Until now, I have assumed that there are two possible mid-term outcomes to our current moment of urban unrest. Either — and this is the optimistic option — we finally have a long-awaited public reckoning with the history and official policies that have systematically harmed black, urban communities, picking back up, a half-century later, the warnings of the 1968 Kerner Report that America was moving toward two separate and unequal societies, one black, one white. Or, I figured, we'd forget about all of this in a matter of weeks and move on.
Jonathan Chait, though, points to a third possibility over at New York Magazine, citing new research from Princeton's Omar Wasow. Consider, instead of progress, or even the status quo, that we get something worse.
Chait was responding to the many people who've argued over the last few weeks that rioting can be a necessary catalyst to positive social change. It gave us, after all, the Kerner Commission, which drafted a remarkably honest assessment of race relations in America (even if we failed to follow much of its guidance). Chait:
But the question is not whether rioting ever yields a productive response, but whether it does so in general. Omar Wasow, an assistant professor at the department of politics at Princeton, has published a timely new paper studying this very question. And his answer is clear: Riots on the whole provoke a hostile right-wing response. They generate attention, all right, but the wrong kind.
Violent protest in the 1960s yielded a backlash, Wasow's research found, a retrenching around law-and-order rather than a recognition that something in our law-and-order was broken. Wasow compared public opinion prioritizing "social control" over civil rights with the timing of different kinds of civil unrest. And he analyzed county-level voting patterns following the violence, too, and found that "black-led protests in which some violence occurs are associated with a statistically significant decline in Democratic vote-share in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential elections."
Non-violent protests didn't have this effect. Rioting did. The resulting backlash, Chait points out, lasted decades, in the form of a bipartisan obsession with "tough-on-crime" policies that we are only now starting to dial back today.
If, as a country, we spend the coming months talking about the need to double down on social control in the city, we will have entirely missed both the point and the moment. We'll have missed the chance to talk about how segregated housing drives unequal access to good schools and opportunity, how concentrated poverty perpetuates disadvantage, how thoughtful policies might reverse this cycle. And, what's more, once again, we'll have made the problem worse.