prevent them from happening again. On March 1, 1968, the commission issued its final report. In stark language the report concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white—separate and unequal." It placed blame for urban ills on "white racism." “White institutions” created the ghetto, the report stated, “white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
READ MORE: The Detroit Riots, From a Child's Perspective
Calling Out the Impact of Pervasive Racism
The condemnation of “white racism” sent liberal hearts aflutter, as did the billions of dollars in federal spending that the report recommended for reconstructing American cities. Conservatives were less pleased, complaining that the report blamed everyone except the rioters for the disturbances. They also did not like that the final report effectively dismantled all the conservative explanations of the riots: The disturbances were not being orchestrated by a handful of radicals, most African Americans were not generally pleased with their conditions and a tougher law-and-order approach would likely only inflame, not diffuse, tension. The social scientists concluded that those most active in the riots were not misfits; instead they voted, read newspapers and were generally plugged into the world.
The Kerner report was bold: It was the first federal report ever to cast an accusatory finger at white society for the conditions in poor black neighborhoods. While the commission took effective aim at conservative arguments, it did not fully explore the limitations of its own position that “white racism” caused the riots. The reason? The commission’s executive staff rejected the controversial findings of its own team of social scientists, and many of its field teams—especially when their conclusions ran against the grain of the emerging consensus among the commissioners about “white racism.”
The commission was comprised of three groups: researchers who went into the field to gather evidence and talk with local leaders; social scientists who then processed the data and identified patterns; and 11 commissioners who approved the final report. Among the commissioners were New York’s liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, Oklahoma Democratic senator Fred Harris, Republicans William McCulloch and Edward Brooke (the first popularly elected African-American senator), and conservative businessman Charles Thornton. It was a tough ideological needle to thread.
READ MORE: The 1967 Riots: When Racial Injustice Boiled Over
Pointing a Finger at Police Brutality
Over the first few months, the field teams sent back reports that documented deep racial disparities, and the growing black anger at indifferent white institutions. The social scientists were shocked by what they read and reached conclusions that went beyond the boundaries of conventional liberalism.
First, they were convinced that most of the riots were rational responses to the horrid conditions in poor black neighborhoods and to the failure of local government to respond to their needs. Black people rioted because it was the only option open to them to gain attention and force local government to address those needs. Most social scientists refused to call the disturbances “riots” because the word suggested an irrational outburst rather than a deliberate response. They preferred to use the word “rebellion” because, they believed, the unrest was both justified and rational responses to the terrible conditions in which they lived.
Second, social scientists working for the commission highlighted how the police either incited violence, or overreacted once it occurred. The report declared that "some 75 percent of the police departments in the country” showed “evidence of strong racist attitudes." In some cities, the police engaged in daily harassment of ghetto residents with "stop-and-frisk" tactics and verbal abuse. They concluded that "disruptive police activities" played "a prominent role either in starting the violence or in escalating it once it started." A youth from Watts told investigators that "the police used to be a man with a badge; now he's just a thug with a gun." Once a disturbance erupted, the report said, professionalism broke down and officers turned into “avengers of their personal and departmental pride.”
In November 1967, the commission’s team of social scientists submitted its report to the commission staff. The document, titled The Harvest of American Racism, not only concluded that the disturbances were justified, and that the police were often responsible for instigating unrest; it challenged all the conventional views about the causes of riots. The consensus among many of the commissioners was that poverty was responsible for creating the conditions that led to violence. The social scientists, however, found no direct relationship between poverty and rioting. Their studies had found poor African Americans were no more likely to participate in the disorders than their middle-class neighbors. Rioters were not, by all the evidence, disproportionately poor or disengaged from the communities around them. But the researchers did find one common denominator that determined who rioted and who did not: Those most likely to riot shared one characteristic—they had experienced or witnessed an act of police brutality.
Rejecting Ambiguous Answers
Harvest underscored that there was no simple answer to LBJ’s simple question, “What caused the riots?” It was easy to list the many grievances of residents in poor African-American neighborhoods where the riots occurred; it was far more challenging to show a direct relationship between those specific grievances and riots. Why did some poor people take to the streets and others not? How to explain why some cities where conditions were wretched remained calm while others with better conditions experienced disturbances? Why do poor whites not riot?
The commission’s executive staff was not interested in ambiguity; it needed to produce a final document that would garner the signatures of 11 commissioners and, hopefully, gain the support of the White House. As a result, the staff ordered all copies of Harvest destroyed and dismissed all but one of the social scientists. Instead, the final document the commission submitted blamed the disturbances on “white racism” and the economic disadvantage that it caused.
It proved to be an unfortunate decision. Johnson refused to accept the watered-down final Kerner Commission report, and even objected to signing thank-you letters for the commissioners he had appointed.
Now, five decades later, we are locked in the same old, stale arguments about the causes of riots. Liberals blame poverty and the need for massive federal spending; conservatives fault a lack of respect for authority and the need for tough law enforcement. Neither side has been willing to acknowledge that the disturbances are often justified, or that well-intended but poorly trained police officers sometimes turn minor disputes into major incidents of rebellion. The Harvest of American Racism offered a third alternative, one that now lay abandoned, collecting dust in the cavernous confines of the Library of Congress.
Steven M. Gillon is a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia and a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He has authored numerous books on American history, including America's Reluctant Prince: The Life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and the Rivalry that Changed America.
History Reads features the work of prominent authors and historians.