Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles

By Vigil, James Diego | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles

Vigil, James Diego, Anthropological Quarterly

Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 360 pp.

Building on her earlier book on three cities, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles: America's Global Cities (U. Minnesota Press, 1999), Professor Abu-Lughod goes one step further in the review here by examining the riots that have occurred in these cities. First a brief word about the author's background. Janet L. Abu-Lughod is professor emerita of sociology at Northwestern University and the Graduate School of the New School for Social Research. She has distinguished herself as a major urbanist for several decades. In this new book, she neatly balances the historical facts of each of these cities with a deeply informed interpretation that clearly advances our knowledge of how both large and small riots unfold.

Abu-Lughod starts off by citing the Kerner report (U.S. Riot Commission Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder) of 1968 which included this famous statement about the widespread riots: "This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal" (Kerner Report 1968:1). For the remainder of the book, Professor Abu-Lughod goes on to document how this assessment, now forty years old, is still a nagging source of most of our nation's urban disturbances, thus the key words in the title, "Race" and "Space." In many ways, it's the same old, same old even in the suggested policies to curb uprisings. In addition to addressing this larger issue, Abu- Lughod carefully dissects the historical trajectories of the three cities, outlining two riots for each city, making six in all. She does this by underscoring that these riots were "megariots or (almost) major riots" as opposed to minor uprisings. Race relations figure prominently in most of these cases, and the author takes care to define race as a social construct. She also clarifies where other factors enter the analysis, such as the tensions over living space in certain cities. Hers is a welcome interdisciplinary perspective on the subject of "race riots," adding nuances and wrinkles heretofore missed by other observers.

The discussion on the three cities is a type of controlled comparison where a limited number of disturbances are recounted in detail with overarching questions driving the analysis. These questions are: 1) what are the changing conditions of race relations over time; 2) how do we explain variations in riots in three distinct cities; and 3) why do city governments reflect different response strategies? She then goes on to state the case of each city.

Chicago is the city the author knows best and the book's two chapters covering the "bloody" riot of 1919 and the "Black Uprising" in 1968 are masterful descriptions and analysis of the root causes there. The early urban history is fascinating, rich with evidence and insight. For example, the 1919 riot was triggered by a swimming incident by the lakeshore where a black youth was killed by a rock thrown by a white man. The descriptions of what occurred after is assessed from various angles to provide a wellrounded view, leaving the reader with plenty of facts and evidence to make up his or her mind. As an urbanist, the author is without parallel when she dissects the U.S. federal effort to address the housing needs of the population. While race and socioeconomic issues are important too, the author stresses the significance of space and how the contentions over neighborhood borders eventually solidified a solution: the separation of the white and black races. This battle over space raged as a low-intensity war from the 1950s to the 1960s and erupted into violence and bloodshed with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.

While space and race marked events in Chicago, class and race seemed to reflect the black-white antagonisms and hostilities in New York.

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