I just did a detailed interview on my decades of research on systemic white racism with the leading philosopher of racial issues, George Yancy, at the New York Times Opinionator blog, the Stone. See this link.
Spike Lee himself might be surprised — saddened, perhaps — that the Black American-Asian American dilemma of ‘90s-era Brooklyn he portrayed in “Do the Right Thing” could be a scene playing out in Baltimore over a quarter of a century later. Recall that in the movie, after mostly black and brown Brooklynites burn down an Italian-American-owned pizzeria in response to the cops killing Radio Raheem, rioters approach a Korean green grocery and its owner, Sonny. He swings a broom to hold the crowd back, shouting in broken parlance, “I no White! I Black! You. Me. Same!”—upon which the rioters decide to spare his store.
But the iconic sixty-second scene does not show what the black and Latino rioters had been taught about Asian Americans like Sonny to make them target his store in the first place. Sadly, media portrayals have not come very far. Recent news reports about West Baltimore mute the same black-Asian history, and, unlike Spike Lee, paint the protestors as mostly hostile – and worse – racist. It’s no wonder that people, from bloggers to Duke professors, recycle the same tired stereotypes of earnest Asian American innocents and “thuggish” black American rioters — the former often the victim of the latter. When the race relations stakes in our country couldn’t be any higher, should the media be so retrograde?
Take NPR’s story that black-Asian American tension was the real race story in West Baltimore. Although the report notes in passing that some Blacks stood in harm’s way to protect Asian-owned stores, the only black voices we hear are from possibly two-faced patrons, from those who heartlessly taunt the Chinese American owner Tina Chen in her hollowed-out store—prompting her tears to fall, her voice to break –and those who feel that the anti-Asian arson was justifiable “payback” (even if not “reasonable”). Besides the fact that the overlay is too convenient and lopsided, these reports say nothing of the broader context – the racial history, the workings of elite power — that dangled in front of Blacks a “foreign model minority” myth about Asian Americans; that “they” aren’t really Americans but their success all the same made a mockery of “your” black failure. That is, they owned farms and homes, had good jobs and kept them, stormed Harvard and Stanford, and could skate or play violin at a world-class level – what have you done lately? — you want to cry racism when even the foreigners can “out-American” you?
Of course, the white elites don’t mention that this divide and conquer tactic was made possible by their own machinations of power: starting in the 1960s they drained the central cities of industry’s unionized, high-paying jobs; put nothing in their place; gutted strong civil rights and anti-poverty programs that would’ve helped; then demonized the black and Latino residents for being jobless, working the “illegal” economy, or simply speaking truth to power. Hello, under-served and over-policed West Baltimore. To add insult to injury, elite institutions made sure to pit the black and brown poor against selective cohorts of college-educated Asian immigrants, many of whom began showing up in central cities as new business owners when US institutions wouldn’t recognize their Asian credentials. To the black and brown residents, here was the “nemesis” filling in the nice shoes of the Italians and Jews before.
It’s no wonder that Spike Lee’s Brooklynites first thought of destroying Sonny’s lifeline, and it’s no wonder today that some of Baltimore’s protestors actually lit the match.
To be sure, Jeff Yang’s rebuke of the NPR report convincingly dispels the existence of widespread Asian-black tensions or the insinuation that they’re central to the rioting. Alliances between black and Asian ethnics certainly exist. Korean-American grocer associations donate hundreds of thousands in college scholarships to black students; Korean church leaders organize and sponsor African American ministers’ visits to heavily Christian Seoul; black Baltimoreans link arms and stop rioters from pillaging Asian-owned stores.
Yet, Yang’s CNN piece also seems to paint too rosy a picture of black-Asian rapport. He could’ve excoriated an American economic, political, and cultural system that makes Asian model minorities the foil for the blame placed on Blacks for West Baltimore. He could’ve devoted more lines to the fact that even if black and Asian Americans did not create these racial messages, they at the same time cannot escape them. And such racial frames do prompt some Blacks to burn and loot Asian-owned establishments; they do raise Asian American merchants’ suspicion and fear, and up goes the bullet-proof partition between them and their customers.
Make no mistake. Blacks and Asian ethnics do stereotype and mistreat one another. Yes, the two don’t always do the right thing. But Blacks didn’t write the laws that excluded Asian groups from the country or denied them citizenship because of how they looked – just as Asian Americans didn’t start the housing segregation that’s connected to today’s urban black poverty, like in Sandtown.And they most certainly didn’t make themselves into the caricatures we see in the news. Rather than turning black protestors into one-dimensional racists and Asian immigrants into hard-working victims, the news could start with the racial system that made both groups its victims. As Sonny would say, “You. Me. Same!”
An interesting lingering theme of the Baltimore riots is the narrow focus of the CVS Pharmacy. This may be partially due to the hyper-concentrated media coverage on the destruction of the pharmacy coupled with coaching the viewers to ask the big question of “why” they would destroy a business that “they” (whoever “they” might be) finally got to agree to invest into “this” particular community—as if having a local pharmacy in the community is some sort of special privilege for the largely invisible underclass community members in the U.S.
The awe and outrage shown for the destruction of the pharmacy by outside society highlighted the fundamental human disconnect contemporary privileged U.S. society has with Black America in general. If this level of concern and despair exhibited for the lost pharmacy (as if the pharmacy was more humanized as a tragic victim of an unjust system) was equally shown for Mr. Gray (as well as the thousands of others over the last several decades and the millions over centuries) then perhaps the pharmacy would not have been burnt down (as well as all of the other destruction that occurred with the riot—but the pharmacy is emphasized here because it has received central coverage and has become an icon of the Baltimore riot).
But, unlike Mr. Gray’s life (and the many others), thankfully for those who found themselves in states of complete disbelief, outrage, and even deeply mourning over the loss of the CVS Pharmacy, it can be rebuilt and fully restored (as well as the other establishments and material objects that went up into flames in the surrounding area) and back in service sometime in the future . . . . Or, maybe not, as the media and analysts have expressed concerns that because of this level of violence, the wealthy may now be hesitant to invest in this ill-behaved community (never bite the hand that feeds you now).tsk tsk.
Some may have seen the CVS Pharmacy as a godsend to this neighborhood, both residents and outsiders alike. Such viewpoints most reflect those who can legitimately use the pharmacy (those who have medical insurance and so on) and/or those who are benefiting (those employed) or profiting off the pharmacy in some way. But the question here is, what good are any businesses, CVS or otherwise, to residents who may be unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid? What good is a CVS pharmacy if many of the residents may not have any insurance or healthcare at all?
Some might say, OH, but CVS sells goods beyond pharmaceuticals, such as, milk, toiletries, household cleaning item, and even cosmetics and fragrances. But if you’re living in poverty already, purchasing many goods from a CVS is going to be more expensive than a local grocery store, for example. When living in poverty, every single penny counts (down to fallen change hiding in the couch cushions and car seats if you have one—the quarters are major scores and that ain’t no joke). And forget about getting a healthy home-made meal from the CVS pharmacy for you and your children if applicable—in their modest food isle, you can pick up some overpriced dried and canned goods, as well as some dairy in the refrigerated section.
In that respect, is the CVS pharmacy really a true blessing for this socially neglected U.S. neighborhood? A CVS pharmacy, along with the other businesses and establishments that were destroyed, are only as good as the local residents can equally benefit from their presence and participate as economically consumers. The goal of the businesses is to make profit, which in this case, comes at the expense at those who are most disadvantaged through absorbing the little resources the community members may have. Yet, our nation was more outraged by the loss of profits of this pharmacy rather than the gross injustice involving the loss of Mr. Gray’s life at the hands of the law enforcement officers, whose salaries are paid by the very tax dollars these residents generate through their consumption taking place in their home neighborhood.
Much profit is to be made off the poor, which reflects exploitation and absorbing any and all economic revenue that emerges, rather than honest social and economic investments into individual and community empowerment and a healthy independence (education, housing, employment, and so on). Nobody wants live in poverty and be on assistance (if even a possibility—too many in serious need are denied)—and anybody who truly believes these myths are fundamentally disconnected from the pains of oppression or outright delusional. Yet because of the way this racist and discriminatory society is deliberately set up, assistance is an absolute necessity for many and what little is given to far too few, is indeed precious for those who do receive.
Things as community gardens, apprentice and educational enhancement programs, free recreational and extra-curricular programs for both the youth and adults would be more beneficial to the community than the CVS Pharmacy and other small business, such as the liquor store, predatory lending establishment, and other businesses that were there only to profit off the oppressed. But, exploitation and dependency on the capitalist system, even if that means, you paying into a system with what little you do have or may get, that is designed to destroy your very presence and even existence, comes before individual and community empowerment, independence, and overall health and well-being. But oh yes, let us mourn for the pharmacy and the capitalist system while blaming the oppressed for their conditions and positions in the U.S. without any regard for the irreversible damages that have been done to the human lives that represent the epicenters of the riots that have, and will in the future, take place.
Another major theme was how the community was being “harmed by the people not having jobs to go to due to the rioting.” How can a community be more concerned about the few who do have jobs than with the majority who do not? In other words, again, the critics showed more concern and sympathy for those who were employed than outrageously high number of those who were unemployed while simultaneously questioning why the riots were taking place. In such dire circumstances, it is not incomprehensible that some residents may have never had the opportunity to land a job and see little to no hope of perhaps ever finding employment in the future, even at a minimum wage fast food joint, as if this is supposed to be desirable and overall suitable for minimal legitimate survival (forget about a well-paying stable life-long career) should their immediate realities continue on as white society so desires—ignoring the roots of the problems while demanding that everything quickly returns “back to normal.” Is white society’s conception of “normalcy” the best interest of this community? Or the many other underprivileged communities that reflect the same problems and grievances throughout the nation?
The looting and rioting reflected not only demands to be heard, but also cries for necessary and past due deep structural changes. Many people were honestly perplexed and “boggled” as one young woman put it, asking why they were burning down their own communities. Such questions from some truly seem to be genuinely reflecting the deep seated racial and class divide that exists here in the U.S. And those honest wonders need to be addressed with honest answers.
The rioting and looting can only be understood through a historical and systemic analysis (see Systemic Racism and Ghetto Revolts). When this is understood, the centuries of lethal violence and oppression against Black communities should rather lead people to beg the question of why there isn’t more revolts? Rather than, “why are they burning their town down?!” The rarity of riots, given the dire conditions in which these communities survive coupled with the racist lethal structures and environments in which they cannot escape, speaks volumes. Despite the intensity of these events, the rarity speaks to the contrary—oppressed Black communities are quite non-violent and far beyond patient, which should lead people to question why the riots are not more frequent.
There is no doubt should the more privileged be quickly subjected to the same exact conditions overnight with their children and families, likely more extreme riots would take place demanding justice and equality in the same way that we saw with the recent riots in Baltimore, and all others in the past. Not only would such individuals find their immediate circumstances unjust, but they would likely be burning down their surroundings because of the environmental dangers included (vigilante arsons). It has been suggested that Mr. Gray was a victim of lead poisoning—the poisoning coming from the housing unit he was raised in when a child. When it comes to standards and acceptable limits related to environmental dangers and hazards that white middle class+ will tolerate, the thresholds are much smaller—likely renovations, relocations, and/or demolition and rebuilding the neighborhoods would not just be an expectation, but a relatively quick reality.
The suggestion to move Baltimore and other areas throughout the nation that are demonstrating frustration and unrest back to “normal” is in itself inherently unjust and fundamentally immoral. We as a nation cannot claim to be decent, civil, caring, and equal, when we demand it returns back to “normal.” If the conditions of Baltimore, and beyond, both past and present, coupled with the seriously foul criminal justice system that is in place is truly considered “normal” for most Americans and the U.S. as a nation, then it must be recognized that there is a serious and very dangerous inhumane pathology that is pumping through the heart and veins of this society with every single beat—and every single heartbeat is actively keeping that very pathology alive and well.
Changes are far past due and necessary. Not for the sake of appearances of decency and other flattering terms that make the white society feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but for honest humanity and equality, and an honest and just society.
On Tuesday, President Obama told reporters that the events in Baltimore were “not new, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s new,” and indeed, they’re not. Today marks the twenty-third anniversary since Los Angeles policemen were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. Following that, people in LA were outraged and took to the streets. In what are typically called the “LA riots” people watched a 24-hour news cycle broadcast live from helicopters above the streets. Since that time, there has been a good deal of scholarship specifically about the events in Los Angeles in 1992. Here are a few of the books, with links to WorldCat for locating a copy at your nearest library:
- Gooding-Williams, Robert, ed. Reading Rodney King/reading urban uprising. Routledge, 1993. Abstract: Like many “news events,” the Rodney King incidents – the beating, the trial, and the uprisings that followed – have so far played a superficial role in public dialogue. Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising deepens the public debate by exploring the connections between the incidents and the ordinary workings of cultural, political, and economic power in contemporary America. Its recurrent theme is the continuing though complicated significance of race in American society.
The Rodney King incidents raised a number of questions regarding the relationships between poverty, racial ideology, economic competition, and the exercise of political power. What is the relationship between the beating of Rodney King and the workings of racism in America? How was it possible for defense attorneys to convince a jury that the videotape it saw did not depict an excessive or unjustified use of violence? In the burning of Koreatown, what role did racial stereotypes of African Americans and Korean Americans play, and what role did various economic factors play? What, moreover, is the significance of the fact that the L.A. police department, when it responded to the uprising, sent its officers to Westwood but not Koreatown? And how, finally, are we to understand the fact that not all of Los Angeles’ various Latino communities took part in the uprising?
- Hunt, Darnell M. Screening the Los Angeles’ riots’: Race, seeing, and resistance. Cambridge University Press, 1997.Abstract: Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’ explores the meanings one news organization found in the landmark events of 1992, as well as those made by fifteen groups of viewers in the events’ aftermath. Combining ethnographic and experimental research, Darnell M. Hunt explores how race shapes both the construction of television news and viewers’ understandings of it. In the process, he engages with longstanding debates about the power of television to shape our thoughts versus our ability to resist.
- Abelmann, Nancy, and John Lie. Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots. Harvard University Press, 2009.
Abstract: No one will soon forget the image, blazed across the airwaves, of armed Korean Americans taking to the rooftops as their businesses went up in flames during the Los Angeles riots. Why Korean Americans? What stoked the wrath the riots unleashed against them? Blue Dreams is the first book to make sense of these questions, to show how Korean Americans, variously depicted as immigrant seekers after the American dream or as racist merchants exploiting African Americans, emerged at the crossroads of conflicting social reflections in the aftermath of the 1992 riots. The situation of Los Angeles’s Korean Americans touches on some of the most vexing issues facing American society today: ethnic conflict, urban poverty, immigration, multiculturalism, and ideological polarization. Combining interviews and deft socio-historical analysis, Blue Dreams gives these problems a human face and at the same time clarifies the historical, political, and economic factors that render them so complex. In the lives and voices of Korean Americans, the authors locate a profound challenge to cherished assumptions about the United States and its minorities.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
In need of a house? Affordable housing? Detroit has an abundance of housing with prices unimaginable to most Americans. You can purchase a large spacious home for as low as $100 or less in the underprivileged areas that span for many square miles throughout the city. You might lack public services ordinarily taken for granted in most places, such as police services and street lights. There has been such a surplus of vacant properties that Detroit’s been burning them down. In 2010 there was an estimate of 70,000 burned houses which does not include vacant buildings and those numbers continue to rise with each passing year. Where else in the world would homes that might be considered the picturesque of “the American Dream” be regularly set on fire despite the fact that this nation has its fair share of people who are homeless and/or in dire need of housing?
Devil’s Night in Detroit is when the most fires are set and typically begins on October 30th and runs through the 31st. People from other communities and states travel into the city to join forces with the local residents to help with their local adopt home and other property efforts against arson, as well as bolster local medical, safety, and first response services. In this light, the evening has been redefined as, “Angel’s Night.”
During the early 20th century, Detroit, “The Motor City,” was a growing industrialized city and predominately white prior to the 1920’s. In fleeing the Jim Crow of the south, Blacks began to migrate into the Detroit area during the late 1920’s on through the 70’s only to find they were equally unwelcome. Often met with violent racial hostility by the existing residents and police brutality, social exclusion from employment coupled with housing segregation, Blacks were blocked from equally participating in white society. With the deep seated feelings of entitlement, the settled whites who were already competing with each other for existing opportunities and resources in the Detroit area channeled much of their venomous fears and frustrations onto the Black communities who, like they, were seeking better lives.
The systemic racial issues bottled up coupled with rise of the Civil Rights Movements gave rise to race riots of the 60’s throughout the nation bringing down the racial apartheid. Detroit had the largest riots in the nation resulting in the enactment of Marshall Law on three different occasions. As the apartheid was being dismantled a Black middle class began to emerge where shortly after, the city fell into rapid economic decline. In direct response to desegregation, white flight took hold resulting in resegregation with the nation’s wealth and privileges being concentrated into the predominately white suburbs and higher social classes throughout the nation. In 1950 Detroit’s population peaked with 1,849,568 and declined to 713,777 in 2010. Rather than integrate, much of white society chose to abandon their business and residential property.
Nothing exemplifies white privilege more than with the abandoned properties throughout Detroit. Most of us are required to properly dispose of our unwanted belongings. Black Detroit residents are the primary beneficiaries of these major social problems and toxic environmental issues. In 2010, the population of Detroit was 82.7% Black and 10.6% white with the State of Michigan having 14.2% Black and 78.9% white populations with black inmates representing 55% of the total prison population. Detroit is the poorest city in the nation with 1 in 3 residents living in poverty and many others living near poverty. There are still some very wealthy residents in Detroit, but they live in segregation on the outskirts of the city.
Detroit has the highest murder and missing person rates. These issues may play some role in the highest arson rates as well. As noted by the Detroit fire fighters above, to some degree vandalism has been the culprit, but there are a combination of reasons ranging from desperation where residents set fires to polluted houses that have been abandoned with rotting trash or that pose other social and environmental threats (vigilante fires) to sometimes revenge. Arson is a mechanism the residents have resorted to as a means to correct their immediate problems since the city either will not, or cannot.
But further, some locals believe that the general public is deliberately misled on the level of arson carried out by the residents as some of the power holders of the city are believed to be financially vested with local demolition contractors. It is cheaper to remove burned down houses than those fully intact. This destruction is a form of social expression from abandoned and socially neglected voices. It is revolt as Feagin and Hahn (1973) outlined in their earlier work on Detroit riots, to the many forms of racism that have championed the abuse and neglect of Black communities throughout history on into current times. With the effects of deindustrialization compounded with ongoing blocked legitimate means of survival and societal abandonment, it is no wonder the thousands upon thousands of houses representing the very icon of the American Dream have been set on fire many times over. What American Dream?
Authored by Tobias Hübinette and L. Janelle Dance
Since May 20, 2013, mass vandalism, material damage and outbursts of rioting in the poor and non-white suburbs of Greater Stockholm have dominated Swedish and international news media. This civil unrest was sparked when, on May 12, the police shot and killed a 69-year-old man from Husby, one of the marginalized suburban communities of metropolitan Stockholm. The shooting is still under investigation. The burning of cars, other types of arsons, and attacks on the police erupted in Husby on the evening of May 19th and quickly spread to many other similar suburbs of Greater Stockholm such as Fittja, Tensta, Flemingsberg, Hjulsta, Jakobsberg, Hagsätra, Rågsved, Skärholmen and Skogås. As we write this post, after six nights of uninterrupted suburban unrest, the vandalism and the violence have also spread to other Swedish cities like Gothenburg, Örebro and Linköping. Although the US and UK embassy warnings to keep out from such districts are clearly exaggerated—the scale of the unrest cannot be compared to similar previous waves of riots in for example the US, the UK or France—a feeling of a serious social crisis is gaining ground in the political debate as leading government officials and the Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt urge a stop to the material damage.
This is not the first time that Sweden is experiencing a series of riots; the last time was between 2008-09. However, it is arguably the first time when voices from the suburbs are entering the public debate as a new nascent social movement. At the helm of this movement, which has gained the spotlight in recent years, are teens and young adults who are also usually born and raised in Sweden (the so-called second generation). More than ever before, these youth are denouncing police harassment, the declining social welfare services in the suburbs and the dramatically increasing disparities between rich and poor—a development which is heavily racialized as the proportion of poor white Swedes is below 5% while the proportion of poor Swedes of color hovers around 35-45%. Representatives from this movement have, for example, alerted the media to the use of racial slurs among the police who patrol the suburbs, and above all they have been able to express an unprecedented analysis of a New Sweden, which is becoming heavily polarized along racial lines.
For decades Sweden has proudly viewed itself as the most progressive country in the world, as “the conscience of the world”. Furthermore, Sweden’s antiracist image and radical anti-discrimination, migration and integration legislation are well known all over the world. However, recently Sweden has also become the OECD country showing the highest difference in unemployment between foreign-born and native-born Swedes, while its big- and mid-size cities are characterized by one of the most extreme ethno-racial residential segregation patterns in the Western world. Thus, it is not in the context of the old Sweden of exceptionalism but in the wake of the New Sweden of exclusion that we must understand the frustration, the desperation and the rage that can be found particularly among young people in the suburbs. This second generation has grown up in Sweden but due to stigmatized postal addresses and “non-Swedish” appearances they are not accepted within the majority society at large, without taking into account these worrying statistical correlations.
There are also other political groups that are exploiting the current suburban unrest. A fact overlooked by the media is that these other groups do not live in the suburbs yet exacerbate the unrest. While ignoring these instigators, the media focuses on spectacular videos and photos of burning buildings and cars and policemen fighting with youngsters. Firstly, there are indications that white Swedish leftist activists have encouraged and participated in the riots, something that also happened in 2008-09. Their sole political agenda is to sustain and encourage even more social antagonism at the expense of an even stronger stigmatization of the poor and non-white suburbs among the white majority population. Furthermore, Swedish extreme right-wing activists are also active in the events by portraying themselves as “ordinary Swedes” who want to help the police as “citizen guards”, a popular yet loaded discourse that the media all too often buy into. Saturday night for example, around 200 Nazi activists more or less invaded Tumba in Southern Botkyrka in the southern part of Greater Stockholm, and started to hunt down and beat up any youngster who was deemed to be a “rioter”.
However for ordinary white Swedes reading and watching the news it is highly probable that all the inhabitants in the suburbs are associated with violence and rioting. In the end, the Sweden Democrats (a former Nazi party which has transformed itself into a populist anti-immigration party and which, according to opinion polls, is the fourth or the third largest party in Sweden) will maybe become the biggest political winner due to the suburban unrest. Now, the Sweden Democrats will most probably gain even more support among the voters. Of course, representatives from the party have already made use of the events by calling for stronger police interventions and the introduction of temporary state of emergency measures in certain urban districts.
Once “exceptional” Sweden is no longer the exception to the general Western rule of blaming the racialized victim. On the contrary, white Swedes are remarkably unexceptional as they behave like racist and conservative white Americans. Ordinary white Swedes, who claim to embrace antiracism, equality and social democracy, look at the riots in Stockholm and blame marginalized youths for the institutional discrimination, political marginalization, and structural racism that have become common place in the former “conscience of the world”.
Tobias Hübinette is an Associate Professor and researcher at the Multicultural Centre in Botkyrka, Sweden. L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. Dance is currently living in Sweden.
Continuing our Black History Month series about documentaries, the recently released “Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975” is an important film that serves as an introduction to the Black Power movement in the U.S. as seen through the lens of Swedish journalists. This short trailer (1:59) explains a bit more about the film:
The film features archival footage from the period with voiceovers from contemporary artists. While I didn’t find that the voiceovers added much of value to the film, some of the archival footage – particularly the clip of Angela Davis responding to an interviewer’s question about ‘violence’ – is compelling and makes the film worth watching.
The film becomes problematic in the last half when it locates the demise of the Black Power movement on the rise of drugs in the Black community, both of which it seems to suggest is the fault of Black mothers. This is a serious misstep on the part of the filmmakers as it feeds into dominant narratives about Black pathology.
An excellent companion text, and one that offers a much more nuanced analysis of the Black Power movement, is Professor Alondra Nelson’s Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). While the film brackets the Black Power movement off to a bygone historical era, Nelson’s work extends that lens to the present day and demonstrates how that struggle continues, and does so without resorting to tropes of Black pathology, but instead focusing on empowerment within the Black community in the face of ongoing discrimination.
The film is available on most PBS stations on the Independent Lens series (check local listings), and is currently streaming on iTunes and Netflix. Nelson’s book is available from University of Minnesota Press, at the usual online retailers, and of course, independent book stores (good reminder, @Joyce!)
Peter recently noted some Guardian reporting on the urban revolts in England. Let me add a little to that. The Guardian paper in England has reported on an analysis by Liverpool professor Alex Singleton on some 1,297 people who had their first hearing in magistrate courts on charges associated with the people’s revolts in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. Most are Londoners.
As any social scientist who has studied such revolts in the U.S. could have told them in advance, most of those who revolted were the young male residents of very impoverished areas. That is exactly what the Singleton/Guardian analysis reports for these urban revolts. Singleton discovered most arrested lived in very poor urban areas, with a high percent in extreme poverty areas:
. . . with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010. . . . Only a very small number in our data were aged over 30. More than 90% are male.
Others have noted that people of color engaged in revolts in their areas, and impoverished whites in yet other areas. Most have been charged with theft, having stolen goods, burglary, or violent disorder. Increasing impoverishment and unemployment in an age where people expect a decent standard of living is the stuff out of which such urban revolts is made. The Guardian, to its credit, takes on the centuries-old rationale of the rich and elites in society, who always see “rioters” as criminal or just rioting for “fun and profit,” to quote a conservative U.S. social scientist on the African American revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. They note:
David Cameron [white conservative British prime minister] said this week that the riots “were not about poverty”, but the Guardian’s database of court cases raises the question that there may be, at the very least, a correlation between economic hardship and those accused of taking part in last week’s violence and looting.
Indeed, it does. And it always will be thus for this type of urban revolt. And the white racial framing denying the real reasons for such revolts seems to be age-old, suggesting some problems with theories like that of “racial formation theory” that substantially neglect issues of institutionalized racism and entrenched systemic racism and that tend to accent dramatic changes over time in a Western society’s “racial formations.” At least in whites’ racial framing of events like urban revolts by people of color, changes are much less than such optimistic theories of “race” typically suggest. This is true, too, for many other areas of systemic racism.