Structures, Institutions and History
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In much of the social science literature riots are simultaneously seen as high-profile
examples of inter-ethnic tension but also as curiously impotent-- as having little or no effect in the
longer run. They are often considered significant only because they dramatically illustrate racial
tensions in the United States. I argue, however, that in the right circumstances, ethnic
disturbances can have significant long term effects. We see riots cluster around particular time
periods-- in particular in the period from 1917 to 1921 and from 1980 to 1993-- when the rules of
race relations are in flux. Riots, in turn, help shape new rules of race relations.
Riot outcomes in general have fallen below the radar of political scientists because we
tend to focus on the governmental response to the riots, and this response is generally
acknowledged to be ineffectual. But the response to riots is often non- governmental, and,
because these riots are primarily local events, the initial response is largely local as well. Federal
intervention may occur only further downstream. In this view, racial and ethnic re-negotiation
takes place first at the local level and then at the national level. The predominant image of
government‟s role in race relations--formed in the context of the 1960s, when states and localities
were laggards being coerced by the federal government‟s executive, legislative and judicial
branches-- is misleading. This image, in the broader sweep of the 20th century, is the exception
rather than the rule. Federal agencies rarely create any program ex nihilo -- they scavenge among
state and local programs for examples of what they want, incorporating local initiatives into
federal agendas. Federal intervention is critical-- but largely because it reinforces certain local
alternatives at the expense of others.
This paper demonstrates two things: that at certain historical moments like those of
1917-1921, inter-racial disturbances in the United States shared common structural conditions
(and are profitably analyzed as part of a common social process), and second, that these riots
were „critical junctures‟-- not because of the events themselves, but because they accelerated
institutional shifts, ushering in an era of racial containment. I‟ll close by briefly indicating some
parallels and differences with contemporary inter-ethnic disturbances.
Civil Disturbances 1917-1921
Between 1917 and 1921 there were nine major urban civil disturbances in the United
States, punctuating the background hum of more localized events--the lynchings, firebombings
and assaults--that were the basic vocabulary of inter-racial violence at the time.1 It should be
understood that the outbreaks of these anti-black riots were symptomatic of rising racism in both
DuBois gives a count of 26 cities experiencing riots in the summer of 1919, but gives no details (DuBois
North and South. Unlike much of the violence of the late 19th century, which was directed at
immigrants as well as blacks, by the early 20th century, violence was primarily targeted at
African-Americans. Some scholars have suggested that anti-immigrant sentiment in this period
waned as immigrants made the transition from „other‟ to „white,‟ and moreover, that a part of
„becoming white‟ was taking part in violence against black Americans.2
List of Cases
East St. Louis, Illinois July 2, 1917
Houston, Texas August 23, 1917
Charleston, South Carolina May 10, 1919
Washington, D.C. July 19, 1919
Chicago, Illinois July 27, 1919
Knoxville, TN August 30, 1919
Omaha, Nebraska September 28, 1919
Elaine, Arkansas October 1, 1919
Tulsa, Oklahoma May 30, 1921
These disturbances have not exactly been forgotten, but not much has been made of them
either. They are recounted as part of the broader story of white racism and recalcitrance against
blacks in the United States, but not as being particularly significant in and of themselves. When
these riots have been remembered, it has usually been as a string of case studies, each illustrating
a unique confluence of events, albeit resulting in similar anti-black violence. This is somewhat
understandable. Apart from their timing, the nine civil disturbances between 1917 and 1921
seem, on the face of it, to have little in common. They are widely dispersed geographically, some
in the midwest, some in the west, the south or border states. The historical accounts have
gravitated toward the particularities of the immediate events surrounding the disturbances. For
example, Williams and Willliams, who chronicle several of the disturbances (Knoxville, Elaine
AK, Tulsa and Chicago) in their Anatomy of Four Race Riots (1972), proceed to dissect these in
minute hour-by-hour detail, without providing any real explanation of why these riots took place
Olzak 1991. But see Ignatief as well. No doubt the passage of anti-immigrant legislation and the tapering off of
immigration to the United States after 1917 also contributed to the easing of anti-immigrant tensions.
when and where they did. Elsewhere, we learn, for instance, that the riot in Elaine began over a
share-cropping dispute, that Tulsa‟s began with a gathering outside the courthouse following
arrest of an alleged black rapist, that Chicago‟s 1919 riot began after the drowning of a black boy
at an all-white beach on Lake Michigan. D.C.‟s riot began after the newspapers began printing
lurid stories on black crime, and Atlanta‟s followed clashes by white sailors and demobilized
black soldiers on leave (Shapiro 1988).
It‟s not that these histories aren‟t interesting. These were, after all, some of the bloodiest
riots in American history-- 38 people died in the Chicago riots alone (23 blacks and 15 whites)
and more than 500 persons were injured. Though the riots usually began with whites targeting
blacks; blacks were hardly passive victims; there were a considerable number of deaths among
whites as well, as blacks mobilized in self-defense. Both blacks and whites used rifles, pistols,
knives, and firebombs. Both groups tested new technologies in these riots; automobiles were
used, for instance, in Washington D.C and Chicago to drive up and down streets while their
occupants fired at bystanders. In Tulsa, there were rumors of airplanes being used to track the
movement of blacks, and even to hurl down bombs. There were a lot of rumors in general: of
women and children murdered; of black rapes and white looting, of rings of black gun-smugglers
in East St. Louis and of Mexicans assisting blacks in the manufacture of bombs in Chicago
(Commission 1968: 21); and of all kinds of secret plots and conspiracies against both whites and
blacks. This all took place against a backdrop of political corruption and police incompetence; of
racist unions, and a sensationalist press.
The stories of these riots make for vivid reading, but what is strikingly absent, from a
social scientists‟ point of view, is any attempt to draw comparisons among these cities, or to
similar cities that did not experience racial disturbances. The causes of each event are seen as
essentially non-replicable-- though the results are acknowledged as playing a part in the tapestry
of unequal race relations being woven in the United States. The best accounts of the period--
many of them written about Chicago‟s 1919 race riot-- do point out structural factors underlying
the disturbances. The Chicago Commission on Race Relation‟s report The Negro in Chicago ,
published only three years after the riot, gathered extensive demographic, economic and
fieldwork data to make the argument that the riots had three main causes: the migration of blacks
from the South, the problem of housing for blacks in Chicago, and tense relations at work
(Chicago Commission 1968). This explanatory framework has been borrowed by historians to
explain the underpinnings of race relations not only in Chicago but in other cities of the time.
Accounts of Chicago (Spear 1969, Tuttle 1972, and Hirsch 1983), Detroit (Sugrue 1996),
Cleveland (Kusmer 1976) and Springfield, IL (Senechal 1990) have all borrowed from and
elaborated on the suggestions of the Chicago Commission‟s report. But while there have been a
number of excellent case histories, historians have not attempted a comparative analysis of riot
antecedents. It isn‟t clear, therefore, whether the structural preconditions apply across riot cities,
or really distinguish them from non-riot cities.
There has been only one quantitative effort at analyzing possible commonalities among
the riots of the period: Lieberson and Silverman‟s 1965 study of paired cases of riot and non-riot
cities from 1913 to 1963. The study has the advantage of looking at both riot and non-riot cities
across a wider pool of cities, but is limited by its methodology, which relies on a simple
comparison across cases.3 They concluded that nothing in particular distinguished riot from non-
riot cities. Why haven‟t more of these studies been done? Part of the answer has to do with the
long shadow of urban riots in the 1960s. A lengthy list of authors tried and failed to come up
with any meaningful quantitative comparisons of underlying factors to the riots of the time.4
Their negative findings cast a pall on the use of quantitative tools to explore riots more generally.
But the other part of the answer has to do simply with the difficulty of getting adequate data to
test any hypotheses.
The data presented here were originally collected by Steven Ruggles and his
collaborators at the University of Minnesota in 1997 as part of the Integrated Public Use
Microdata Series or IPUMS. IPUMS is a database of census data from 1850 to the present
(Ruggles and Sobek 1997). The data is a random sampling of census records, not the complete
census, but it‟s the only machine-readable collection of census material that is coded to allow
comparison across years. For the 1910 census, for instance, the project took a sample of one in
every two hundred and fifty records. That doesn‟t sound like much, but realize that even for the
subsample of cities over 25,000 which I focused on, there were still about 113,000 individual
records.5 For 1920, which had a random sample of one in every two hundred individuals, there
were almost 173,000 records.6
These individual records hold person and household data, including information on race,
gender, ethnicity, citizenship, (and for immigrants, year of arrival and proficiency in English),
The Lieberson and Silverman study is also flawed by comparing what I would argue are very different kinds of
riots, juxtaposing the competition-driven riots of the 1910s and 20s along with the more politicized riots of the
1960s. Janowitz (1969) pointed out this difference early on, distinguishing between what he called the “communal”
riots of the early period with the “commodity riots” of the 1960s. See also Grimshaw 1960, who hints at similar
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded, for instance: “We have been unable to identify
constant patterns in all aspects of civil disorders. We have found that they are unusual, irregular, complex and, in
the present state of knowledge, unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they do not unfold in
orderly sequences” (National Advisory Commission 1968). See also: Kelly and Isaac 1984; Eisinger 1972;
Spilerman 1976, 1971, 1970; and Bloombaum 1968. At least two authors found some evidence for structural
effects: Downes 1968; Morgan and Clark 1973. For a recent re-examination of Spilerman‟s data see Olzak,
Shanahan and McEneaney 1996; and Myers 1997.
city of residence, home ownership, occupation, education levels and literacy. By aggregating
these data to the city level, we can see if there is something particular about the socio-economic
conditions of cities that might have led to a riot outcome. These data, then, allow us to take
another look at the hypotheses generated by historians and sociologists regarding the structural
conditions underlying inter-racial disturbances.
Basically the data can be used to confirm whether the historical accounts of the urban
disturbances-- as being sparked by contestation over housing, jobs and public space between
whites and recent black migrants from the South--are correct. Three hypotheses can be tested
The first is whether it these riots were related to demographic shifts, and in particular, the
urbanization of Southern blacks, who were moving in increasing numbers into cities across the
South, North and Mid-West. Black migration from the South to the North and West had been
increasing steadily since the 1880s, but the Great Migration really began after 1910. The
migration figures tend to be a little sketchy, but between 1910 and 1920 about 500,000 or more
blacks moved out of the South, with most of the migration occurring after 1916 (thirteen southern
states had an absolute loss of black population).7 The reasons for the migration are various: the
devastation of the cotton crop in the South and resulting tensions within the sharecropping system
certainly contributed, as did the increase in black lynchings. The outbreak of war in Europe,
added to the effects of anti-immigrant legislation, meant the regular Northern labor supply was
cut off (Chicago Commission 1968: 79). After the U.S. entered the First World War, an
additional one million men were taken out of the labor force (Johnson and Campbell 1981: 71).
A wartime economy meant a tremendous demand for labor, and for blacks, a once-in-a-lifetime
opportunity.8 Employers who never would have considered blacks for semi-skilled
For estimates see Henri (1975: 51), Jones (1980: 35), Katznelson (1973: 31), Trotter (1993: 68), and Johnson and
Campbell (1981: 74). Keep in mind that this time period also saw a considerable white migration from the South
“The black migrant was motivated primarily by the desire to escape the caste-like social system of the South with
all of its economic and social manifestations. Until the war, the problem was there was no place for him to go that
would substantially change his situation, and if there had been, no realistic way for him to get there. But this
situation was changed with the sudden reversal of the supply and demand for labor in the North, which created a
place to go as well as a way to get there. The demand for labor, together with the railroad companies working
jointly with industry to provide transportation, offered black southerners a way to achieve their desire of freedom
and social advancement” (Johnson and Campbell 1981: 86).
manufacturing jobs before then began not only hiring but actively recruiting black migrants.
Within a very short period of time African-American populations in Northern and Midwestern
cities doubled, tripled and quadrupled.9
The second hypothesis is that labor competition was increasing between blacks and
whites in this period, since blacks were moving increasingly into both skilled and unskilled
positions previously occupied only by whites. This period was characterized by increasingly
bitter accusations that blacks were being recruited by Northern employers as strikebreakers. In
East St. Louis, after strikes in 1916 at meat-packing plants and in 1917 at the Aluminum Ore
Company, there was considerable resentment on the part of white workers about the hiring of
non-unionized blacks (Rudwick 1964: 18, 27; Chicago Commission 1968: 74).10 In the Chicago
Stockyards strike of 1904 and the teamsters strike of 1905 employers used nonunion black
workers as strikebreakers (Trotter 1993: 63; Spear 1969:36). 11 The fact that white immigrants
also occasionally played the role of scabs and that blacks were discouraged from joining
predominantly white unions was conveniently overlooked (Chicago Commission 1968 :
419-420; Kusmer 1976: 67).12 Susan Olzak uses time-series and event-history analysis in her
study of ethnic competition and conflict between 1877 and 1914 to reach similar conclusions.
Collecting information on inter-ethnic conflict across 77 cities, she found, in particular, that as
occupational segregation decreased and union formation accelerated, inter-ethnic conflict
increased. Increasing contact and competition in the workplace, she argued, leads to overt
conflict (Olzak 1992).
Not only was the population surge intense, but it was concentrated as well: three out of four back migrants went
to Chicago, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cleveland and Cincinnati (Jones 1980: 38) New York
City‟s black population went from 36,617 in 1890 to 60,666 in 1900; to 91,709 in 1920; to 327,706 in 1930. In
1890 Manhattan‟s population was 1/70 African American. In 1930 it was 1/9.
For an account of strike breaking in New York City; see Osofsky 1966 : 42.
Black strike breaking and its effect on white jobs was pooh-poohed by the Department of Labor in a 1919 report:
“Of course it must be admitted that any hostile attitude of labor unions is probably based upon the fear that Negro
labor may ultimately be used to batter down the standards of the labor movement and be grounded in the deduction
that if unskilled Negroes can be used to fight the organization of unskilled whites, skilled Negroes may be used to
break down the craft unions. As we have shown the number of skilled Negroes employed in the North seems as yet
to be so small that this is a groundless fear... Indeed the number of Negroes taking the place of striking whites and of
skilled white workers is so small that it can hardly be noticed. They are... largely taking the places that were left
vacant by the unskilled foreign laborers since the beginning of the war, and the new places created by the present
industrial boom. These unskilled people, whose places are now being taken by the Negro, worked under no
American standard of labor. The fear of these unskilled laborers breaking down labor standards which did not exist
is obviously largely unfounded” [see Henri 1975, note 66 quoting a report by the US Department of Labor, Division
of Negro Economics Negro Migration in 1916-1917 (WDC US Gov‟t Printing Office 1919: 135].
Only 9 AFL unions openly prohibited blacks, but many locals gave blacks second-class membership, allowed
locals to bar blacks, which many did, or allowed the segregation of blacks in “Jim Crow” locals (Kusmer 1976: 67).
The third hypothesis is that there was competition over housing and public space.13
Residents of middle and upper class neighborhoods, who had the resources to move further out to
the city‟s edge or beyond, tended to give way in the face of black middle class incursions, while
working class whites, who were irrevocably tied to their investments in their homes, were more
likely to stay and resist, if at all possible. In Cleveland, for example, historian Kenneth Kusmer
describes how the areas of black settlement were bounded in some areas by native born
settlements, in other areas by neighborhoods of Russian Jews, and elsewhere by other Central
European immigrants. As African Americans sought housing, native-born whites in adjacent
neighborhoods moved readily to outlying areas. Russian Jews, who were largely renters, moved
relatively quickly as well. It was the second-generation immigrant neighborhoods, with fewer
resources than the native born but higher rates of home ownership than Russian Jews, which held
fast and at times violently resisted black migration into their neighborhoods (Kusmer 1976: 170-
171). Immigrants in these neighborhoods, “[h]aving raised themselves above poverty, acquired a
small home (with perhaps a large mortgage as well) and attained a modest level of income....
were fearful of association with any group bearing the stigma of low status” (Kusmer 1976: 171).
There were similar processes at work in other cities: In Chicago‟s 1919 race riot, historian
Dominic Pacyga points out that more blacks were killed in Irish neighborhoods to the east of the
„black belt‟, where middle-class African Americans were competing for housing, than to the west,
where blacks crossed Polish and Italian neighborhoods on the way to work in the meat-packing
district (Pacyga 1997). As black neighbors moved in, threatening to devalue the real-estate
investments of the Irish lower-middle class, the goal became the removal of African-Americans
from the neighborhood (Pacyga 1997: 205; see also Grossman 1989: 175).
To test these hypotheses the 1910 and 1920 individual records are aggregated to the city
level, so that instead of 113,000 cases for 1910 there are 230 cases for cities having over 25,000
in population; the individual cases are likewise aggregated 1920 data. Merging the 1910 and
1920 data (dropping those cities that appear in one sample but not the other) there is a final count
of 171 cases-- cities with a population over 25,000 present in both 1910 and 1920. Out of these
171 cities, six had civil disturbances in this period--East St. Louis, Houston, Omaha, Chicago,
Knoxville and Washington D.C. (three other cases--Charleston, Tulsa, and Elaine, Arkansas--
were dropped for lack of data). The independent variables include measures of migration, labor
force participation and home ownership by race and immigrant status; the dependent variable
simply indicates a „riot/ „no riot‟ outcome. I then use a multivariate logistical regression analysis
to test which variables contribute to an outcome of „riot.‟
Tensions over housing and public space were related, of course. The 1922 Commission report notes the persistent
conflicts over parks and beaches in the city (Chicago Commission 1968: 616). Unfortunately only the housing
component can be tested using Census data.
Measures of cities‟ population, black population, and foreign-born population in 1910 are
all used as controls. The population change hypothesis is tested by measures of change in city
population, change in black population, and change in foreign-born population over the decade
1910-1920. I expected the greater the change in a city‟s population, the greater the chance of race
riot. The labor competition hypothesis is tested by change in numbers of blacks and whites
holding jobs in three occupational categories, “skilled labor,” “service jobs,” and “unskilled
labor.” I expected the greater the change in these occupational categories, the greater the chance
of riot. Finally, with housing competition, I expected that as ownership increased, so would the
chance of riot.
Logistical Regression Effects of Population Change, Labor Composition,
and Housing Ownership on Race Riots in Chicago 1910-1920
Constant -9.7995 ** 4.1210
City Population 1910 -.000047 * .0000256
Black Population 1910 .0001 .0000753
Foreign-Born Population 1910 .0000874 .0000561
Change in City Population 1910-20 .0001 * .0000788
Change in Black Population 1910-20 -.0006 .0005
Change in Foreign-Born Population 1910-20 -.0001 .0001
Change in Black Unskilled Labor .0002 .0009
Change in Blacks in Service Jobs .0027 .0019
Change in Black Skilled Labor .0066 * .0039
Change in White Unskilled Labor -.0004 .0003
Change in Whites in Service Jobs .0006 .0006
Change in White Skilled Labor -.0012 * .0006
Change in Black Ownership .0002 .0003
Change in White Ownership .0002 * .0000947
Chi Square 31.085
Degrees of Freedom 14
Most of the variables are self explanatory, except for “skilled labor”, “service jobs” and
“unskilled labor” which are listed in the chart below:
Cement and concrete finishers
Compositors and typesetters
Cranesmen, derrickmen and hoistmen
Decorators and window dressers
Electroypers and stereotypers
Excavating, grading and road machinery operators
Forgemen and hammermen
Heat treaters, annealers, temperers
Inspectors, scalers and graders, lumber
Jewelers, watchmakers, goldsmiths, and silversmiths
Job setters, metal
Linemen and servicemen, telegraph, telephone and power
Mechanics and repairmen, airplane, automobile, office machine, and railroad
Mechanics and repairmen
Millers, grain, flour, feed, etc.
Motion picture projectionists
Opticians and lens grinders and polishers
Painters, construction and maintenance
Pattern and model makers
Photoengravers and lithographers
Piano and organ tuners and repairmen
Plumbers and pipe fitters
Pressmen and plate printers, printing
Rollers and roll hands, metal
Roofers and slaters
Shoemakers and shoe repairers
Stone cutters and stone carvers
Structural metal workers
Tailors and tailoresses
Tinsmiths, coppersmiths, and sheet metal workers
Tool makers, die makers and setters
Craftsmen and kindred workers
Members of the armed services
Attendants, hospital and other institution Housekeepers and stewards, except private
Attendants, professional and personal household
service Janitors and sextons
Attendants, recreational and amusement Marshals and constables
Barbers, beauticians and manicurists Midwives
Bartenders Policemen and detectives
Boarding and lodging house keepers Practical nurses
Charwomen and cleansers Sheriffs and baliffs
Cooks, except private household Ushers, recreation and amusement
Counter and fountain workers Waiters and waitresses
Elevator operators Watchmen (crossing) and bridge tenders
Firemen, fire protection Service workers, except private household
Guards, watchmen, and doorkeepers
Fishermen and oystermen
Garage laborers, car washers and greasers
Gardeners, except farm, and groundskeepers
Longshoremen and stevedores
Lumbermen, raftsmen and woodchoppers
Some of the changes in the variables in the model are in fact significant. The
significance levels are not exactly overwhelming, but the findings do seem to provide some
support for all three hypotheses:
1) population change: holding city population, black population and foreign born
constant, we see that smaller cities were more likely to experience civil disturbances in this time
period. Change in population is significant, which bolsters the migration thesis, though black
migration is not significant.1 Basically, the greater the change in population, the more likely a
city was to experience a disturbance in the time period. Estimating from the odds ratio, for every
increase of 10,000 persons in a city‟s population, there was corresponding 1% increase in the
change of riot.
2) labor competition: the main locus of competition between blacks and whites is in the
area of skilled labor, rather than unskilled labor or service jobs. This helps confirm a version of
the labor competition thesis, with an emphasis on upwardly mobile blacks, rather than those at the
bottom rungs of the ladder, the common laborer. As black skilled labor increased, or white
skilled labor decreased, the more likely a city was to have a riot. For every increase of 10,000
black skilled laborers, there was a 6.7% increase in the chances of rioting; a corresponding
decrease in white skilled labor meant a 1.2% increase in likelihood of a disturbance.
3) housing: home ownership tests the housing competition thesis. The higher the number
of white homeowners, the greater the chances of an urban disturbance. This provides some
confirmation to the notion that it was the resistance of white homeowners to the increasing
movement of blacks into formerly all-white residential neighborhoods that helped contribute to
the civil disturbances of the period. For every 10,000 new white homeowners, there was a 2%
increase in the chances of rioting.
Part of the reason for this may be that the population measures are too imprecise. For instance, in addition to the
normal hazards of estimating population, it‟s generally acknowledged that the Census Bureau did a lousy job of
counting the black population and migration rates during this period. In addition the measure may be too blunt--
counting every ten years may not have captured year to year variance. Much of the black population of East St.
Louis, for instance, apparently left following the riot in 1917. This Census does not capture this rise and fall.
The purpose of the regression is to provide support for the contention that the riots are
comparable; that they share some common structural characteristics. So while the evidence is not
incontrovertible, it is significant. The regressions above suggest, contrary to much of the earlier
research on race riots in the United States, that in at least some circumstances riots do, in fact,
share common structural characteristics. In particular, the evidence supports historians‟
contentions that between 1917 and 1921 population change, and consequently competition over
housing and jobs, set the stage for inter-racial violence. This still leaves open the question: So
what? What do these riots contribute to our understanding of American race relations, other than
to serve as markers of the high-points of inter-ethnic violence? Why do these riots matter ?
Scholars looking for answers to similar questions after the period of racial rioting in the
1960s concluded that while riots had psychological and ideological consequences for the black
community, the riots themselves elicited a limited institutional response. In general, studies found
that riot commission reports were almost universally ignored, that rioting had at best moderate
effects on programmatic spending by government agencies, and that the clearest beneficiaries of
the rioting were law enforcement agencies (see Button 1989; Button 1978; Lipsky and Olson
1977; Platt 1971). The conclusion, on the whole, was that riots didn‟t seem to have much of an
effect at all. It seems that social scientists‟ interest in riots was simply a reaction to particularly
horrific occurrences of inter-ethnic violence, and an attempt to understand how to avoid such
incidents in the future.
This response is singularly unsatisfactory. I think we have to ask a different question:
Why is it that even though black migration accelerated in the 1920s, with a million more
Southern blacks migrating to urban areas, most of them to northern cities, there were no further
inter-racial explosions in that decade? If these earlier riots were post-war phenomena, triggered
by recession, why wasn‟t there more tension after 1929? The next large-scale racial disturbances
were in Harlem in 1935 and then Detroit in 1943. The relative absence of large-scale violence
after 1921 indicates that these earlier riots may have been something of a turning point in urban
race relations. The question then is what kind of turning point were they?
One possible approach to this question is available from the historical institutionalists.
Steven Krasner, who writes primarily about international relations, posits a view of history as a
series of „critical junctures‟ when periods of institutional stability are disrupted by intermittent
exogenous shocks.2 Institutions are thrown off-balance by these events and either adapt through
radical change, or collapse, spurring the rise of new institutional arrangements. However, this
description of order, breakdown of order, and re-establishment of order was not what happened in
“Institutional structures do not respond in any rapid and fluid way to alterations in the... environment. Change is
difficult. Incongruence between the needs and expressed demands of the state and various societal groups is the
norm, not the exception. Institutional change is episodic and dramatic rather than continuous and incremental.
Crises are of central importance.... During periods of crisis politics becomes a struggle over the basic rules of the
game rather than allocation within a given set of rules” (Krasner 1984: 234).
1917-1921. Cities experiencing these riots did not see a massive breakdown and rebirth of
Nonetheless these early riots may have been less revolutionary „critical junctures,‟ not
challenging the stability of the state but still acting as a watershed in aspects of the state‟s
institutional development. I argue that just as demographic and economic competition
contributed to riots, the riots themselves contributed to the rise of institutions which addressed
these conflicts, and contained them.3 These racial disturbances left behind an „institutional
legacy‟-- that is, they accelerated some local organizational and institutional outcomes at the
expense of others. In addition, this legacy left a more permanent mark on national inter-racial
Crises should be seen as simply an opening for institutional change. The opening itself
does not guarantee any particular institutional outcome, or that any outcome will persist. As
political scientists Collier and Collier find in their study of regime transitions in Latin America,
the persistence and stability of institutional legacies is not automatic, but “rather, is perpetuated
through ongoing ... political processes” (Collier and Collier 1991: 31).5 Institutions are not
invulnerable to change, to decay, or to challenge.6 “In analyzing the legacy of the critical
juncture,” Collier and Collier note, “it is important to recognize that no legacy lasts forever.”
Some legacies, „self-destruct,‟ by producing political dynamics that mitigate against the
formation of stable institutional patterns (Collier and Collier 1991: 34). What allows an
institution to persist is how it meshes with other institutional processes already underway.
So what does the historical record tell us about the aftermath of the 1917-1921 riots? As
Skowronek writes: “Crisis situations tend to become the watersheds in a state‟s institutional development. Actions
taken to meet the challenge often lead to the establishment of new institutional forms, powers and precedents”
(Skowronek 1982: 10)
As Collier and Collier point out, “the concept of a critical juncture contains three components: the claim that a
significant change occurred in each case... and the explanatory hypothesis about its consequences. If the
explanatory hypothesis proves to be false--that is, the hypothesized critical juncture did not produce the legacy--then
one would assert that it was not, in fact, a critical juncture” (1991:30)
Attention to the contingent nature of institutional legacies is a departure from Skowronek and Krasner‟s view, in
which the aftermath of critical junctures is relatively unproblematic. For Krasner, it‟s enough to state that “...once
crises are past institutional arrangements tend to solidify” (Krasner 1984: 234) without specifying the mechanisms
by which this institutional solidity is established.
As Scott notes: “The persistence of institutions, once created, is an understudied phenomenon... persistence is not
to be taken for granted. It requires continuing effort.. if structures are not to erode or dissolve. The conventional
term for persistence--inertia--seems on reflection to be too passive and nonproblematic...” (1995: 90).
late as 1910 blacks were less segregated in midwestern and northern cities than some recent
immigrant groups, notably Italians, Russians and Romanians (Lieberson 1980; Taueber and
Taeuber 1965: 235-238; Kusmer 1976: 43, 164). This changed between 1910 and 1920, as
immigrant groups became less residentially distinct, and the black population, increasing in
numbers, was channeled into neighborhoods with existing African American populations.7 As
African Americans began increasing in numbers in urban areas, whites in northern cities began
experimenting with ways to minimize contact between black and white populations, particularly
by keeping blacks in restricted residential areas. By the 1920s efforts to maintain racial
boundaries had settled on private restrictive agreements or covenants. These were contracts not
to sell, rent or lease property to minority groups, usually blacks (but also Jews and Asians) either
among individuals or between individuals and an interested third party like a developer, real
estate board, or neighborhood improvement agency. As a form of private contract covenants
were legally enforceable in court, and in fact, were upheld by the Supreme Court.
The usual story explaining the spread of restrictive covenants is that they were a response
to the Supreme Court‟s ban on racial zoning (Spear 1969; Vose 1959: 5, 9; Weaver 1948: 231).
Beginning in 1910, several Southern cities had used municipal zoning ordinances to prescribe
separate zones for blacks and whites; by 1915 city councils in Baltimore, Richmond, Winston-
Salem, Louisville, and Birmingham had enacted segregation ordinances.8 Dallas followed in
1916, and St. Louis held a popular referendum whose results showed the public two-to-one in
favor (Vose 1959: 51). In 1917 Chicago‟s Real Estate Board not only proposed explicit housing
segregation by race, but also petitioned the city council to pass an ordinance prohibiting further
migration of blacks to Chicago until such a time as the city could work out „reasonable
restrictions‟ sufficient to „prevent lawlessness, destruction of values and property, and loss of
life‟” (Grossman 1989: 174; Helper 1969: 226).9 At the time it seemed that legislated racial
“In Chicago, the number of census tracts that were over 50% black rose from 4 in 1910 to 16 in 1920; 35% of the
city‟s blacks lived in census tracts that were over 75% black” (Trotter 1993: 74-5).
Glaab and Brown assert that in 1916 only five American cities had zoning ordinances, which is surely an
underestimate considering that racial zoning had been in effect for several years in a number of cities by
that time. But their figure does imply that racial zoning was one of the very first uses of zoning in the U.S.
(Glaab and Brown 1967: 291).
The proposal never merited serious consideration, and was dismissed as obviously unconstitutional even by the
conservative Tribune (see also Spear 1969: 23). In 1908 the Hyde Park Improvement Club was organized, and in
the summer of 1909 issued a manifesto: “blacks had to confine themselves to the „so-called Districts,‟ real estate
agents must refuse to sell property in white blocks to blacks [or be blacklisted], and landlords must hire only white
janitors. To implement this policy, the Club appointed a committee to purchase property owned by blacks in white
blocks and to offer bonuses to black renters who would surrender their leases...” (Spear 1969: 22). There were
zoning had the potential to spread throughout the country, but as it turned out, the issue became
the NAACP‟s first major legal victory. The NAACP and its allies took the issue to the Supreme
Court, where zoning of this sort was overruled in 1917 in Buchanan v. Warely. Though the Court
was finding elsewhere that the state could not interfere with private racism, neither could it
tolerate the state‟s enforcement of racial zoning. These ordinances, the Court found, interfered
with individuals‟ property rights.10
Restrictive covenants began to be more widely used just around the time that the
Supreme Court ruled against racial municipal zoning in Buchanan v. Warely. So it might seem
reasonable, as a number of savvy observers have assumed, that covenants were a response to the
Court‟s decision. What observers have not asked is why, if covenants were replacing zoning as
the main tool to restrict black residential choices, did covenants appear first in cities that had no
history of zoning? If covenants were simply substituting for zoning, then covenants should have
appeared first in cities which had already had experience with zoning; that is, cities mostly in the
South or in the border states. All the evidence points, however, to the appearance of racial
restrictive covenants not in these cities but in municipalities in the North and West.11
Cities in these regions implemented racial restrictive covenants not as part of a
continuing campaign of segregation in all forms of public life (as zoning had been in the South),12
but rather as a response to the rapid demographic shifts occurring in urban areas, awareness of
which was dramatically heightened by the racial disturbances of the period. Moreover, racially
restrictive covenants became the primary tool to maintain segregated neighborhoods only after
the racial disturbances of 1917-1921.
Figure 1: chart of racial restrictive covenants in Chicago and St. Louis13
meetings and rallies against wavering realtors, as well as 58 bombings between 1917 and 1921 (Grossman 1989:
174; see Chicago Commission on Race Relations 1968 ).
Buchanan v. Warley 245 U.S. 60 (1917)
The origins of covenants are difficult to uncover; historians have paid a great deal more attention to covenants in
their heyday and decline (the 1930s and 40s) than in their youth. The earliest references of covenants in the
literature are to residential deed restrictions against Asian immigrants in California, in the 1890s, as for instance in
the 1892 case Gandolfo v. Hartman in which the U.S. Circuit Court refused to enforce an early version of the race
covenant (Vose 1959: 5-6). Weaver dates the first covenant agreement to 1890, in San Francisco (Weaver 1948:
Just a few years prior to when racial covenants first began appearing in Chicago, for instance, there were a number
of bills passed at the state level strengthening the state‟s civil rights laws. See Weaver 1948.
Long and Johnson 1947.
The timing of the implementation of race restrictive covenants seems to support this
interpretation of events. Long and Johnson‟s data, for instance, on the formation of race
restrictive covenants in Chicago and St. Louis indicate that race-specific deed restrictions in St.
Louis sharply increased in number between 1915 and 1919, around the time of the East St. Louis
disturbances occurring in 1917 (just across the Mississippi River). Chicago‟s covenant
campaigns didn‟t begin until the 1920s, in the aftermath of that city‟s riots in 1919. In both cities,
once introduced, covenants spread quickly (Long and Johnson 1947). The difference in the timing
of the appearance of racial covenants, and the coincidence of this timing with the race riots in
each city provides evidence of the independent effect of the riots on the introduction of restrictive
By the late 1920s race restrictive covenants had spread both within and among cities,
particularly in the North and West.15 In theory, blacks in northern cities continued to have free
If the implementation of restrictive covenants was simply a response to the courts‟ rulings against racial
zoning, then there shouldn‟t have been a difference in timing.
Covenants remained more prevalent in some cities (Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington,
Toledo and Columbus) than in others (Cleveland, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York) (Weaver
access to housing, but in practice their choices were increasingly limited by both formal and
informal barriers. The usual pattern was to have concentrations of these restrictive agreements in
areas around black neighborhoods, relatively sparse coverage elsewhere in the city, and much
more widespread application in newer suburban developments.16 Chicago, for instance, followed
this pattern; by 1947 covenants covered about half of the city‟s residential sections.17
Figure 2: map of racial restrictive covenants in Chicago18
1948: 121). This was at least in part related to the age of the cities themselves: in older cities covenants were more
extensive in their suburbs rather in the cities proper.
This pattern can be explained by the different costs to establish covenants in urban vs. suburban areas: covenant
agreements in older neighborhoods were established only with the agreement of all the property owners in a given
area, which could be a time consuming and expensive process, while in the suburbs, developers often wrote
covenants into deeds before new owners moved in (see Weaver 1948: 212; Long and Johnson 1947: 23-25).
This estimate comes from a detailed survey of Chicago‟s tract indices conducted as part of the court case Tolbert
v. Levy was the most reliable estimate. Of the 155 square miles covered by the study, 70 were non-residential, and
85 were residential; of these, African American neighborhoods covered 9.5 miles. About half the residential areas
not occupied by blacks were covenanted against blacks (Weaver 1948: 246).
Weaver 1948: Chart XI.
With black neighborhoods hemmed on all sides, either by industrial zones, covenanted
neighborhoods or Lake Michigan, the area occupied by blacks in Chicago remained substantially
the same from the 1920s to the 1940s, when covenants were finally ruled unconstitutional.
The rise of restrictive covenants is hardly the whole story. There were alternative
responses to the riots which were less successful. For example, the 1922 Chicago Commission
studying the aftermath of the riot suggested that one solution to the underlying tensions would be
for the public sector to become more involved in providing housing for new black migrants and to
encourage the dispersal of African Americans through the city (Chicago Commission 1968: 645).
This clearly did not happen. On the other hand, the spread of the Ku Klux Klan in northern and
mid-western cities in the early 1920s in response to immigration and black migration failed as
“Neighborhood transition has been a neglected but omnipresent dimension of American urban history for at least
the last one hundred years, but its rapidity and extent increased markedly in the first quarter of the twentieth century
as immigrant and Negroes crowded into burgeoning cities. Some physical expansion of the bulging racial and
ethnic ghettos was inevitable; but equally threatening to the tranquillity of the older (i.e.. white Protestant) residents
was the desire of ambitious second-generation immigrants and successful Negroes to escape completely from the old
neighborhoods and to buy or rent in the „zone of emergence‟ the broad belt separating the core of the city from its
outer residential fringe. The „zone of emergence‟ was usually made up of working-class homes and apartments, and
it was here, among white laborers, that the Invisible Empire thrived. Unable to afford a fine home far removed from
minority problems, the potential Klansmen... was forced by economic necessity to live in older transitional areas
close to his place of employment. He was bewildered by the rapid pace of life and frustrated by his inability to slow
the changes which seemed so constant and so oppressive. He perhaps remembered an earlier neighborhood
transition and was frightened at the prospect of a Negro or a Pole coming into his block and causing him to sell his
house at a low price. Unable to escape and hesitant to act alone, the threatened citizen welcomed the security and
respectability of a large group. Seeking to stabilize his world and maintain a neighborhood status quo, he turned to
the promise of the Klan” (Jackson 1992 : 244).
Figure 3: map of spread of KKK in Chicago
This mobilization peaked after only a few years in the face of immigrant and black hostility to the
movement, and the failure of the Klan‟s candidates at the ballot box (Jackson 1992 : 126,
142). Crises spawn a wide range of institutional and organizational responses, some of which
persist, many of which do not. So why were racially restrictive covenants and their cousins--
racial steering, block-busting, and redlining-- more successful, institutionally, then their
alternatives in the aftermath of the riots?21 The answer, I think, is that the institutional legacies of
Jackson 1992 .
Racial barriers, in Allan Spear‟s words, were “successfully defended for a generation” (cited in Hirsch 1983: 5).
critical junctures are diminished or increased by their interactions with broader institutions which
are going through their own processes of change.
In the 1910s and 20s responses to the perceived incursion of blacks were primarily local,
and not only local but private. The federal government was largely absent from the picture.
While the federal judiciary upheld local racial restrictions, the federal government simply did not
have the capacity to meddle in any kind of detail in municipal affairs.
Figure 4: chart of federal transfers to the states 1912-192722
This is reflected in the figures for federal transfers to the states-- before 1921 transfers were
minimal. The passage of the Federal Highway Act that year saw the first significant flow of
funds to localities--and was opposed by urban representatives, who saw it primarily as a
boondoggle benefiting rural counties (MacDonald 1928: 239-240). Metropolitan governments,
for their part, did not have the inclination, or the resources, to address the structural issues
underlying civil disturbances.
As a result, restrictive covenants and the like were initially sponsored not by the public
sector but rather by private institutions. Real estate boards and their allies, particularly
neighborhood and home owners‟ associations, endorsed restrictive covenants and mobilized
campaigns to collect the necessary signatures for their creation (Philpott 1978: 193-196; Long
Austin F. McDonald Federal Aid: A Study of the American Subsidy System (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell
Company 1928) p. 6.
and Johnson 1947: 38). Local real estate agents were enjoined by the National Association of
Real Estate Boards (NAREB) to avoid “infiltration of inharmonious elements” into
neighborhoods. Article 34 of NAREB‟s code of ethics stated that “A realtor should never be
instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood ... members of any race or nationality... whose
presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in that neighborhood” (Long and Johnson
1947: 58).24 Real estate boards could, and did, expel or ostracize members who did not keep to
the code (Helper 1969: 23, 190, 228, 230). The fact that Chicago was home to the National
Association of Real Estate Boards was instrumental not only in the local realtors‟ enthusiastic
support for covenants, but in the propagation of covenants elsewhere. In 1927 NAREB drafted a
standard restrictive covenant document which was then shared with local real estate boards
around the country (Plotkin 1998; Helper 1969: 229-30), and encouraged local boards to form
home owner‟s associations to sign onto covenant agreements.25 Together these loose
confederations of national and local associations did much of the work of enforcing patterns of
racial residential segregation which kept African Americans residents confined to deteriorating
Restrictive covenants succeeded in part because they were in step with the segregationist
notions of the time, but their implementation and diffusion was by no means preordained. Like
other responses to the riots, racially restrictive covenants ran into challenges from very early on.
The NAACP began contesting covenants almost as soon as they began to be implemented--
though they survived a Supreme Court decision in 1926 and weren‟t overturned until 1948.26 If
racial restrictions on residential housing had relied solely on local efforts, it‟s likely that
residential desegregation would have begun to take place sooner than it did. Some scholars have
pointed out that even at their height racially restrictive covenants were not always effective,
particularly as demographic pressures simply became irresistible in the 1940s (Hirsh 1983: 16,
30; Weaver 1948: 212, 234).27 These racialized institutions would not have been able to sustain
Philpott describes the involvement of other voluntary groups in covenant campaigns in Chicago as well:
the YMCA, churches, women‟s groups, PTAs, Kiwanis clubs, and chambers of commerce (Philpott 1978:
Article 34 was inserted into NAREB‟s code of ethics when the code was amended in 1924.
On the role of neighborhood associations and homeowner‟s groups in the spread of restrictive covenants
see Vose 1959: 8; Long and Johnson 1947: 38. On the link between developers and home owner‟s
associations in keeping the “character” of neighborhoods, see Glaab and Brown 1967: 294; Weaver 1948:
The initial effort to overturn racially restrictive covenants failed in Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), when the
Supreme Court let a lower court decision stand, saying it had no jurisdiction in the case (Vose 1959: 17-18).
Restrictive covenants were finally declared unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 (1948). See Vose
(1959: 17-18; Weaver 1948: 243).
Hirsch argues that in the 1940s it was neighborhoods without racial covenants (those on Chicago‟s West Side, for
example) that were actually more successful in maintaining racial homogeneity. He attributes this to the fragile
sense of community in neighborhoods that had to resort to written contract to withstand racial demographic
themselves if not for the backing of local institutions like real estate boards, and later, the federal
institutions which played an increasingly important role in the housing market after 1932.
Local privatist responses were inherently vulnerable to challenge. While they originated
in the absence of a strong federal presence, they persisted because of that presence. With the
Depression, the federal government began to increase its involvement in local affairs, not least in
the area of housing. This involvement began with the establishment of the Home Owners Loan
Corporation (HOLC) in 1933, which was designed to reduce mortgage foreclosures.28 HOLC
single-handedly established the pattern for long-term mortgage loans. In doing so, it had to make
predictions about how housing covered would fare over the life-time of the loan. Housing
appraisals became increasingly systematized, rating not only the structural integrity of the homes
themselves but the neighborhoods surrounding them. Areas were rated, with the ratings
privileging homogeneous native-born white collar neighborhoods, and downgrading older,
mixed-use, ethnic or black neighborhoods (Jackson 1980: 423). As a result, African-American
neighborhoods were systematically deprived of mortgage and other lending. The patterns
established under HOLC persisted after it was folded into the Federal Housing Administration
(FHA). “The FHA started its career by accepting prevalent real estate doctrine that nonwhites
should be kept out of white neighborhoods in order to protect property values” (McEntire 1960).
The FHA‟s 1938 Underwriting Manual instructed appraisers that “if a neighborhood is to retain
stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial
classes.” Appraisers were to predict “the probability of the location being invaded by...
incompatible racial and social groups.”29 To „preserve‟ neighborhood character, FHA officials
were enjoined to uphold racial restrictive covenants. The Manual openly recommended
“subdivision regulations and suitable restrictive covenants” that would be “superior to any
mortgage” (Jackson 1985: 208).30 Federal intervention encouraged segregated housing by
reinforcing local discriminatory practices, among them race restrictive covenants.
The story of the federal government‟s role in promoting segregated housing has been told
extensively elsewhere (Jackson 1988; McEntire 1960; Abrams 1955; Weaver 1948).31 The point I
pressures (Hirsch 1983: 217). For Weaver the difference between those neighborhoods resorted to covenants and
those which did not was a matter of means; covenants were expensive to implement and enforce (Weaver 1948:
Between July 1933 and June 1935, HOLC supplied $3 billion in loans, covering more than one in ten owner-
occupied non-farm residences in the U.S. (Jackson 1980: 421; Glaab and Brown 1967: 300). Nationally about 40%
of eligible American sought HOLC assistance.
Federal Housing Administration, Underwriting Manual 1938 Sec 937, in McEntire 1960: 301; see also Long and
Johnson 1947: 70-72; Jackson 1985: 208.
Explicit racial references were deleted from the FHA underwriting manual only in 1947 (Weaver 1948: 152).
Basically as the construction industry went down the tubes after 1929 (Between 1928 and 1933 housing starts fell
by 95% and expenditures on home repairs fell by 90%) the federal government set up the Home Owner‟s Loan
want to emphasize here is the link between local and federal institutions. As the federal
government played a greater role in local affairs during the Depression, it did not step in and
invent entirely new institutional structures and practices. More often it melded its new role with
existing practices. In the case of housing this meant adopting the standard practices of local real
estate boards and banks, particularly in respecting and upholding local racially restrictive
covenants and racial steering. As HOLC and then the FHA got underway, they were staffed at
the federal and local levels by former real estate professionals who operated under and accepted
the profession‟s racial strictures (Weaver 1948: 72), who then transferred these norms into federal
practices. For example, Frederick Babcock a prominent figure in real estate appraisal, who wrote
a widely used appraising text The Valuation of Real Estate (1932) advocating the enforcement of
racially segregated neighborhoods,32 went on to write the FHA‟s 1938 Underwriting Manual,
which incorporated similar assumptions of the desirability of neighborhood homogeneity and the
pernicious influence of black home ownership on property values (Helper 1969: 197, 202). In
this and other respects, the FHA‟s institutional racism was a reflection of local attitudes and
Historian Kenneth Jackson writes that the lasting damage done by the national
government was that it “put its seal of approval on ethnic and racial discrimination” and that
“more seriously, Washington‟s actions were later picked up by private interests, so that banks and
savings and loan institutions institutionalized the practice of denying mortgages „solely because
of the geographical location of the property‟” (Jackson 1985: 217), that is, redlining. While the
role of the federal government in reinforcing racially segregated housing in urban areas was
certainly crucial in extending the half-life of race restrictive covenants and other local segregatory
tools, the historical record shows that influence between local and federal institutions ran both
ways-- the federal government first adopted local racial institutions, and in doing so, reinforced
What do these earlier riots have do with us now, today? I‟ll mention a couple of points
Corporation to re-finance mortgages, and then the Federal Housing Administration to insure the home mortgages
made by private lenders (Jackson 1985: 193).
In the Valuation of Real Estate, for instance, Babcock writes: “Most of the variations between people are slight
and values declines are, as a result, gradual. But there is one difference in people, namely race, which can result in
very rapid decline. Usually such declines can be avoided by segregation and this device has always been in
common usage in the South where white and Negro populations have been separated” (Babcock 86-91 in Helper
Hirsch makes a similar argument about public housing: “...in a literal sense, it was not a „federal‟ renewal at all.
National legislation simply provided federal assistance, economic and otherwise, for innumerable local programs...”
briefly here. The major riots which have taken place in the contemporary period are, like those in
the earlier period of the century, competitive riots. Urban ethnic disturbances, from 1980 to the
present, share many of the same characteristics as the earlier riots from 1917-1921. They too are
characterized by rapid urban demographic shifts and competition among new and old residents
over scarce resources, occurring in the context of an economic downturn (and the general shift of
resources away from cities) (Jones-Correa 1998).
In the contemporary case, the migrants are new immigrants arriving to the U.S. after
1965 (many of them since 1980) into particular regions, and to particular cities within those
regions. One of the characteristics of the post-1965 immigration wave is that it is a very
concentrated, targeted migration.
Figure 5: chart of immigrants 1985-1990
Figure 6: chart of foreign born by state
This immigrant wave is bifurcated between the highly educated and those with relatively
few skills. Those with less skills tend to settle in areas where they can afford housing, which
means settling in areas in or adjacent to poorer black neighborhoods. The black middle class,
having more resources, has been moving out of these neighborhoods since the late 1960s, and this
trend only accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s. Those left in these neighborhoods are the
those with the fewest resources. The convergence of two populations with very few resources
and overlapping occupational and residential niches leads to friction, and occasionally leads to
rioting. Four of the top ten immigrant-receiving urban areas had riots in the 1980s and 1990s--
Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Washington D.C.
The hypotheses, then, are similar to those for the 1910-1920s period, positing that
population change, job competition and residential displacement contribute to riot occurrence.
We can test these hypotheses using, again, the IPUMS census data. For 1980 there are 515,201
records for individuals residing in cities with populations of 100,000 or more; for 1990 there are
438,482 such records. Aggregating these samples to the city level (134 cities with populations of
100,000 or more for 1980 and 135 in 1990), and then merging the files, we end up with 103
cases: those cities with populations of 100,000 or more included in both the 1980 and 1990
Logistical Regression Effects of Population Change, Labor Composition,
and Housing Ownership on Ethnic Riots in Cities 1980-1990
Constant -5.4277 ***
Foreign Born Population 1980 .000018
Native Born Black Population 1980 .000003
Change in City Population 1980-1990 .000025 *
Change in Foreign Born in Service Jobs -.0002
Change in Foreign Born in Factory Jobs .0001
Change in Native Born Blacks in Service Jobs -.0002
Change in Native Born Blacks in Factory Jobs -.0008 **
Change in Foreign Born Ownership .00005
Change in Native Born Black Ownership .0005 **
* p<.10 ** p<.05 *** p<.01
Model Chi Square 24.000 Degrees of Freedom 9
As in the earlier model, I used a logistic regression with the dependent variable being a
„riot/no riot‟ outcome for the 103 cities, and the independent variables grouped into three clusters,
those measuring population and changes in population, those gauging occupational composition,
and those reflecting changes in home ownership.
The regression results echo those of the earlier period. Change in city population is
significant at the .1 level. This measure is highly correlated (at the .001 level) with change in
foreign-born population, so it is also indirectly a measure of foreign-born population change.
The greater the change in population, and indirectly in foreign-born population, the greater, then,
the likelihood of a city having an inter-ethnic disturbance.
The only significant labor force variable is the measure of “change in native born blacks
in factory jobs” which is significant at the .05 level. The more factory jobs lost by African
Americans during the 80s, the more likely a city was to experience a riot. Estimating from the
odds ratio (the exponent of B), for every ten thousand native born blacks who left factory jobs
that decade there was a corresponding 8% increase in the likelihood of a riot.
Finally, the home ownership variable is significant for native born blacks, which means
that the greater the increase in African American home ownership in the 1980s, the greater the
chances of a civil disturbance. This seems to suggest that the situation in the 1980s and 90s
parallels that of the 1910s and 20s, when it was white homeowners, who were those with the
highest stake in changing neighborhoods, who were most resistant to the incursions of
newcomers. Black homeowners in the 1980s, seeing their stakes in their neighborhoods at risk,
and under considerable economic pressures as well, may have reacted the same way. The odds
ratio indicates that for every increase of ten thousand African American homeowners, there was a
5% increase in the likelihood of an inter-ethnic disturbance.
So if the riots share some structural similarities, do the outcomes play out similarly as
well? The short answer to that is yes. Before getting at the similarities, however, it‟s important
to note some important differences between the two time periods. I‟d just like to point out a
couple of obvious ones here regarding changes in race and race relations.
The first is that a lot happened in race relations between 1920 and 1980. Without going
into a lot of detail, the Supreme Court‟s increasing activism in this area, the Civil Rights
movement, the passage of Civil and Voting Rights acts in the 1960s, and the urban rioting of that
decade all helped shape subsequent interactions between blacks and whites, and between blacks
and other non-whites. As non-white immigrants entered into cities in the 1980s, there simply
weren‟t the racialized institutions in place which had greeted black migrants to cities in the 1910s
and 20s. And while blacks may mistrust new immigrants, and fear the impact of the new
immigration on black opportunities, there simply isn‟t the same kind of racial backlash that
greeted black migrants to the North and West.
The second is that cities are much more multi-racial today than they were in the 1920s.
As whites moved out of cities following the second World War, cities became much more multi-
racial, and with the new immigration after 1965, even more so. Of the cities where major riots
occurred in the 1980s and 1990s four had non-white majorities: Los Angeles, New York, Miami
and Washington D.C.34 This means that ethnic interactions are more complex, taking place
among three and sometimes four groups of ethnic actors.
These differences are important in shaping the outcomes following the disturbances. In
the 1980s and 90s, like the earlier period, the institutional responses in the aftermath of the civil
disturbances were more or less likely to persist depending on institutions‟ capacity to maintain
themselves and their interaction with other institutional „layers.‟ Again, like the earlier period,
there were competing local responses to the riots. These generally took the form of initiatives to
encourage private sector investment in riot-stricken areas, or attempts at fostering inter-ethnic
contact and negotiation. Unlike the 1920s, none of the alternatives were designed to “contain”
new immigrants. But race was present (and absent) in interesting ways: while the ethnic
negotiation solution was meant to put race and ethnicity on the table for discussion, the private-
sector solution was explicitly “de-racialized.”
What happened, in a nutshell, is that the turn to the private sector by cities like Miami
and Los Angeles to provide new investments in riot-affected neighborhoods, coincided with, and
was reinforced by, the federal government‟s own experimentation with private investment--
through Enterprise and Empowerment zones--as the solution to urban ills. Attempts at inter-
ethnic dialogue in the four cities has, for the most part, simply died a quiet death.
Traditional explanations of riots emphasize their contingency and impotence. In this
paper I‟ve argued that, on the contrary, at certain historical moments, like that around 1917-1921,
inter-racial conflicts in the United States shared common structural conditions and fell into
similar kinds of patterns, and second, that these riots were „critical junctures‟-- not because of the
events themselves, but because they accelerated institutional shifts, ushering in an era of racial
containment. This argument is particularly significant because it reverses the typical narrative
regarding the interaction between institutions and race. In the usual story, institutional
intervention is top-down and the federal government is the principal actor. In the events
Las Vegas, NV; St. Petersburg, FL; and Knoxville TN all had riots during this time period as well.
highlighted here, it is local events that are critical, and federal intervention, while important for
the long-term patterning of inter-ethnic relations, reinforces racial paradigms only once they are
already set into place at the local level.
highlighted here, it is local events that are critical, and federal intervention, while important for
the long-term patterning of inter-ethnic relations, reinforces racial paradigms only once they are
already set into place at the local level.