Politics & Policy

On the ‘Root Cause’ of Riots

A Ferguson business destroyed in the riots. (Scott Olson/Getty)
We should’ve learned it in the ’60s: White racism is not the core issue, and money is not the answer.

Political scientist Edward Banfield walked into a tsunami of criticism in 1970 when he made the politically incorrect observation that the black urban riots of the 1960s were an exercise by spirited young people for fun and profit.

Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into riot studies without producing any helpful insight into why people riot. Banfield’s observation, though more than four decades old, might be just as helpful as any of the ponderous social-science probes that massage data to sanctify settled assumptions.

Social-science research at best produces modest statistical regularities. At worst, it produces enough of a relationship for liberal ideologues to find a rationale for dumping more money into dysfunctional government programs. In this way, liberal whites can assuage their guilt and African-American interest groups can find a path to the federal trough.

Riot studies show the seamy side of social science. They begin with the premise that the causes of riots are to be found not in the rioters but in the larger society. The often-cited Kerner Commission Report on the riots of the 1960s began with the working title “The Harvest of American Racism.”

The original draft was a scathing indictment of white racism as the root cause of riots. Even President Lyndon Johnson, the author of the Great Society and the shepherd of the major civil-rights legislation of that era, was outraged by this first version of the report. He had its director and much of its staff sent packing. Nonetheless, the subsequent Kerner Commission Report was in many ways indistinguishable from the original one.

At academic conventions of the period, it was common to hear “scholars” pontificate about society’s obligations to the rioters. The usual grab bag of explanations — poverty, deprivation, racism, status anxiety, inequality, etc. — were difficult to justify on rational grounds, but they were fodder for a larger liberal agenda that insisted on excusing the riots as a natural reaction to past wrongs. Societal problems, in this view, simply compelled riots.

In a society with access to democratic political processes, there is no excuse for rioters to take over the streets, and there is even less excuse for elites to stir the cauldron of violence. Riots ultimtately destroy communities by destroying businesses and also by discouraging new investment. As James Q. Wilson noted, it is not so much that poverty causes crime but that crime causes poverty.

The Kerner Commission Report relied on scant meaningful empirical evidence. Still, it is one of those works that is seldom read and often quoted because it justifies an endless flow of money to inner cities. To date, the boatloads of cash have done little to heal the social pathology of the inner city. Edward Banfield blamed this pathology for both the festering daily condition of the inner city and the eruption of riots. Liberals no more want to acknowledge or analyze this pathology than they wanted to hear Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s depiction, in his groundbreaking 1965 paper, of the culture of poverty.

There is one aspect of the Kerner report, however, that neither liberals nor African Americans want to cite: its suggestion on how to stop riots. Even the Kerner authors could not ignore that the swift, substantial, and professional mobilization of force had proven successful in quickly quelling mob violence. In 1991, journalist Eugene Methvin called attention to that ignored portion of the report. It’s not a message that the Obama administration and the Missouri governor Jay Nixon would be willing to hear. If you want to understand the the explosion of violence in Ferguson, remember: The National Guard was not quickly mobilized.

Progressives and race-baiters will now use the Ferguson riots to call for more social programs. If anything, they should use the unrest to renew the conversation that Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Edward Banfield started about the culture of poverty. That, of course, is not going to happen, because such a discussion would have no political gain for those who seek to transfer wealth into the sinkholes of America’s inner cities.

— Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and has served on the faculty of the University of California, Davis, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is currently a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. 

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