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Scholarly concern with riots and crowd behavior dates back to some of the earliest theorists who can be called social scientists. Gustave Le Bon (1841–1931), often credited as the most important early writer on crowd behavior, published The Crowd at the end of the nineteenth century, a book that influenced thinking about temporary assemblies of people for decades after. Le Bon and other important crowd theorists, such as Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), viewed crowds as crazed, criminal, unanimous masses of anonymous individuals who had ceded psychological control of themselves to the group mind and whose behavior was being directly controlled by the mob. Although this view of the crowd has been almost completely debunked in later empirical work, it is important not only because it had a decisive influence on the development of social psychology and sociology, but because the notion of mob psychology still lives on in the popular mind and the media. In particular, when serious rioting occurs, it is inevitable that commentators will draw on LeBonian notions to characterize both what happened and those who participated. But, in fact, riots in general, and race riots even more so, are expressive incidents in which actors have a large variety of motives for participating. They also make purposeful choices about their own behavior, and although some coordination of activity occurs, crowd members actually engage in very heterogeneous behaviors.
What Is a Race Riot?
Defining race riots is a two-step process. First, we must come to an understanding of what constitutes a riot and then, among those events that qualify, decide which are fundamentally racial in character. One can easily imagine an event that would qualify as a race riot: hundreds of people in a pitched battle on the streets of a large city, where one racial group hurls rocks, bottles, and epithets at the other, and then receives an in-kind response. Such prototypical visions of race riots are straightforward. The edges of the concept, however, are more difficult to establish.
One tricky issue is the number of people involved. Rioting is undoubtedly a collective phenomenon—a single person cannot riot. But how many people are necessary before we can call the event a riot? Indeed social scientists have often faced this issue, and lacking a reason to use a particular threshold, have instead decided to call the events in question collective violence or civil disorders— and, in fact, many of the events analyzed in such studies would not be recognized as riots by most social scientists. Most social scientific studies of phenomena that are called riots appear to involve a minimum of thirty to fifty people, even if the popular conception of a riot is something of a much grander scale.
A second defining characteristic of a riot is violence. Protest marches, confrontations between two racial groups, or even face-offs between citizens and police cannot be called riots unless some kind of physical violence transpires. Definitions of riots and of the broader category of collective violence almost always include the requirement that someone is injured or significant property damage occurs before the event can be counted. Sometimes, however, it is only necessary that such damage or injury be attempted, rather than accomplished. If a large crowd of protestors pelts the police with stones and refuse, but the police are adequately protected with riot gear so as to prevent any injury, scholars would still judge that a riot has occurred.
Third, riots must have a significant period of duration. A clash of only a few moments that is immediately broken up by authorities is rarely considered a riot. And finally, riots involve a temporary breaking away from the participants’ normal routines in a way that is not typically sanctioned by authorities or prevailing social norms. Rioting is not everyday behavior and also must be distinguished from sanctioned violence like an American football game or the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Even having drawn a boundary about what social scientists have considered to be riots, it is still important to recognize the diversity within the category. Consider the differences among these subtypes of riots, all of which meet the demands of the core definition: sports celebration riots that often occur after championship games; genocidal ethnic purges such as those that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990s; food riots in Latin America; machine-breaking raids in nineteenth-century Britain; brawls among soccer fans throughout Europe in the 1980s and 1990s; lynch mobs in the southern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; immigrant protests of French police brutality that resulted in thousands of torched automobiles; and the urban riots of the 1960s that occurred throughout the United States.
Among these many forms of rioting, a race riot occurs when a racial grievance is expressed or is apparent through the behavior of the rioters. For example, if African American riot participants selectively loot white-owned stores, then a racial riot has occurred. If white Klansmen attack a peaceful African American civil rights rally, if an African American crowd burns down a government building in reaction to reports of white police brutality, or if Mexican Americans and African Americans clash on the border of their neighborhoods, causing deaths among one or both groups, then a racial riot has occurred. All of these scenarios were repeated throughout the 1960s in the United States.
What Causes Race Riots?
Although the U.S. urban riots of the 1960s dominate both the popular vision of race rioting and the scholarly literature on the subject, it is far from the only race rioting in the history of the United States. U.S. race riots can be thought of as belonging to one of two categories. The first are those typified by the Watts riot of 1965 (in Los Angeles, California); the Newark, New Jersey, riot of 1967; the Detroit, Michigan, riot of 1967; and the Washington, D.C., riot of 1968. These riots were most typically sparked by a confrontation between local police and African American residents of poor inner-city neighborhoods. In the most severe of these riots, the action lasted for several days and millions of dollars of property damage occurred before the authorities reasserted control of the riot areas. The activity of rioters was most often directed at damaging stores and government property, rather than attacking members of another racial group. Injuries and a few deaths did occur, but these were mainly the result of police attempts to contain and extinguish the riot. Imitative events followed in the wake of large riots and spread unrest across the region and the nation. And although there was a major concentration of these events during the 1960s, similar riots have since occurred throughout the United States and in urban environments in other countries.
Before the 1960s, the dominant kind of racial collective violence did not involve minority attacks on symbols of economic and political exploitation. Rather, they involved majority group members attacking minorities who had made gains in competition over occupational and residential turf. Here the dominant character of the conflict was white groups physically attacking members of minority groups, and destroying their property as well. For example, thousands of whites gathered in the “five points” area of downtown Atlanta in September of 1906 and ended up murdering dozens of blacks. Other such riots occurred throughout the United States, including both southern and northern cities. In the “Red Summer” of 1919, a devastating string of riots crossed the United States, killing many whites and blacks in cities such as Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Omaha. Although in extreme cases the authorities had to step in to quell the violence, more often than not, the attacks were carried out with the approval, if not the active participation, of the police.
For both of these types of race riots, economic conditions have been at the center of theorizing about their causes. In the case of the 1960s, sociologists hypothesized that unemployment and poverty were root causes of the dissatisfaction that African Americans seemed to be expressing through the riots. In this view, African Americans were not receiving their fair share of the American dream, and in many cases, they were struggling to even survive. Lacking the political access to address their problems through institutional means, they turned to the streets in order to draw needed attention to their problems. Although this argument seemed more than plausible, the research has been considerably less than definitive. Studies attempting to explain why riots broke out in some cities but not others, and why riots in some locations were more severe than others, have had a hard time connecting rioting to poor economic conditions. Closely related ideas about insufficient social services, population changes, and political access to the city government have not been any more robust than the core economic indicators.
Competition notions, however, have had more success in predicting both kinds of rioting. Here, the idea is that competition over scarce resources (jobs and coveted residential areas) produce conflict—especially when one group begins to make gains perceived to be at the expense of another. The group that is losing ground is therefore motivated to fight back and to punish those who seem to be threatening its position. In the end though, economic conditions are not strong predictors of racial rioting. Economic hardship may very well be a prerequisite for rioting, but it is not sufficient to ignite the flames of rioting itself. Other conditions, such as poor relations between the police and the community, must provide a catalyst in areas where economic conditions have created fertile ground for unrest.
- Feagin, Joe R., and Harlan Hahn. 1973. Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of Violence in American Cities. New York: Macmillan.
- Le Bon, Gustave.  1952. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: Ernest Benn.
- McPhail, Clark. 1991. The Myth of the Madding Crowd. New York: de Gruyter.
- McPhail, Clark. 1994. Presidential Address—The Dark Side of Purpose: Individual and Collective Violence in Riots. The Sociological Quarterly 35: 1–32.
- National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Bantam.
- Olzak, Susan. 1992. The Dynamics of Ethnic Competition and Conflict. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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