- Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles
Race, Space, and Riots is, according to the author, a sequel to her ambitious study New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles: America's Global Cities (1999), published by University of Minnesota Press. In her new book, urban sociologist Janet L. Abu-Lughod focuses more specifically on questions of race and racial violence in the same three cities. Her study asks why race relations in three of the largest U. S. metropolises have developed so differently and seeks answers in the "historical, geographical/spatial, and political characteristics of the cities themselves" (vii). She selects moments of mass public racial violence—commonly known as "race riots"—to investigate because these moments press at the seams of our "veneers of civility" and expose as illusions the discourses of progressive continuity, of communal and social harmony, and of national unity. By using the method of controlled comparison and focusing principally on six major race riots in the twentieth century, Abu-Lughod hopes to achieve three primary objectives: to highlight the changes in urban race relations over time due to migration, shifting labor demands, segregation in housing, and the civil rights movement; to explain the differences in riots by examining the cities' varying demographic compositions, the spatial distributions of minority groups within the cities, and the patterns and extent of racial segregation; and finally to demonstrate how the cities' local governments and police forces have reacted in ways that have either escalated or curbed the violence. Her larger goals are to deepen our understanding of racial and ethnic relations in contemporary urban environments and to offer suggestions to ameliorate current conditions for minorities who continue to suffer under exclusionary and oppressive political machines.
There are two chapters for each of the three cities under discussion, and for the most part they are organized chronologically. The "border wars" of Chicago in the South Side 1919 and again in the West Side 1968, according to Abu-Lughod, were fueled by labor changes, increased black militancy, and economic downturns. Overly zealous police action, as well as incompetent and racist government responses, brought the violence to the deadly heights it reached in both cases. Abu-Lughod concludes that the riots effected little if any positive change. Instead, they served to undergird the "territories and terms of racial apartheid" in the city. The New York riots in 1935, 1943, and 1964 were shorter in duration and less violent. Often sparked by police action against a minority civilian, the riots generated responses from city and state governments that helped prevent escalation. The fact that minorities were scattered across all five boroughs, and that New York's public transportation system [End Page 213] can be shut down to cordon off areas of the city also played significant roles in reducing the duration and intensity of the riots. In Los Angeles, the 1965 Watts riot and the 1992 South Central riot, as in New York, both began as a result of some sort of police action. However, the complete breakdown of governmental accountability, the inadequate and irresponsible police response, and the "drive-out" nature of the city itself contributed to the extremity of the violence that was allowed to rage out of control for days.
In each of the three urban centers, economic oppression, poor living conditions, and high unemployment for minorities were underlying causes of the riots that were often sparked by police action. Abu-Lughod also finds that spatial contours of the cities, the distribution of minorities, and the reaction of government and police played key roles in determining the extent and duration of the violence. Also of import in each case were the relationships between whites and other racial or ethnic groups, whether African American, Puerto Rican, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Jewish, or Irish. In all cases, too, unresolved tensions from one riot laid the groundwork for subsequent moments of violence. Highlighting the ways that moments of mass public racial violence are connected across time in a given city (rather than...