For decades, the French have perceived themselves as immune to the racially polarized politics of the United States, liberated by a national rhetoric of “universalism” and color blindness. What was most striking about the tumult that swept through France last fall was not how distinctly French it was, but how much it looked like the United States during the “long hot summer” of 1967. The parallels were striking—and the lessons for France are grim.
American cities exploded in violence in July 1967. First came Newark, where thousands took to the streets on July 12, after a clash between a black taxi driver and the police. After nearly a week of violence, the toll was twenty-three people dead and millions of dollars of property destroyed. Even more devastating was the uprising in Detroit that began early on the morning of July 23, when police raided an after-hours bar. After six days of arson, looting, and sniping, forty-three people were dead. Eventually seventeen thousand law-enforcement officials were deployed to put down the violence, including the National Guard and the elite 101st Airborne (the same military unit that had been dispatched to calm white-supremacist rioting when Little Rock, Arkansas, desegregated its public schools). Unrest spread to black neighborhoods throughout the country. Including Detroit and Newark, altogether 103 riots broke out throughout the United States that July—in cities as large as Cleveland, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in middle-sized places such as Fresno, California, and South Bend, Indiana; and even in small towns such as Nyack, New York; Plainfield, New Jersey; and Waterloo, Iowa.
The “long hot summers” of the 1960s came at a moment in American history when America’s deep racial divide seemed—finally—to have been bridged. If Martin Luther King, Jr., promised that “we shall overcome,” many Americans believed that with the passage of sweeping civil rights and antipoverty laws by President Lyndon B. Johnson we had indeed overcome. For the first time since the Civil War, blacks had the full rights of citizenship. They could vote. They were part of an expanding welfare state. They had become full American citizens, unburdened by race. After decades of protest, blacks had been integrated into an ostensibly color-blind nation.
America’s color blindness was, however, a myth. Beginning with the Second World War, blacks had moved north in one of the largest mass migrations in American history. To Southern blacks, refugees from Jim Crow’s last, desperate days, places such as Detroit and Newark were “the promised land,” with plentiful jobs and decent housing, where the right to vote was protected. But the reality was much starker. Blacks were entrapped in crowded ghettos—confined to decrepit projects or to run-down apartments and rat-infested houses. Despite the rhetoric of full equality, they were excluded from large sectors of the economy. Black unem...
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