Racial Tensions in Contemporary America

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 9
Words: 2571
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: PhD


The United States has struggled with the issue of inclusion and equality for centuries. The past two and a half centuries witnessed the proliferation of organized or spontaneous riots in American communities (Monti Patterns of Violence 43). Although these sporadic incidences waned after the 1960s’ urban unrest, the recent riots in Ferguson have reignited memories. The violence witnessed at Ferguson and other states exemplify a strained relationship between race and justice. The point of argument is that the unrest intensified after the grand jury determined that the shooting of Michael Brown did not constitute a crime (Fisher and Lowery par. 5). As such, the unequal distribution of resources and power will contribute to the re-emergence of civil unrest in cities and suburbs.

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Communities across the US have often protested the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men. The case of Ferguson is one of the many incidents that have highlighted the scope of unfair representation in America’s criminal, legal, and justice systems. In essence, the black population continues to feel disenfranchised considering their socio-economic conditions (Wacquant 94). America was a country of two societies (black and white) during the 1960s. The pervasive belief in the minds of Americans was that these races were unequal and separate (Monti Patterns of Violence 44). Nonetheless, the country has undergone noteworthy transformations since then. For instance, many black Americans have transitioned to middle-class status while others have become successful professionals and politicians (Borer and Monti 42).

The worrying trend towards a police state will contribute to a decline in prosperity and civil liberties in the future. The ripple effects of the 2008/2009 economic recession have pushed most communities to the edge (Monti Patterns of Conflict 44). Much as the U.S economy has shown some improvement, most people live in poverty. The failure of the economic and social policies of the past five decades has escalated the tension between civil liberties and policing (Bleich, Caeiro, and Luehrman 274). The unjustified use of excessive force against innocent citizens has increasingly became an elemental concern. The primary issue is that police brutality is not unique to Ferguson. On the contrary, other cities (from New York to Cleveland) have seen a replication of similar incidences (Fisher and Lowery par. 7).

The civil unrest in the 1960s gave the government the impetus to develop and implement poverty reduction strategies. The purpose of these initiatives was to decimate social and economic disparities among races (Bleich. Caeiro and Luehrman 274-276). On the other hand, the collapse of cultural and legal obstacles played a significant role in enhancing equality in business, education, employment, and other social endeavors (Atwal and Bacon 257-259). Conversely, the eruption of violence in cities and suburbs implies that economic opportunities and equal justice have receded. Abu-Lughod has argued that these events indicate the early stages of an imminent crisis (35-38). It is imperative to determine why the pro-poor policies implemented fifty years ago have worsened the current situation in American cities and suburbs.

The Growth of the American Cities and Suburbs

Rapid urbanization and globalization have transformed the economies of cities and urban areas significantly. For example, most cities in the US have evolved from the growth of financial and business services (Katz a88). The post-industrial developments have contributed to the increase in the number of highly educated and paid populations on the one side of the spectrum. The other group constitutes poorly paid and uneducated individuals who do not have a secure future (Atwal and Bacon 258). Globalization and increased urban migration have not only facilitated the rise of cities but have also led to the decline of other areas. Virtually all cities in the U.S and across the Western world contain localities that have undergone industrial decline. The principal characteristics of these areas are the unskilled workforce and high unemployment rates (Monti Patterns of Conflict 43).

The declining urban centers have attracted migrant workers and people from ethnic minority groups. Although these populations are often at risk of marginalization, discrimination, and segregation, most of them have mobilized resources to climb the social ladder (Katz 192). Political interventions have helped these individuals to transition into the middle class and white-collar occupations despite the remarkable inequalities. This upward social and educational mobility has also facilitated the move from inner cities to the suburbs (Borer and Monti 47). While this progress is commendable, it has exacerbated the incidences of repressive policing and stigmatization in the inner cities. Consequently, major towns and cities across the world have reported some sort of violence. These events have illustrated the effects of declining urban economies (Monti Engaging Strangers 106).

Immigrants have largely been the main force behind the growth and transformation of urban areas in America. Just like the case of Europe, these communities continue to suffer racial segregation. In addition, the ethnic and racial minorities reside in urban areas that contain exclusion zones characterized by high unemployment rates, poverty, and criminal activities (Katz 202). This scenario has often seen the deployment of a militarized police force to maintain law and order. The interaction between the law enforcers and residents usually degenerates into riots and violence on most occasions (Monti Intergroup Conflict 149). On the contrary, Wacquant has reported a decline in civil unrest in the U.S cities and suburbs despite having all the hallmarks of impoverishment and joblessness (96-99). This assertion does not mean that violence and crime have disappeared from cities and suburbs in the U.S.

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Crime in American cities has transformed from civil riots (looting and burning) into inward frustration and anger. The explosion of these events normally culminates in homicides, gang warfare, and random killings. The factors that contributed to civil violence across the streets of American cities persist (Katz 200-204). For example, Borer and Monti have indicated that the rate of poverty and unemployed have been rising over the past decade. In addition, the composition of poor neighborhoods has also expanded as more people lose their jobs (42). These cities have remained tranquil until the events in Ferguson, which threaten to change the present situation dramatically. A concatenation of multiple factors has contributed to the relative tranquillity in American suburbs and cities (Katz 194-196).

First, migration and globalization have played a fundamental role in diversifying the cultures of American cities. For instance, the Great Migration saw the collapse of economic, racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries that often contributed to street violence. This phenomenon rearranged the power dynamics and mechanisms in urban centers (Katz 192). In response, the white population moved to the suburbs where they constructed new borders. The consequence of these actions has been the accumulation of blacks and other minority groups in the American cities (Bleich, Caeiro, and Luehrman 272-274). According to Katz, the migration of the whites from the urban centers to the suburbs has eroded civil violence because the boundaries are no longer contentious (194).

Secondly, the effective management of marginalization has complemented the urban power dynamics to prevent the ignition of civil violence. The historical street protests and riots in America often involved marginalized populations. Society had excluded these groups from employment, full citizenship, housing, equal justice, and social services (Monti Intergroup Conflict 147). The recent decades have witnessed an increase in the number of ethnic minorities climbing the social ladder. The construction of new cities has opened the gateway to enhanced employment, education, economic and social opportunities through the process of selective incorporation (Bleich, Caeiro, and Luehrman 276). For example, Bleich, Caeiro, and Luehrman have indicated that the social structure of black Americans resembles that of the white to some extent (278).

Thirdly, political interventions (such as multicultural and inclusion policies) have encouraged cultural dynamism. For instance, intolerance and the appreciation of public multicultural events have reduced racial tensions significantly. In addition, the Affirmative Action and Civil Rights Movements have facilitated the selective incorporation of ethnic minority groups into political, economic, and social systems (Katz 199). Although this assimilation has provided limited opportunities for social mobility, it has segmented the minority communities along with the constructs of gender and class (Borer and Monti 50-53). According to Katz, these factors have reduced the risk of collective protests because more people are now concerned with pursuing personal goals (196).

The private sector has also deflected the chances of civil violence by developing a Consumers’ Republic in the cities. Companies have taken advantage of the growing black middle class through advertisements and target products. This market segmentation has boosted the self-efficacy of the minority groups because they now feel as being part of the American consumers (Abu-Lughod 46). The pursuit of relentless consumption and the purchase of material goods have shifted attention from politics for both blacks and whites (Katz 200). Katz has argued that increased consumption has masked civil rights concerns because Americans can buy expensive commodities on credit. The principal argument is that consumption has created a state of individualism, which undercuts collective struggle (196).

The legitimacy of street violence has declined significantly following the enactment of tough laws to maintain peace and order. The disproportionate incarceration of minority groups and increased surveillance have deterred these events (Katz 198). The law enforcers have used repressive force to secure cities and suburbs that are vulnerable to sporadic protests and riots. In addition, the government has also increased welfare services in urban areas that experience regular street violence (Borer and Monti 56). Despite these efforts, the violent protests in Ferguson have exposed the racial and ethnic tensions in contemporary America. The most worrying trend is that these incidences have arisen from the misconduct of law enforces, particularly the use of excessive force (Fisher and Lowery par. 8).

The number of unemployed and disparate young people continues to deluge American society. The majority of these individuals have are either unemployed or school dropouts. In addition, they have antagonistic towards the police because they interfere with their criminal activities (Bleich, Caeiro, and Luehrman 286). The youths have developed a sub-culture of crime since they do not have any prospects of joining the formal labor market or any other form of unskilled employment (Abu-Lughod 46). Katz has found out that young people view street violence as protests against police brutality (196). On the other hand, the police have become reactive in their actions. Thus, the re-emergence of street violence is indicative of failed economic and social policies (Borer and Monti 45). There is a need to develop feasible strategies that will deter future occurrences.

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Theoretical Perspectives and Recommendations

The violence that took place on the streets of Ferguson was both reactive and primitive. On the one hand, the protesters were reacting to the unjustified killing of Michael Brown. In the same vein, the police were responding to the violence that ensued after the death of the teenager. On the other hand, the actions of both the law enforcers and residents reacted primitively by adopting morally repugnant actions. For instance, the police officers should not have used excessive force to pacify the agitated crowd. The citizens were exercising their liberal rights of expression. In addition, the crowds were unjustified for looting and destruction of poverty. The escalation and consequences of these events would not have occurred in the city of Ferguson had addressed the underlying risk factors.

The civil unrest that followed the series of police actions across the U.S has opened the historical wounds of the 1960s. The governor of Ferguson has created a commission (Ferguson Commission) to investigate and appraise the economic and social factors that exacerbated the civil unrest (Fisher and Lowery par. 7). The Ferguson Commission must identify the causative factors, analyze the community’s response and develop feasible strategies to deter similar events in the future. The Commission should examine and review similar incidences in the past to identify common themes. The Ferguson violence is a replication of events that happened during the 1960s. It will be essential to evaluate the recommendations that authorities proposed and implemented.

The civil unrest witnessed in the 1960s arose largely from white racism. The demographic shift towards an unequal and separate society caused frustration among African Americans. The black population criticized the state and federal governments for failed education, housing, and social service policies. The Kerner Commission, which investigated the matter, recommended the diversification of the police force (Abu-Lughod 56-58). The primary contestation that emerged from the Ferguson case was the misrepresentation of the black community in the law enforcement agency. In essence, the City of Ferguson is predominantly black although the constitution of the police force is dominantly white. As such, the Ferguson Commission should also propose a modality for increasing cultural diversity in the policing agencies.

The Weberian Perspective posits that the state often responds negatively to individuals that challenge their monopoly of using excessive force. Theories that underpin political violence and social movements have also supported this notion (Bleich, Caeiro, and Leuhrman 78). The police officers in Ferguson have assimilated the “white culture’’ into their policing activities since they account for the majority. The residents of Ferguson rioted after a white officer shot and killed a black teenage boy. The Grand Jury seemed to have supported the officer by concluding that he did not commit a crime in this case. The Weberian model supports these notions because the Ferguson police were repressive and not willing to accommodate black officers.

Conversely, Neopluralist Perspective argues that marginalized groups usually resort to violence as means of raising the profile of their concerns. According to this theoretical framework, the state responds to the aggression with favorable policies and programs (Bleich, Caeiro, and Leuhrman 82). The application of this model in the Ferguson case scenario means that the authorities should accommodate the demands of the residents with minimal repression. The preceding recommendation requires the City of Ferguson to ensure inclusivity in the police department. The Ferguson Commission should mandate the law enforcement agencies to develop proactive strategies for preventing crime. The reproduction of the primitive behavior displayed by the Ferguson police will escalate the current situation.

The McCone Commission, which investigated the 1992 Los Angeles incident, recommended the implementation of improved strategies for handling the complaints from citizens (Abu-Lughod 64). The Ferguson Commission should adopt the same proposal by requiring the law enforcers to form an efficient working relationship with the community. The justice system and the policing agencies should replace the adversarial relationships with collaborative approaches to identify and reduce crime. The residents resent the police force since they view them as a threat to their status and power dynamics. The Group Conflict Theory posits that negative out-group attitudes stem from the competition between different social groups (Monti Intergroup Conflict 148). Thus, these inter-groups should address this competition by cooperating to fight a common enemy, crime.


The preceding discussions have analyzed the Ferguson Violence to determine how cities can respond to the emerging trend of urban violence. The United States experienced sporadic and widespread protest in the 1960s. The growth of cities and suburbs has ensured a decline in these incidents since the 60s. Conversely, violent riots that have occurred in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and other cities are now raising concerns. The principal issue is that these events have arisen from the repressive and unethical conduct of law enforcers. In addition, a return to the ethnic and racial tensions will destroy the fabric of American society. As such, it is essential to investigate the root cause of this violent behavior to develop efficient policies that will deter future occurrences.

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Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Atwal, Maya, and Edwin Bacon. “The Youth Movement Nashi: Contentious Politics, Civil Society, and Party Politics.” East European Politics 28.3 (2012): 256-266. Print.

Bleich, Erik, Carolina Caeiro and Sarah Luehrman. “State Responses to ‘Ethnic Riots’ in Liberal Democracies: Evidence from Western Europe.” European Political Science Review 2.2 (2010): 269-295. Print.

Borer, Michael, and Daniel Monti. “Community, Commerce and Consumption: Businesses as Civic Associations.” Varieties of Urban Experience. Ed. Michael Borer Varieties of Urban. Lannham: University Press of America, 2006. 39-62. Print.

Fisher, Marc and Wesley Lowery. Ferguson Violence Broke the Mold in Three Ways-One of Which is Just Unfolding Now. 2014. Web.

Katz, Michael B. “Why don’t American Cities Burn Very Often.” Journal of Urban History 34.2 (2008): 185-208. Print.

Monti, Daniel J. “Intergroup Conflict and Collective Violence: The Case of New York City.” Journal of political and sociology 6 (2014):147-162. Print.

“Patterns of Conflict Preceding the 1964 Riots.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 23.1 (2014): 41-69. Print.

Engaging Strangers: Civil Rights, Civic Capitalism, and Public Order in Boston. Boston: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2012. Print.

Wacquant, Loic. Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006. Print.