Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Race Riots

As I moved more deeply into my novel, I became increasingly unsure that the word riot was the correct one to use for what happened in Detroit in 1967. I especially wondered about the term race riot, as some observers saw the explosions that occurred in Detroit that year as an uprising against the police and other institutions rather than a conflict between one race and another. Even the term race is questionable. Nevertheless, I used these terms as a kind of shorthand, at a loss for something better or more accurate. In his entry on race riots, Phil Herbst gives the overview and the origins of the term (for more about Phil and his dictionary of ethnic terms, see post #1). And even if I'm still not certain precisely what to call those things, I'm a little more attuned to the questions, which I think is a good thing when it comes to labels.

Race riots. An emotion-tinged phrase often used to label outbreaks of civil disorder in black neighborhoods. Race riot is applied regardless of whether white and black citizens or members of other racial groups directly target each other, as happened in Los Angeles in 1992, or whether the direct targets become the police and National Guard, as happened in Los Angeles and Newark in the 1960s. Those who wish to convey what they see as the political significance of such events--black people's alienation from government, exclusion from society, and discrimination against them--have called these events, for example, rebellions or revolutionary uprisings, and the neighborhoods in which they take place, rebel neighborhoods. "In the African American community, xenophobia toward Hispanics and Asians, alienation from a city government run by a prototypical Negro pol, and a genocidal yet fertile youth culture primed black L.A.'s everyday people for the uprising" (George 1992, 157).

Among those who use the term race riot, many see these events and the associated looting as signs of aberrant, antisocial actions or social pathologies stereotypical of ghetto life and ignore their political character. "These are no longer riots connected with civil rights in any way. These are riots of the lawbreakers and the mad dogs against the people" (Ronald Reagan, referring to riots of the 1960s, in Fikes 1992, 83).

The expression race riot appeared in 1864, when hundreds of people were killed in rioting over black people's right to vote. It was used during the riot in St. Louis in 1917 and became even more widespread when, a year following World War I—after numerous black people had migrated to large industrial cities—there was rioting in twenty-three U.S. cities (Flexner 1976, 40). In general, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, race riot was applied to white mob action against African American groups, usually efforts to maintain racial segregation (Franklin 1970, 92). But the way the expression was used changed after World War II, particularly since the civil rights movement. Now it does not explicitly define who is attacking whom (though in the media black people are usually depicted as the rioters) or what the cause is.

No comments: