Why Aren’t U.S. Cities Burning?

Why Aren’t U.S. Cities Burning?

The question is puzzling because many of the conditions thought to have precipitated the eruption of civil violence in the 1960s either persist or have grown worse.

Detroit streets, late July 1967

The summer of 2007 marks the fortieth anniversary of America’s worst season of urban disorder. The most famous riots happened in Newark and Detroit. But “nearly 150 cities reported disorders in Negro—and in some instances Puerto Rican—neighborhoods,” reported the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Today, the most intriguing question is not why the riots occurred but why they have not recurred. With the exception of Liberty City, Miami, in 1980, and South-central Los Angeles in 1992, American cities have not burned since the early 1970s. Even the botched response to Hurricane Katrina did not provoke civil violence.

The question becomes all the more intriguing in light of October 2005, when riots erupted in at least three hundred cities and towns across France. They were the worst France had experienced since 1968. Mass joblessness, isolation in ethnic ghettos, and cultural discrimination fueled anger at the police, which erupted after two teenagers of North African and Malian origins were electrocuted as they climbed a fence to escape what they believed to be police pursuit.

As in France, immigrants are transforming U.S. cities, which, already highly segregated by race, contain zones of exclusion characterized by poverty and joblessness. But American cities do not burn. Urban violence has not disappeared; it has been transformed. Anger and frustration turn inward, exploding in gang warfare, homicide, and random killing in drive-by shootings. But civil violence—burning, looting, sniping at police—actions aimed largely at symbols and agents of exclusion and exploitation remain part of urban history, not live possibilities in the urban present. What accounts for the absence of civil violence on American streets?

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, co-authored with Mark J. Stern, is One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). This article is based on the author’s presidential address to the Urban History Association in January 2007. A much longer and fully documented version will appear in the Journal of Urban History (January 2008).

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