What caused the 1968 riots?

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

MLK’s assassination kicked up a wave of riots, but why exactly?

Modern thought has a tendency toward economic reductionism, viewing every historic problem as a mechanical working-out of underlying economic processes, and every solution in those terms.

After the 1960s riots, governments leaped in with public housing and economic redevelopment programs that did little to stem the decline of riot-haunted cities. After 9/11, we heard anguished discussions about poverty and economic stagnation in the Middle East. And when the United States elected Donald Trump president, reporters circled old factory towns like vultures, feasting on images of rusted-out manufacturing plants that could be fed to readers as the “reason” behind the political upheaval.

These things do matter. But in the words of sociologist Seymour Spilerman, who did some of the seminal research on the 1960s riots, they’re “background conditions.” The economic deprivation inflicted by America’s racial caste system was real and abominable — and yet, says Spilerman, “in general, it’s not economic conditions which are the immediate precipitants of riots.”

While a general level of deprivation may make riots more likely (if for no other reason than because the poor have so little to lose), variations in economic deprivation don’t. In the 1960s, blacks were economically oppressed everywhere, but there were still places where things were better or worse. So if economic conditions lead to riots, we’d have expected to see the most civil disorder in the places with the worst hardship. But that’s not what the data show.

Nor did economic factors predict when riots broke out. After all, the 1960s were a period of unusually rapid economic progress for black Americans, thanks to anti-discrimination campaigns and the Civil Rights Act. If poverty and unemployment were driving rioters, the 1960s should have been one of the most racially peaceful decades in American history.

What did cause the riots, then? Well, rage and despair and a lot of hard-to-quantify socio-political factors. But taking them all in total, I’d sum them all up with one word: respect. Whatever our economic conditions, we also want — we need — to command a certain minimal amount of admiration from our fellow citizens.


In the late 1960s, as the legal barriers fell, the gulf between legal status and social reality may have chafed more than usual.


  1. Bruce says:

    Big city politics is always race riot protection rackets. Group of concerned citizens, angry mob, tomayto tomahto. When the Kennedy administration passed out federal jobs to the old Irish machines, the ambitious, aggressive Irish went to them. This left a vacum, and the federal money going to blacks gave them an incentive to fill it.

  2. Jim says:

    The riots occurred not because of repression but because of the absence of repression. The riots would have been less likely in earlier years because participants would have been aware of severe consequences to them. Same thing for crime. Crime exploded in US black populations in the sixties not because the economy was bad, it was good, but because the likelihood and severity of punishment had greatly decreased.

  3. S3 says:

    Respect… Like Hitler wanting respect for Germany? Is Spilerman Jewish? Because that would be just perfect!

  4. Adar says:

    “In the 1960s, blacks were economically oppressed everywhere, but there were still places where things were better or worse”

    A fairly high percentage of those arrested in Detroit during the 1967 riots were auto workers, members of the UAW and pretty good wages.

  5. Talnik says:

    I have to agree with Jim. They did it because they knew they could get away with it. And (here are my two cents) because it was fun. Attaching some socio-economic significance to it is pure condescension.

  6. Sam J. says:

    I heard that the cops in the old days when it looked like a riot was forming would scan the crowd for the most agitated, loudest protester, drag him out of the crowd, and beat the shit out of him where everyone could see. It apparently worked.

  7. Kirk says:

    I’ve always favored multiple lines of Claymore mines in depth as anti-riot tools. Placing cans of thickened fuel in front of them just adds to their powers of dissuasion.

    Of course, if the rioters don’t recognize what a Claymore mine is… Well, after the first line goes off, they’ll know.

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