Baltimore Uprising in Context

Baltimore Uprising, 2015 Image: CNN

Baltimore Uprising, 2015 Image: CNN

The events in Baltimore today are part of a long tradition of urban uprisings in the U.S.

Some social scientists, like the late Harlan Hahn and I, have been researching black urban uprisings in great detail since the 1960s. Yet, when urban uprisings occur every few years, this major research and the deep historical background it assesses are regularly ignored or forgotten—not surprisingly, of course, given that the mainstream media and most political institutions are controlled by elite white men with no interest in remedying the underlying conditions that create so-called “urban riots.”

CNN Breaking News Today

CNN Breaking News Today

 

In the first sustained analysis of the black urban rebellions ever done by social scientists, Harlan Hahn and I (Ghetto Revolts, Macmillan, 1973, nominated for a Pulitzer) dissected and refuted the prevailing conservative theories of these black rebellions— always blaming the victim theories— and laid out an alternative power-and-oppression interpretive framework. We showed how these were not “wild riots,” but were urban uprisings. Given that, they were, and are, better conceptualized as part of centuries-old racial power struggles. In our book we examine, for the years between the early 1960s and early 1970s, the hundreds of black urban revolts that occurred throughout the United States. These included massive uprisings in the Watts district of Los Angeles in 1965, in Detroit and Newark in 1967, and in Washington, D.C., in 1968.

Washington, DC 1968

Washington, DC 1968

The impact of these large-scale revolts was felt across the nation, which was confronted by a militant new generation of proud African Americans willing to engage in this ultimate type of anti-racism protest, much like we seem to be witnessing again. Critical studies of the 1960s-1970s black revolts regularly emphasized the concepts of “precipitating events” and “underlying conditions.”

Police malpractice – usually police brutality – like the many cases in Baltimore – of various kinds often has been the precipitating event for black rebellions, now for seven decades. White police officers have historically played, and still play, a major role in the violent repression of black Americans, especially those who seek to protest racism. Historical data on police violence are chilling. In the years 1920-1932 alone substantially more than half of all African Americans killed by whites were actually killed by police officers. Police were also implicated in the 6,000 lynchings of black men and women from the 1870s to the 1960s.

Not surprisingly, in recent decades police harassment and violence have been openly resisted by black Americans in the form of large-scale community rebellions. Our analysis of black community rebellions for the years 1943-1972 indicated that the immediate precipitating event of a great many uprisings was the killing or harassment of black men by white officers.

This reaction to police harassment can also be seen in more recent rioting by black citizens, such as in Los Angeles and Miami in the 1980s and 1990s, and in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and many other cities since. In spite of some desegregation and other improvements in policing since the 1960s, police violence and malpractice have continued to oppress black communities.

Black Lives Matter Protest New York City in November 2014  Image: Wikimedia

Black Lives Matter Protest New York City in November 2014 Image: Wikimedia

The role of white officials and the police in generating and accelerating rioting, while often rationalized or overlooked by a majority of white Americans, has been significant. Police brutality and other malpractice targeting African Americans remain a major problem across the United States. In one nationwide poll, nearly 80 percent of the black respondents said that in most cities the police did not treat black residents as fairly as white residents.

Yet urban black rebellions have always been about much more than these precipitating events, including police malpractice. As we showed four decades ago in Ghetto Revolts, a full understanding of urban uprisings requires much attention to the underlying foundation of three-plus centuries of white-on-black oppression. This oppression set in place, and keeps in place, numerous highly exploitative, inegalitarian, and undemocratic national and local-urban political-economic institutions. The “underlying conditions” of urban uprisings mostly involve the structural realities of economic oppression that create much unemployment and underemployment and have a severe impact on black individuals and communities. It is not surprising that economic institutions are often targets of those who protest by violent means.

History suggests too that the current uprisings in Baltimore can get much worse. For example, in major uprisings in Miami in spring 1980, black residents lashed out against the police and the larger white society with extensive burning and looting of stores. That uprising resulted in 16 deaths, 400 injuries, and $100 million in property damage. A poll asked black Americans nationally whether that rioting was justified. Twenty-seven percent said “Yes,” and another 25 percent replied “Don’t know” or “Not sure.” More black uprisings occurred in Miami between 1982 and 1991, triggered by incidents involving police officers. Recall too that in Los Angeles in spring 1992, the acquittal on charges of police brutality of four officers who had been videotaped brutally beating an unarmed black man (Rodney King) triggered the most serious urban rebellion in the 20th century. After days of rioting, more than 10,000 blacks and Latinos had been arrested, and more than 50 people had been killed. Property damage exceeded one billion dollars. At one point, 20,000 police officers and soldiers patrolled large areas of Los Angeles. The events there triggered uprisings in other cities. As in the 1960s urban rebellions, the underlying conditions included poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions.

The Miami News

The Miami News

The exploitative, discriminatory, and unjust-enrichment-hoarding actions by whites who run our inegalitarian political-economic institutions, generally elite white men and their acolytes, have actually generated black rebellions from the 1930s, through the radical 1960s, to the present day. They have intentionally generated unjust enrichment for a majority of whites, and unjust impoverishment for a majority of black Americans, past and present. This country, from colonial years, has been firmly grounded in highly oppressive political-economic institutions –under slavery (about 240 years of that) and then under legal and official segregation (another 90 years of that). Not even official freedom for this country, and for black Americans, came until the 1969 Civil Rights Act when into effect, barely two generations ago.

If one gives serious attention to understanding that foundation of white-generated, white-maintained oppression and its ever-present institutions (for example, we still live under a Constitution made by slaveholders), one can see more clearly how and why some of the earliest historical “riots” (for example, Chicago in 1919) were actually white “riots of control” involving rank-and-file whites and elite whites enforcing centuries-old racial oppression. Only later do we see large-scale black rebellions (the 1960s rebellions and those since) against that system of racial oppression. To make sense of all this, one needs to accent much more the critical white actors, especially elite white actors, in the institutional contexts that generate the unjust impoverishment and unjust police malpractice that generates urban black uprisings.

 

Where does this leave us today? Certainly, in a highly and systemically racist society. In a summer 1857 speech in New York, the great abolitionist and intellectual Frederick Douglass, long ago noted the reality of this racial oppression and what it often takes to truly combat it:

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. . .. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. . . . If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

Research Brief: Ancestry, Race and Genealogy

  • Bolnick, Deborah A., Duana Fullwiley, Troy Duster, Richard S. Cooper, Joan H. Fujimura, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman et al. “The science and business of genetic ancestry testing.” SCIENCE-NEW YORK THEN WASHINGTON- 318, no. 5849 (2007): 399. Abstract: Commercially available tests of genetic ancestry have significant scientific limitations, but are serious matters for many test-takers. (OA)
  • Kramer, Anne-Marie. “Mediatizing memory: History, affect and identity in Who Do You Think You Are?.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (2011): 428-445. Abstract: Along with Australia, Canada and the USA, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry. Drawing on recent work in memory studies which attends to the relationship between individual and collective historical experiences, this article analyses the celebrity genealogy BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as viewers’ and critics’ reception of it, to problematize genealogy as a form of mediated or mediatized memory practice which mobilizes traces of the past through the idiom of family. It asks: what is the role of genealogy in facilitating the relationship between identity and memory, both for celebrity participants and viewers? How does television make memories remotely accessible, and how do viewers engage with such modes of accessing the past? (locked)
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Bio Science Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry.” Social Studies of Science 38, no. 5 (2008): 759-783. Abstract: This paper considers the extent to which the geneticization of `race’ and ethnicity is the prevailing outcome of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. The decoding of the human genome precipitated a change of paradigms in genetics research, from an emphasis on genetic similarity to a focus on molecular-level differences among individuals and groups. This shift from lumping to splitting spurred ongoing disagreements among scholars about the significance of `race’ and ethnicity in the genetics era. I characterize these divergent perspectives as `pragmatism’ and `naturalism’. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, I argue that neither position fully accounts for how understandings of `race’ and ethnicity are being transformed with genetic genealogy testing. While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, `race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated `objective’ and `affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their `genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science. (locked)
  • Tyler, Katharine. “The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of interracial identities.” The Sociological Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 476-494. Abstract: The aim of this article is to examine ethnographically how ideas of descent, biology and culture mediate ideas about the inheritance of racial identities. To do this, the article draws upon interviews with the members of interracial families from Leicester, a city situated in the East Midlands region of England. The article focuses upon the genealogical narratives of the female members of interracial families who live in an ethnically diverse inner-city area of Leicester. Attention is paid to the ways in which the women mobilise and intersect ideas about kinship, ancestry, descent, belonging, place, biology and culture when they think about the inheritance of their own and/or their children’s interracial identities. The article’s emphasis upon the constitution of interracial identities contributes to the sociological study of race and genealogy by exploring the racialised fragmentation of ideas of inheritance and descent across racial categories and generations. (locked)
  • TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 412-424. Abstract: In its quest to sample 100,000 “indigenous and traditional peoples,” the Genographic Project deploys five problematic narratives: (1) that “we are all African”; (2) that “genetic science can end racism”; (3) that “indigenous peoples are vanishing”; (4) that “we are all related”; and (5) that Genographic “collaborates” with indigenous peoples. In so doing, Genographic perpetuates much critiqued, yet longstanding notions of race and colonial scientific practice. (OA)
  • Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. “Your DNA is our history.” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-S245. Abstract: During the nineteenth century, the American School of Anthropology enfolded Native peoples into their histories, claiming knowledge about and artifacts of these cultures as their rightful inheritance and property. Drawing both on the Genographic Project and the recent struggles between Arizona State University and the Havasupai Tribe over the use of Havasupai DNA, in this essay we describe how similar enfoldments continue today—despite most contemporary human scientists’ explicit rejection of hierarchical ideas of race. We seek to bring greater clarity and visibility to these constitutive links between whiteness, property, and the human sciences in order that the fields of biological anthropology and population genetics might work to move toward their stated commitments to antiracism (a goal, we argue, that the fields’ antiracialism impedes). Specifically, we reflect on how these links can inform extralegal strategies to address tensions between U.S. and other indigenous peoples and genome scientists and their facilitators (ethicists, lawyers, and policy makers). We conclude by suggesting changes to scientific education and professional standards that might improve relations between indigenous peoples and those who study them, and we introduce mechanisms for networking between indigenous peoples, scholars, and policy makers concerned with expanding indigenous governance of science and technology. (OA)
  • Wagner, Jennifer K., and Kenneth M. Weiss. “Attitudes on DNA ancestry tests.”Human genetics 131, no. 1 (2012): 41-56. Abstract: The DNA ancestry testing industry is more than a decade old, yet details about it remain a mystery: there remain no reliable, empirical data on the number, motivations, and attitudes of customers to date, the number of products available and their characteristics, or the industry customs and standard practices that have emerged in the absence of specific governmental regulations. Here, we provide preliminary data collected in 2009 through indirect and direct participant observation, namely blog post analysis, generalized survey analysis, and targeted survey analysis. The attitudes include the first available data on attitudes of those of individuals who have and have not had their own DNA ancestry tested as well as individuals who are members of DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In a new and fluid landscape, the results highlight the need for empirical data to guide policy discussions and should be interpreted collectively as an invitation for additional investigation of (1) the opinions of individuals purchasing these tests, individuals obtaining these tests through research participation, and individuals not obtaining these tests; (2) the psychosocial and behavioral reactions of individuals obtaining their DNA ancestry information with attention given both to expectations prior to testing and the sociotechnical architecture of the test used; and (3) the applications of DNA ancestry information in varying contexts. (locked)
  • Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the unsettled past: The collision of DNA, race, and history. Rutgers University Press, 2012.GeneticsUnsettledPast

     

    Abstract: Genetics and the Unsettled Past considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these trends lend renewed authority to biological understandings of race and history. This unique collection brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines—biology, history, cultural studies, law, medicine, anthropology, ethnic studies, sociology—to explore the emerging and often contested connections among race, DNA, and history. Written for a general audience, the book’s essays touch upon a variety of topics, including the rise and implications of DNA in genealogy, law, and other fields; the cultural and political uses and misuses of genetic information; the way in which DNA testing is reshaping understandings of group identity for French Canadians, Native Americans, South Africans, and many others within and across cultural and national boundaries; and the sweeping implications of genetics for society today. (locked)

This brief review just barely scratches the surface of this area of research but gives you some key names in the field to continue reading. Would you like to see your research featured in an upcoming research brief? Drop a note using the contact form.

Happy reading! 😉