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Drawing the Wrong Lessons from the British Riots — Again

Liberal pundits hold rioters harmless by falsely applying the "racism" argument to excuse their behavior.

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

August 29, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Shellow’s “Harvest” so enraged Lyndon Johnson that 120 social scientists and investigators were summarily given their walking papers. Still the Kerner report clearly reflected Shellow’s earlier agenda.  Kerner held the larger society — not the rioters — responsible for the riots.

The social science logic was straight out of a Berkeley coffee house. Since rioters were discriminated against across the most meaningful social dimensions, discrimination was the cause of the riots. Such thinking led to rather obvious questions that were ignored. Why were the night skies of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, for example, lit up with the fires of riots and not places like Jackson, Mississippi; Atlanta, Georgia; and Mobile, Alabama, where discrimination was far worse? Why had such riots not occurred in the period of the Great Depression when the gap between black and white poverty was even greater?

Elsewhere in the academic literature, I show that by the most common social science conventions, the Kerner Commission and its ancillary studies were long on intuition, ideology, and some rather bad calculations, and short on substantiating causality in any meaningful sense.

The various black interest groups were able to seize upon the highly politicized Kerner report to buttress their own agendas for social programs. This was Lyndon Johnson’s reason for the commission from its inception. Johnson had restricted  appointments to the commission to people who had eagerly embraced his Great Society programs.

After riots broke out in London’s Brixton section in 1981, the British, too, created  a commission. The Scarman Commission, like Kerner, found discrimination to be the cause of the riots, lifting the American template across the Atlantic and squeezing it into Brixton. Scarman sounded like Kerner’s echo, showing remarkable sympathy for the rioters, but little for the police who had faced, in Brixton, escalating crime and violence caused by black immigrants and white nihilists.

Rioting had to be explained. Police behavior only had to be labeled as racist.  Discrimination caused the riots. If so, Scarman, like Kerner, had some obvious problems. If discrimination caused the Brixton riots, how does one explain the overwhelming participation of whites in the riots, some of whom proclaimed their nihilism by yelling, “We want riots, not jobs”?

Ironically, the one consistent finding of the Kerner Commission that leftists seldom want to publicize is that riots become inflamed when the police fail to respond decisively. Nothing ends a riot like a swift, strong, and well-coordinated response by authorities. Nothing enhances it like the police letting the rioters vent their anger, as in Crown Heights or in the early hours of the Rodney King riots.

Putting 16,000 police into the streets of Britain finally brought an end to the current spate of  riots. But rest assured, when Britain’s next riot commission report is issued, there will be a call for more social programs of the type that is bringing all of Europe to the edge of economic implosion. Indeed, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, on August 22, 2011, called for massive social intervention to respond to the conditions that “caused” the riots. We’ve heard it all before.

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Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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