MEGAN MCARDLE: What Caused The 1968 Riots? A Lack Of Respect.
Fifty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, the scars of the riots that followed are only now fully healed in Washington. In other cities, they still aren’t. And we still don’t know exactly why they happened — or for that matter why the 1960s as a whole saw more rioting than the decades before or since.
What we can say with some confidence is that we can’t simply explain them as a function of unemployment and poverty.
Marxism as an ideology was crushed when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but as a method of analysis it still thrives. 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. . . .
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.
The great victories of the civil rights movement changed many things. Schools were integrated; funding disparities eased. But that didn’t obliterate the racism that still followed black people around stores, eyed them suspiciously on the street, dogged them in job interviews and caused the police to stop them for “walking while black.”
In the late 1960s, as the legal barriers fell, the gulf between legal status and social reality may have chafed more than usual. This is a hard theory to prove, and it may not be the whole explanation. But it’s probably more useful than yet another exegesis of the unemployment rate and housing conditions. After all, most people, for most of history, have lived in objectively wretched conditions without rioting. . . .
There are vast differences, of course, between the race riots of the 1960s and the 2016 election. But when we explain these events, the tendency toward economic reductionism looks very similar, as does its implausibility.
Many places that voted for Trump never had many factories to lose to China or Mexico; many factory towns turned to Trump only after decades of decline. What most consistently motivates the Trump supporters I’ve met is not jobs or racism but anger at a culturally powerful elite that veers between ignoring them and disrespecting every facet of their lives.
But no riots. Yet.