The American understanding of riots and racial violence was shaped a half-century ago, during the insurrections of the 1960s.
To judge by the responses to the current rioting in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, little has changed since then. After riots have wrought their physical and psychic damage, some invariably declare that the unrest was constructive. The virtue of disruption, academics and observers argue, is that it gives African Americans a crisis with which to bargain. But after 50 years, what has this bargain achieved, except to cultivate a community that excels in resentment?
It’s not just African Americans who are stuck in the '60s. Reporters are still seeking out the Kerner Commission’s white racists, who are ultimately to blame for all racial problems. Historians and sociologists are offering structural explanations for the violence; whites in general, and small businesses in particular, have little to say but simply flee to safer climes.
In Ferguson, after a week of unrest that included looting and rioting, we know very little about the incident that resulted in Michael Brown’s death, despite the release of the first pathology report. The officer involved is in seclusion and has given no public statements. The Grand Jury, should one be convened, will likely have only a vague picture of what happened.
In Ferguson, the media’s preferred narrative—a “gentle giant” of a young black man gunned down for no reason by a racist cop—was short-circuited by a videotape, taken minutes before his death, depicting Michael Brown strong-arming a diminutive store clerk who’d caught him stealing a box of cigarillos. Deflated, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer described the video as a “smear.” Does he think the tape should have been suppressed? His CNN colleague Jake Tapper subjected the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, to a vigorous grilling. Tapper suggested that Nixon had some atoning to do for his supposedly racist past before he could be relied on to take action in Ferguson.
Historian Colin Gordon has revived the old chestnut that the rioting owes to the failure of big cities to incorporate suburbs. The problem, argues Gordon, is that small towns and cities compete with each other to attract businesses. If they had higher taxes, it’s implied, they could afford to spend more on social services. But does anyone think that Ferguson would be better off incorporated into a dysfunctional St. Louis? The vast city of Los Angeles, with its 469 square miles (compared with St. Louis’s 69) saw two of the most violent “rebellions” of the last 50 years. What, in Gordon’s estimation, accounts for that?
Riots bring but one certainty — enormous economic and social costs. Businesses flee, taking jobs and tax revenues with them. Home values decline for all races, but particularly for blacks. Insurance costs rise and civic morale collapses. The black and white middle classes move out. Despite its busy port and enormous geographic assets, Newark, N.J., has never fully recovered from its 1967 riot. This year, Newark elected as its mayor Ras Baraka, the son and political heir of Amiri Baraka—the intellectual inspiration for the 1967 unrest.
The grotesque pantomime of repression and redemption, riots and never-quite-achieved rewards, plays out time and again. The chaos in Ferguson is but the latest episode of this long, sad drama of resentment and revenge. The drama persists in part because so many journalists and academics, not to mention black activists, have so much invested in it. It’s the conceptual air that they breathe. Sadly, to paraphrase the philosopher Ernest Gellner, some failed practices cannot be the subject of reconsideration, because they already shape the way we think.
No doubt little will be learned from Ferguson. No doubt there will be more Fergusons.Fred Siegel is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and author of "The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class." A version of this piece originally appeared on City Journal's website.