Racial Violence in the United States, 1863 to Present

Mass Racial Violence - Introduction

There is on one hand a certain continuity for the vast majority of the post-Civil War period in that large groups of "whites" whether soldiers, police, or civilians consistently attacked and killed non-whites from the Redeeming violence in the South to various massacres of Native Americans to large-scale race riots throughout the country until World War II. The exceptions to this pattern are relatively few. After World War II, the climate around racial issues began to dramatically change for many Americans. Lynchings had already been dropping dramatically for decades. Court decisions, political action, and soon enough a full-blown movement devoted to expanding African-Americans' civil rights changed the attitudes of many Americans. This prompted very stiff and often quite violent resistance among whites who did not want to give up on segregation and the system of white supremacy. The scale at which this was acceptable has gradually diminished throughout the intervening years, though as hate crime statistics show, there is still plenty of threatened and actual violence based on race that still exists.

Toward the end of the Civil Rights period, the nature of what constituted a "race riot" changed. Instead of the battles ending in large groups of whites attacking mostly African-Americans, but also other minorities, race riots became large groups of African-Americans acting out in violent ways. Much of this new violence was limited to property damage within their own neighborhoods, but it would be incorrect to label it all as simply "protest," or to say that it was never directed at people. Thus today we think of race riots in the context of Watts, Detroit (1967, not 1943), the post-assassination Martin Luther King riots, the L.A. or Rodney King riots, and now Ferguson. As Gunnar Myrdal predicted and pointed out about such events in his 1944 classic An American Dilemma, "they will be due to the continuing discrimination from the whites and to growing realization by Negroes that peaceful requests for their rights are not getting them anywhere."

The motivations for the violent behavior in most cases of mass racial violence differed greatly from the traditional race riot to the modern version though. Initially, race riots tended to be triggered by a crime committed by an African-American against a white person, or at least at the perception of a crime committed against whites. These violations were not considered as individual crimes. They were treated as the crossing of sacred boundaries, boundaries that kept blacks in their proper realm, and that when transgressed, required stringent retribution in order to set things back in order. They did function exactly as normal lynchings in this respect, but other factors elevated them to larger events. As federal involvement became more extensive with race relations and enforcement of civil rights law, it acted as a deterrent to large-scale white violence. On the other hand, as African-Americans' expectations for equal treatment and equal economic opportunities grew faster than the changes in society occurred, frustration and resentment at the remnants of white supremacist structures boiled over into violence. Most often this occurred as the result of police brutality, or at least at the perception of police brutality.