Black Civil Violence and White Social Science: Sense and Nonsense



Some thirty years ago, the Kerner Commission report explained the outbursts of urban violence in America’s Black ghettos as caused by Black deprivation wrought by white racism. In its rendition of the Black experience through four hundred years of American racism and its description of the conditions in the urban ghettos of the 1960s, the report is worthy of the acclaim it has received. In its analysis of the causal factors that led to the riots, the report attempts to appeal to intuition but falls far short of making a case on the basis of any remote standard of causal analysis. Indeed, the report strikingly resembles the academic studies that have invoked relative and absolute deprivation theories to explain the American urban riots of the 1960s and which have repeatedly collapsed under the scrutiny of basic considerations of social science methodology.

The causes of riots might as aptly fall into situational explanations, including the pattern of police response, as they fall into theoretical ones. While social scientists debate such issues, policy makers have had to respond to the realities of riots, both in terms of causes and effects.

Surprisingly, many policy makers, irrespective of their own ideologies and notions of causes, when dealing with America’s urban riots, appear to have come to the same general conclusions about the policies that need to be implemented to prevent future racial crises. Looking at these responses, as well as both the idiosyncratic and common attributes of riots, this paper suggests reconceptualizing and rethinking the nature of riots so as to move toward a better understanding of this type of racial crisis.