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Saturday, May 4, 2019

May 4-5, 2019: Rodney King in Context: “Race Riots”

[On April 29th, 1992, civil unrest erupted in Los Angeles after the four officers who had beaten Rodney King on video were acquitted on all charges. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied King himself and other contexts for and representations of the LA riots, leading up to this special weekend post on the narrative of “race riots” itself.]
On remembering riots specifically while still pushing back on the whole concept.
In one of my earliest pieces of online public scholarship (at least outside of the space of this blog), I wrote for Talking Points Memo in the fall of 2014 about the complex, contested, and highly constructed history of the phrase “race riots.” As I noted there, the phrase was developed (at least in an American context) in response to a series of 19th century riots that did indeed tend to feature rioters of a particular race; it just so happened that the rioting race in virtually every case was not African Americans (as the phrase’s always implied and often quite explicit narrative went) but white supremacists. Moreover, these white supremacist mobs were generally rioting in purposeful and planned attempts to attack and destroy African American communities (or other communities of color, such as the Mexican and Filipino American zoot suiters of the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots about which I wrote in Tuesday’s post), which means that these were race riots in terms of their goals just as much as their demographics. So “race riot” would be on multiple levels an accurate phrase to use, if it weren’t, y’know, an entirely inaccurate phrase in the ways it has been used.
Beginning in particular with riots like those in Los Angeles, Detroit, and many other cities in the mid- to late-1960s, however, it is important to note that the demographics did change. The majority of the rioters in these cases were generally African Americans (and/or other Americans of color, but principally African Americans), a trend that certainly remained the case in the Rodney King riots of 1992 among other late 20th century histories. As the King riots illustrate quite potently, each of these situations had specific, nuanced, and multi-layered causes and contexts, and it is only by engaging with the distinct riots individually and specifically—including the realities of their demographics, among many other elements—that we can start to recognize, analyze, and hopefully learn from those details. Which is to say, to pretend that the 1992 riots were the same in any substantive way as (for example) the 1898 Wilmington (North Carolina) one wouldn’t just comprise a blatant misrepresentation of the details of each; it would also make it nearly impossible to analyze the 1992 riots (or 1898, or any other, but this week’s series has focused on 1992) successfully and productively. So my first paragraph’s (and prior post’s) main point might feel less relevant to these late 20th century histories.
I would say the opposite, though. For one thing, the fact that the specifics of these late 20th century riots differed in many ways from earlier ones makes the precise point that using a sweeping phrase like “race riots” to describe them all (or any one of them) is at best woefully oversimplified and in many ways entirely inaccurate. And for another, much more complex but even more important thing, the earlier white supremacist riots had a great deal to do with creating the conditions and contexts that contributed to the late 20th century riots. To cite two interconnected examples: Southern white supremacist riots like Wilmington forced many African Americans to migrate to the North, Midwest, and West; and then white supremacist riots in those cities pushed the expanding African American communities into highly segregated and disadvantaged areas within those cities. Miscategorizing the earlier riots as “race riots” perpetrates further historical injustices and violences that not only echo and extend the foundational ones, but make it that much more difficult to understand and analyze 20th (and unfolding 21st) century histories and stories. So let’s just stop using the phrase “race riots,” shall we?
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

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