America hasn't had a rash of mass urban violence in a generation. In fact, the scene of burning inner cities is commonly linked with a single, now distant moment in U.S. history, at the height of racial unrest in the 1960s.
Urban riots, though, have periodically broken out around the world since then. Athens is on fire again. London combusted last summer, right around the same time violent protesters assembled in the streets of manufacturing cities in southern China. And then there was Paris in 2005. In many ways, it's curious this hasn't happened more recently in U.S. cities (or with the Occupy movement for that matter).
"Alienation, youth unemployment, distrust of police," says University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz, "these things are surely as prevalent in the U.S. as they were in France."
If anything, the conditions that fuel urban violence – income inequality, poverty, joblessness – are as disheartening in America as ever, in the wake of a deep recession.
"So why," Katz asks, "had collective violence more or less disappeared from the streets of American cities?"
He tackles this question in a new book, Why Don't American Cities Burn?, which he discussed Friday in Washington at a forum hosted by the New America Foundation. What's so striking about his answer is that many of the trends implicated in our quiet streets are not necessarily good ones. It's true, American cities aren't burning. But we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet.
Some of Katz' explanations are good news: Previously marginalized groups that once felt they had no other outlet now have more voices in the political process. White flight ceded whole cities – and their governments – to African Americans in the U.S. And this left neighborhood boundaries less contentious, Katz argues, eliminating one of the causes of urban friction. In the 1960s, by contrast, large numbers of African Americans were moving into the city at a time when whites had not yet left.
Minorities are also more incorporated into high-end jobs, universities and neighborhoods today. Katz adds, though, that this selective incorporation (which has benefited black women much more than men) has fractured minority communities, and eroded their potential for collective action.
Some of his other explanations are decidedly more troubling. Populations that once rioted have now joined the "consumer republic," in which more people are able to buy material symbols of the good life, if not the good life itself. Authorities have ramped up their surveillance and control tactics – along with the country's prison population – which puts a damper on organizing in the first place. And Katz points in particular to a general de-politicization in American life that undercuts communities' likelihood for civil action. It's not that our urban problems have gone away (while they remain in Athens, London and Paris). But some of the capacity to fight them has.
"It's good that we don't have mass civil violence, for sure," Katz says. "But the question is: Why don't we have more political mobilization?"
Top image: Protesters hurl rocks at police during a violent anti-austerity demonstration in central Athens February 12, 2012. (Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)