Where’s the Violence?


North Central, Philadelphia, PWbaker

by Michael B. Katz

When riots broke out in U.K. cities in August 2011, I was reading proofs for my new book, Why Don’t American Cities Burn?. The book takes its title from a chapter provoked by the 2005 riots in French cities. Why, I asked, had collective violence (a term I prefer to riots) more or less disappeared from the streets of American cities? Alienation, marginalization, youth unemployment and distrust of the police – these, surely, were as prevalent in American cities as in urban France. In fact, social pathologies believed to have sparked the major civil violence in American cities during the 1960s and early 1970s – poverty, racial segregation, unemployment – had, if anything, grown worse, and police brutality, the trigger for the eruption of every episode of urban collective violence since the 1960s, had not faded away. Yet still, with a couple of exceptions, collective violence had not erupted on American city streets. Instead, violence had turned inwards and manifested itself in drive-by shootings, gangs, and shocking homicide rates among young men. How and why had this happened?

My search for explanations of the mysteries at the core of recent American urban history began in the early 1980s when I became director of the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate Urban Studies Program. I wanted to have students read a book that explained how cities had changed since World War II; what those changes meant for the people who lived in them; and how governments- federal, state, local – had responded. But there was no book that told this story. So I developed a course, “Urban Crisis: American Cities Since World War II”, which tried to fill the gap. Writing the lectures required at first filling the gaps in my own knowledge. Over the years, I have taught the course many times, learning more with each iteration, updating the content, though never feeling that the story is complete or that the mystery has been fully penetrated and resolved. There is nonetheless, a framework whose construction is the starting point for building an interpretation. The argument in brief, is that since World War II, American cities have undergone economic, demographic and spatial transformations. The result is a new American city, an urban form unique in world history. When old institutions proved incapable of redefining themselves, when both old urban politics and new urban policies failed, or even made matters worse, one result was the “urban crisis”,  a shorthand term for the bundle of man-made disasters that turned once-vibrant sections of old cities into wastelands which reminded European visitors of their bomb-damaged cities after World War II. In America, the economic, demographic and spatial transformation of cities collided with rightward moving social politics. Why Don’t American Cities Burn? is about this collision.

In June 2006, an event encapsulated everything I had been writing, teaching, and thinking about for decades. I was chosen to serve as a juror for a non-capital murder trial in Philadelphia. A 66- year old African American man had stabbed a much younger African American man to death in a dispute over five dollars in the badlands of North Philadelphia. I wrote an article about this instantiation of murder and marginalization and turned the article into the book’s prologue. The book’s chapters contextualize and expand on the meaning of this sadly exemplary event. The first chapter traces the emergence and significance of the “new American city”; the second uses the recent history of African American social structure to show how it resulted nearly coincidentally in the marginalized men fighting in the street and an African American president of the United States. The third chapter incorporates the insights of the first two, adding a range of other considerations, to explain the absence of collective violence in American cities while the fourth traces the adoption of market-based approaches to urban poverty. The epilogue probes the problematic narrative of recent urban history provided by both the political left and right and asks whether a revised narrative could justify a politics of moderate hope.

The answer to the question posed by the book’s title combines three general factors: a new ecology of power, the management of marginalization, and the incorporation and control of immigrants. Consider first the new ecology of power: The civil violence of the 1960s erupted when huge numbers of African Americans had moved into American cities and whites had not yet moved out. In the years following this Great Migration, whites decamped from central cities for suburbs, and many cities became majority or near-majority minority. By 2000, only 21 percent of whites remained in central cities. This changed the ecology of power because, when they left, whites ceded effective political control of cities to African Americans, retaining only a hold on commerce and finance and gentrified pockets of downtown. Ironically, African Americans inherited city governments at the moment when de-industrialization, cuts in federal aid and white flight were decimating tax bases and job opportunities while fueling homelessness, street crime and poverty. Nonetheless, with many whites gone, neighborhood boundaries became less contentious, eroding one source of civil violence.

In the 1980s, massive immigration from Latin America and Asia reignited urban boundary conflicts, particularly in gateway cities where immigrants entered, triggering violence in South Central Los Angeles in 1992: the first major civil violence since the 1960s. But events in Los Angeles did not ignite fuses in other American cities. One reason lies in a set of mechanisms that deflected civil violence by managing marginalization.

Riots in South Central, LA, Jose Ivey, April 1992

Five of these mechanisms have proved crucial: selective incorporation, ostensible or mimetic reform, indirect rule, consumption, and repression and control. Together, they initiated a process of de-politicization that undercut the capacity for collective action. In the book, I explain each of these in detail. In brief, selective incorporation refers to the gateways to better education, jobs, income and housing that have opened to a significant fraction of African-Americans and other minorities. The limited mobility which resulted has fractured African American communities along lines of class and gender (women fared far better than men) and eroded the potential for collective protest by holding out the promise of economic and occupational achievement as well as a modest prosperity.

By mimetic reform I mean measures that respond to insurgent demands without transferring real power or redistributing significant resources. Such reform cools out insurgencies; it does not resolve the problems that underlie them. White abandonment, selective incorporation, and mimetic reform resulted in indirect rule. Like colonial British imperialists, who kept order through the exercise of authority by indigenous leaders, powerful white Americans retained authority over cities through their influence on minorities elected to political office, appointed to public and social service bureaucracies, and hired in larger number by police forces. Despite African American occupation of public offices, real power remained elsewhere. But indirect rule meant that civil violence or other claims on city government increasingly would be directed toward African American elected officials, public bureaucrats and police.

African-Americans joined what historian Lizabeth Cohen has called America’s ‘Consumer Republic’, “an economy, culture, and politics built around the promises of mass consumption, both in terms of the material life and the more idealistic goals of freedom, democracy, and equality”. More African Americans than ever before were able to purchase the material symbols of the good life. In this way, the Consumers’ Republic undermined black protest by shifting the focus of black demands to public accommodation and market access, thereby linking African American goals to mainstream American aspirations and subordinating alternatives based on black nationalism or social democratic visions of economic justice.

At the same time, public authorities deployed new or heightened techniques of repression and control. New federal grants provided police with money to purchase hardware such as anti-riot tools, helicopters and vehicles. In the same years, harsh policies of incarceration swept black men off city streets and into prison. America’s prison population mushroomed. Its rate of incarceration led the world. In Los Angeles, contends urbanist Mike Davis, police repression of black power undermined a promising gang truce, while the decimation of the Black Panthers resulted in a revival of black gangs, now permeated by a culture of violence and domination. In the 1990s, public authorities again dismissed gang truces and summits as hoaxes. As black men experienced disillusionment, depoliticization and renewed criminal violence, many could not participate in politics even if they wanted to because they were felons. Except for Maine, all states prohibited felons from voting, and many states continued to disenfranchise them after they left prison. About 13 percent of African American men remain effectively disenfranchised, a percentage that could rise to 40 percent in states that permanently bar ex-offenders from voting.

In the 1960s, African Americans lacked channels through which to make effective claims on the state. Other than through collective action, whether sit-ins or violence, they had few ways to force their grievances onto public attention or to persuade authorities to respond. This changed as the new ecology of power opened new channels of access. People who once might have led protests now held positions from which they could argue that civil violence was both unproductive and counterproductive. Others remained in America’s inner cities, struggling to get by, disenfranchised, wary of the state, disillusioned with politicians, lacking leadership or a vision strong enough to mobilize them once again to make claims on the state.

The recent history of African-Americans in urban America is only partially helpful in contrasting the American and European experiences. For the civil violence that rocked France in 2005 and frightens other Europeans is a product of recent immigration, not of the grievances and frustrations of historically marginalized citizens. Both European and American cities have experienced recent massive immigration. Both have had to cope with infusions of low-skilled workers from different cultural traditions. But there parallels cease as immigrant incorporation and control take different routes, which have implications for the turn toward civil violence. In April and May 2005, immigrants across the United States, outraged by proposed federal legislation that would turn illegal immigrants into felons and criminalize efforts to assist them, took to the streets in protests that were coordinated, massive and completely peaceful. On May 1, more than one million marched in protest rallies in cities across the United States. Most of the four hundred marchers in Los Angeles waived American flags.

U.S. immigrants sought redress through government. Their protests assumed that they could realize their goals through the nation’s political institutions. They approached government as a potential ally, not an enemy, wanting nothing so much as the rights of American citizens. In Paris, immigrants showed no such faith in the state. In the United States, with policing decentralized, insurgents tried to enlist the federal government as an agent of police reform. In France, conversely, where policing remained highly centralized, antagonism toward the police reinforced distrust of the national government. At the same time, the state pursued a relentless policy of nationalization, rejecting even benign symbols of their culture, such as wearing head scarves in school, a prohibition unthinkable in the United States. In their rage, frustration, alienation, and lack of confidence in or access to official political channels, protestors in France resembled African Americans in the 1960s more than immigrants to the United States in the late twentieth century. Naturalization laws both reflected and reinforced divergent paths to immigrant incorporation. In France, naturalization rates are much lower. After fifteen to twenty years of residence naturalization rates are twenty percentage points lower in France than in the United States.

In the United States, critics pour their public anger onto undocumented immigrants, not all immigrants, although not infrequently a generalized xenophobia lies just beneath the surface. For them, the road to economic and civic incorporation is difficult, if not impossible to follow. Public anger at undocumented immigrants, long simmering, has exploded with stunning velocity, demanding still more border militarization and punitive policies toward immigrants themselves or those who employ, house, or assist them. The result, of course, undercuts potential immigrant protest. Threats of deportation and unemployment constitute an effective mechanism of social control that dampens the potential for both civil violence and peaceful protest.

Does this contrast between the U.S. and French experience of civil violence suggest any interpretations of the August 2011 violence in U.K. cities? The honest answer is that it is too early to tell. That is, we lack the data with which to make systematic comparisons. Press accounts are maddeningly imprecise, and none of the theories bandied about are wholly persuasive. The government response reprised arguments about culture and family current in the U.S. in the 1960s and advocated an explanation that individualized blame, pinning it on inadequate parenting and out of wedlock births. As decades of U.S. research shows, this revival of the culture of poverty and underclass explanations surely should be dismissed. They serve the interests of public officials eager to avoid blame or responsibility, but they offer nothing to the serious search for underlying reasons. As one commentator pointed out, Sweden has a far higher rate of out-of-wedlock births than the U.K. without collective violence on its city streets. Commentators on the political left, by contrast, tend to blame increased inequality, high youth unemployment, poverty and the erosion of the welfare state. Plausible as these factors sound, the U.S. experience questions whether they are sufficient. In the U.S., inequality has been increasing since the mid-1970s, the child poverty rate is at least as high, and probably higher – depending on the measurement technique – than in the U.K. In ethnic and class segregation, the U.S. beats the UK and Western Europe as well; the U.S. welfare state, never as complete as the U.K.’s, has eroded under the influence of neo-liberal policies. That leaves techniques for managing marginalization as a hypothesis, a key area of inquiry for U.K. researchers. It may also be an area in which the U.S. has something to teach. For in managing marginalization, for keeping the peace in the face of persistent and growing inequality, the United States is a world leader.

About the Author:

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written widely on American social history and public policy. He is the author of Why Don’t American Cities Burn?