May 1, 2015

MEGAN MCARDLE: Riots Just Don’t Work:

You should be outraged. But you can be outraged, as I am, and still oppose the riots, as I do. The voices that try to rationalize the violence are presenting a dangerous false choice. They say that this was simply the inevitable result of monumental injustice, so let’s stop talking about the riots and start talking about the injustice. We should always talk about injustice, and strive to end it. The mass incarceration state, the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights and the vast excesses of the drug war are perhaps the most important moral crisis facing our nation. But we have to talk about the riots too, because they represent another urgent moral crisis.

Rioting is not simply a battle of opportunity between oppressor and oppressed. Saying that riots are the inevitable product of oppression turns out to be saying too much and too little: Oppression does not usually lead to rioting, and when rioting does happen, oppression is not always its target. Sports fans riot — sometimes after a win, sometimes after a loss. Economically oppressed blacks have rioted against the white power structure; so have whites, against their city’s black population. Some things, like ethnic diversity, seem to increase the chance of riots, but the link to inequality and poverty is much less clear than you’d think. Economically disadvantaged people and students seem much more prone to rioting, but that may be because those people have much less to lose from an arrest than middle-class people do.

Of course, rioting can fall on the continuum from flat-out immoral to justified. I certainly sympathize with the grievances of the people who rioted following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. more than I do with soccer hooligans or Tulsa lynch mobs. But regardless of justification, rioting is incredibly destructive, mostly in the neighborhoods where the rioters live. In my own city, Washington, D.C., the major retail corridors that were destroyed in the 1968 riots have only really begun to recover in the last five years (and one of them still hasn’t). Who suffered because of that? The store owners, obviously, and their insurers. But the people who suffered most grievously were the mostly black people who lived in those neighborhoods.

The question to ask isn’t who suffered from the riots. It’s who benefited.

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