U.S. Race Riots: An American Tragedy

By Ann V. Collins, Associate Professor of Political Science

Photo of Dr. Ann CollinsAfter a summer of traveling adventures with my family and landing on a new research project analyzing the 1964 U. S. race riots, I started gearing up for the fall 2014 semester in early August. I was re-energized and ready to get back to the best job at McKendree-teaching all aspects of American politics. Then, on August 9, Michael Brown and Darren Wilson had their fateful encounter on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. Sadly, the scene played out in an all-too-familiar way.

Racial violence in the United States has deep roots. As some commentators have suggested in the days since Ferguson erupted, it is amazing it does not actually occur more often. Longstanding structural conditions and cultural attitudes burn steadily like embers waiting for any spark to ignite them. For a moment, getting ready for the fall semester had to wait as I became consumed with Ferguson and the history it represented. Collective violence and race riots lay at the heart of my research, and I watched enthralled as it unfolded in the streets only 30 minutes away from where I lived.

My foray into U.S. race riot research started in Latin America - although intellectually, not physically. Growing up in central Texas I had a fascination with all things Latin American—the people, the food, the languages and the rich histories. As a graduate student in history at Louisiana State University I became interested in the truth commissions set up in a number of Central and South American countries in order to get past the atrocities committed by the military dictatorships of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. A shift to political science at Washington University in St. Louis a few years later offered a related research focus closer to home. In the late 1990s the Oklahoma state legislature established its own truth commission to acknowledge the horrendous acts that the white residents of Tulsa had inflicted on the thriving black community of Greenwood during a race riot that erupted some 75 years earlier in 1921. As I explored the Tulsa riot, I uncovered more and more of this country’s brutal and varied racial violence.

Racial violence in the United States has deep roots… it is amazing it does not actually occur more often.

Culminating from the research I conducted in my doctoral program, my first book, “All Hell Broke Loose,” examined the race riots—including the 1917 East St. Louis riot and the one in Tulsa four years later—that broke out during the first half of the 20th century. Dozens of instances of white-on-black violence occurred across the United States during this era. Structural factors, such as labor turmoil, political strife and rapid demographic change, supplied the overarching societal framework. Cultural attitudes added fuel in the form of newspaper editors and political leaders providing meaning to these structural maladies. Finally, precipitating events—supposed or real attacks, murders, or other infractions - provided the spark that prompted whites to carry out vicious acts against their African-American neighbors in order to prevent them from fully entering American society. By mid-century, however, the nature of riots began to change.

The next wave of racial violence stemmed from brutal interactions between police and people of color during the 1960s. Communities in places such as Harlem, Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark went up in flames as African-Americans - weary of being treated differently and excluded from society - targeted specific businesses and property. Political leaders called for special investigations to study the widespread violence around the country. Again structural factors, cultural attitudes and precipitating events that centered on policing had led to these violent outcomes.

Many people rightly question just how far we have come in the realm of race relations since the 1960s…

Devastating in its conclusions, a national report put a bright spotlight on the racist practices that continued to foster two separate and unequal societies in the United States. Unfortunately, the 1992 Rodney King riots, the 2014 Ferguson riots, and numerous other instances of unrest suggest that deep racial divides still persist. Wide gaps in employment, quality education, incarceration rates and home ownership continue to paint a picture of stark disparity between white Americans and people of color.

Many people rightly question just how far we have come in the realm of race relations since the 1960s in the wake of the events in Ferguson and a number of other cities this year. It has been a difficult lesson for our country, our region and our university community to admit that we still have a long way to go. During this academic year’s focus on effective communication at McKendree, we have held a number of forums to discuss the issues facing us today: institutional racism; police practices; militarization of the police; white privilege; a history of intentionally racist public policies; electoral barriers; the relative effectiveness of peaceful and violent protests; civil liberties violations; constraints on civil rights; questions about the fairness of our justice system and more.

We have sometimes struggled with painful topics, but many of us are committed to overcoming our fears and vulnerabilities to trust in the shared humanity of one another. While we have not established a national truth commission - a mechanism that many regions of the world have used with mixed success to acknowledge their painful pasts - I would assert that a new generation has now awakened to our country’s problems. Let us remain optimistic that these leaders of tomorrow, many of whom study here at McKendree, can help us remember Martin Luther King’s hopeful refrain that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We cannot afford another confrontation on Canfield Drive.