Urban Riots Research Paper

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A riot happens whenever a crowd engages in collective violence such as beatings, murder, looting, or arson. Riots are far more likely to occur in urban than in rural areas because the density of population increases the supply of potential participants, as well as targets of attack. The state’s role in a riot ordinarily is to squash it using police or military force, but in some instances the police or government officials may provoke a riot for political ends. Generally, countries have laws against rioting, as well as rules of engagement that govern the use of deadly force to quell a disturbance. A riot may spread through media reports or if rioters contact their compatriots in other cities, urging them to start a disturbance. The odds of rioting may be increased or decreased by nature: A hot summer night may cause tempers to flare, whereas a thunderstorm may disperse a crowd otherwise bent on mayhem.

Riots have underlying and proximate causes. The underlying causes are grievances, real or perceived, that rioters hold against social or political institutions, usually (but not always) where the riot occurs; or against other groups of people on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds. The proximate cause can almost always be identified after the fact—an incident of police brutality or a racial, ethnic, or religious slur. Riots may have economic, social, or political consequences. A riot of a majority against a minority may cause the latter to move away from particular neighborhoods in a city or to different cities. A riot may change expectations of future economic growth in a city, causing capital to be allocated elsewhere.

Urban riots have been widespread throughout modern history and across countries. Riots over food shortages were common in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Riots fueled by religious conflict have occurred quite regularly in the Middle East, India, and the Far East. As discussed below, racial rioting erupted at unprecedented levels in the United States in the 1960s. In the 1980s urban riots broke out in England. In the early twenty-first century, rioting by disaffected minority youth was particularly violent in suburban areas of French cities.

Governments react to the aftermath of riots in diverse ways. A dictator may react by repressing the dissenting minority harshly, although this may entail a subsequent risk of revolution. In democracies rioting may also influence the course of national politics by enhancing the political clout of politicians on the left or right. In the United States, for example, Spiro Agnew, a conservative Republican from the state of Maryland, came to prominence on a “law and order” platform in the aftermath of riots in Baltimore in the 1960s. Democratic governments may also react by creating special commissions to study the causes of the rioting such as the famous Kerner Commission Report (Kerner et. al. 1968), which studied the causes of the 1960s riots in the United States. Ameliorative policies may be adopted in the hope of stemming future violence. Richard Nixon’s so-called “Black Capitalism” agenda (Weems and Randolph 2001) and expansion of affirmative action in the early 1970s can be seen in this light.

1960s Riots: The United States

The United States possesses a long, terrible history of racial rioting. Until World War II, the vast majority of urban riots involved white-on-black violence. Perhaps the most infamous example during the nineteenth century was the 1863 riot in New York City, during which immigrants angry over the Civil War draft in the North attacked and killed scores of African Americans. As African Americans left the rural South and moved to Northern cities they increasingly competed with whites for housing and jobs. Racial tension sometimes escalated into white-on-black riots such as those in St. Louis and Chicago in 1919. In 1943 riots broke out in Newark and Detroit that in character bear a resemblance to those that occurred in the 1960s, including clashes between African Americans and police, as well as looting and arson of businesses in African American neighborhoods. Even when viewed against the backdrop of the 1940s riots, those occurring in the 1960s were without historical precedent. From the early 1960s through the early 1970s, hundreds of riots originating in African American neighborhoods broke out in American cities. Since the 1960s the United States has not been completely immune to racial riots, as examples in Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992), Cincinnati (2001), and Benton Harbor, Michigan (2003), attest.

The standard academic definition of a 1960s race-related riot, as originally put forth by Spilerman (1970, 1971), was a “spontaneous” occurrence with a minimum of thirty participants, some black, that resulted in violent outcomes, such as arson, looting, or death. With this definition in mind, social scientists have collected information on the location, timing, and severity of the 1960s riots. Currently, the most comprehensive data set is that collected by Carter (1986), which covers the period 1964 to 1971 and includes the dates and locations of more than 700 civil disturbances, as well as numbers of deaths, injuries, arrests, and occurrences of arson. The peak years of riot activity were 1967 to 1969, especially 1968 in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Most riots were not severe, in the sense of widespread loss of life or property destruction, but a small number were extraordinarily violent. By far the deadliest riots were those in Detroit in July 1967 (43 deaths), Los Angeles in August 1965 (34 deaths), and Newark in July 1967 (24 deaths).

Social scientists have long tried to identify city-level factors associated with the incidence and severity of the 1960s riots. In general, after accounting for each city’s black population size in 1960 and for region, little or no variation in incidence and severity can be accounted for by pre-riot city-level measures of African Americans’ absolute or relative (black-to-white) economic status. The point is not that the 1960s riots had no underlying causes but rather, if the black population in a given city was of a sufficient size, a riot could happen at almost any time in the mid-to-late 1960s if there was an appropriate spark. Most sparks were local—for example, in the Watts, Los Angeles, riot in 1965, the arrest of an intoxicated black motorist led to a wider altercation with neighborhood residents and eventually a huge riot. By contrast, the King assassination was a national spark that had the potential to incite rioting across the country.

The King riots figure importantly in two recent studies of the economic impact of the 1960s riots in urban areas (Collins and Margo 2004a, 2004b; King 2003). In the several weeks following that assassination, more than 100 riots erupted. However, riots did not occur everywhere, and a key factor in determining the likelihood and severity of a post-King riot was the level of rainfall. A high level of rainfall in April 1968 significantly reduced rioting and is a source of exogenous variation across cities. Using predicted severity based on rainfall, Collins and Margo show that the various economic outcomes for African Americans—for example, median household income, employment rates, and the value of owner-occupied housing—declined sharply between 1960 and 1970 in cities that experienced severe riots. Moreover, these declines persisted and in some cases worsened in the 1970s. Collins and Smith (2007) extend the cross-city analysis to a case study of Cleveland, showing that black neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the rioting experienced economically significant and persistent declines in property values and population that were not continuations of trends in place prior to the violence.

The French Riots Of 2005

In the United States the poor tend to live in the central cities of metropolitan areas, but in France (as in other western European countries) the poor are concentrated in suburban rings around a wealthy core. Since the 1970s French suburbs have been increasingly populated by immigrants from North Africa (the Maghreb), sub-Saharan West Africa, and the French West Indies. Most immigrants live in public housing built in the 1950s and 1960s. Their list of grievances is long—high unemployment, racism, police brutality, and inadequate educational opportunities.

In the fall of 2005, serious rioting broke out in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois in suburban Paris. The spark that caused the riot was the accidental electrocution of two minority youths who were fleeing the police. News of the electrocution spread quickly, and rioting commenced. The principal form of violence was arson, primarily directed against automobiles, but also some schools, day care centers, and businesses. As news of the violence was broadcast on French television (indeed, throughout the world) and by the Parisian rioters using the Internet and other electronic media, rioting spread to the suburban peripheries of other French cities. Nationwide, the rioting lasted for two weeks before finally petering out. On the first anniversary of the riots there were sporadic outbreaks of violence, but no full-scale reoccurrence of rioting.


  1. Carter, Gregg Lee. 1986. The 1960s Black Riots Revisited: City Level Explanations of Their Severity. Sociological Inquiry 56: 210–228.
  2. Collins, William J., and Robert A. Margo. 2004a. The Economic Aftermath of the 1960s Riots in American Cities: Evidence from Property Values. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 10493, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Collins, William J., and Robert A. Margo. 2004b. The Labor Market Effects of the 1960s Riots. In Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2004, eds. W. G. Gale and J. R. Pack, 1–46. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
  4. Collins, William J., and Fred H. Smith. 2006. A Neighborhood Level View of Riots, Property Values, and Population Loss: Cleveland, 1950–1980. Explorations in Economic History http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WFJ-4M3RP9M-3/2/574f2d33a6df4d93e500e0dd63fc1317.
  5. Kerner, Otto, et al. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: New York Times Company.
  6. King, Mary C. 2003. “Race Riots” and Black Economic Progress. Review of Black Political Economy 30 (4): 51–56.
  7. Spilerman, Seymour. 1970. The Causes of Racial Disturbances: A Comparison of Alternative Explanations. American Sociological Review 35 (4): 627–649.
  8. Spilerman, Seymour. 1971. The Causes of Racial Disturbances: Test of an Explanation. American Sociological Review 36 (3): 427–442.
  9. Weems, Robert E., Jr., and Lewis A. Randolph. 2001. The Ideological Origins of Richard M. Nixon’s “Black Capitalism” Initiative. Review of Black Political Economy 29: 49–61.

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