September 03, 2015

Black and White Understandings of Urban Uprising

120 Howell_ABy Aaron J. Howell

Assistant Professor of Sociology SUNY-Farmingdale

Racial politics have come to the forefront of political and social debates in the United States (U.S.) over the last year. The Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray (just to name a few) cases have caused many communities to rethink police-community relations and begin to have some honest conversations about race.

These conversations have created some positive momentum. For example, the conversations are actually happening! Racial inequality has been a durable condition of U.S. society for its entire history, yet conversations, especially interracial ones, simply do not happen enough.

Segregation, both residential and social, results in whites and non-whites largely growing up, being shaped by, and interacting with people who share their racial background. A long tradition of social psychological research, much of it rooted in the work of Herbert Blumer and Hubert Blalock, demonstrates that the most effective way that prejudicial or irrational opinions of other groups persist is through social segregation.

Put simply, interacting with members of other racial groups in your neighborhood or school makes it more likely that stereotypes are rejected and that you will begin to appreciate the vast within-group variation in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of members of racial groups (or any type of group for that matter). 

While race is being openly discussed more, a  Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death and the civil unrest that followed illustrated the stark white and black difference of opinion. The poll was conducted in late April, as the Baltimore unrest was peaking. Among other questions, it asked 508 U.S. adults what explained the unrest in Baltimore.

If you turned on or read any national news outlet you certainly were first met with images of the violence, although most of the protest was non-violent. The combination of outsized national media focus on the violence with a long history of racially segregated physical and social space resulted in white and black survey respondents viewing the same situations in very different ways.

The majority of whites polled felt the unrest in Baltimore was the result of people seeking to loot or engage in violence, while the majority of African Americans indicated that historical conflict between black communities and the police was to blame.

These sets of explanations are even more starkly different when you consider the implications of each statement. Explaining the unrest as part of historical conflict or as part of a social problem implies that the situation deserves and needs political, economic, and social intervention. It does not excuse violence, but it certainly makes it more understandable compared to the dominant white response, which is essentially a victim blaming explanation. If civil unrest in Baltimore is understood as the result of individual thrill-seeking behavior or individuals sensing an opportunity to rob and steal, then there is no political, economic, or social intervention necessary, other than police intervention, ironically which most African Americans identify as the source of the problem.

Given the fundamental difference of opinion between white and black respondents, how might sociology help us understand the situation?

The sociological perspective would emphasize the class conditions of existence that white and black respondents were/are likely to experience in their lives. Class conditions provide us access to jobs, schools, and relationships, but they also provide us access to ideas and explanations of reality that we internalize throughout our socialization.

Our own lived experience shapes the way we think, emphasizing some ideas and making other realities nearly invisible. Racial segregation, which remains a prominent feature of U.S. life, creates conditions through which the reality of life for members of other groups is rendered nearly invisible, or only accessible through the distortions of mass media.

Sociologists have long analyzed the sort of civil unrest that has occurred over the last year, concluding that we might be better served in explaining the unrest from a power and oppression framework, rather than one that relies on victim blaming. Unrest, such as that in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere has been an enduring feature of American urban life. Given its enduring character, one must ask why the persistence? 

Most famously, this question was taken up by Joe Feagin and Harlan Hahn in a book titled Ghetto Revolts which examines urban unrest during the 1960s and early 1970s. They conclude that urban unrest is not a product of the allure of wild rioting, but rather a result of long term experience with and perceptions of racial discrimination that result in civil unrest when an event occurs that highlights historic conditions of disadvantage.

Given the continuing reality of racial inequality and the similarity that recent uprisings have with those more than half a century ago, it stands to reason that what we are experiencing is a continuation of this racial history, not simply the bad behavior of irrational people. Without interventions that confront the social problem at hand, race and class oppression, it is unfortunately likely that another urban uprising will occur.


I love how you highlight the positive side of the tragic events we have recently seen.I work for Starbucks and the corporation teamed up with USA Today to create the campaign "Race Together." This was specifically designed to start conversations about racial inequality. The backlash it received was unreal. People were so angry about the fact that Starbucks was even encouraging such behavior. It was truly ironic how customers and shareholders argued that racial inequaltiy did not need to be discussed. In my opinon only someone who has never experienced it would beileve that.

This was specifically designed to start conversations about racial inequality. The backlash it received was unreal. People were so angry about the fact that Starbucks was even encouraging such behavior. It was truly ironic how customers and shareholders argued that racial inequaltiy did not need to be discussed.

I would like to address the poll for the reason of the unrest in Baltimore city doing the Freddie Gray incident. The poll states that major of whites believe Baltimore unrest was because people were looting and being violence. I disagree but the looting and the violence did play a major part in the unrest of Baltimore. For example it force the mayor to enforce a curfew for the whole city. some people were just looting for entertainment not necessarily for justice if you will. It was something to do for fun. The major of blacks believe the unrest in Baltimore steam form conflicts with the police. I disagree but it did play a serious role. People are tired of the police getting away with murder lithely. I disagree with the major whites view and the major black view because there is a deeper problem. When I think about this incident I think about the Daniel Shays rebellion back in 1787, The Shay's rebellion exposed the Government by showing how weak it was. That's what the Freddie Gray incident did for the black community it has made us be more aware politically. So the police or anyone can't just come in and do what they want. we were not Focusing enough on protecting our community politically. Now we have to do something like the government did after the Shay rebellion. So this never happens again.

Posted by: Darryl Primeaux |


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