Why don’t American cities burn?

I recently attended UPenn Prof. Michael Katz’s book talk at the New America Foundation. In Why Don’t American Cities Burn, Katz offers a historical analysis of the systemic and social constraints to violent collective action by minorities in U.S. cities which, Katz argues, result from a set of profound economic and political transformations. Although I found Katz’s three-tiered argument refreshing and generally convincing, I took issue with his focus on inner-city poverty among African-Americans specifically and why, unlike in the 1960s and 1990s, this situation was unlikely to incite major violence missed major aspects of contemporary urban dynamics. As much as racially motivated spatial phenomena have mattered in post-war U.S. urban history–and one clearly find parallels in the urban riots in France–, recent uprisings in London, Seattle, Oakland or Vancouver demonstrate that racial tensions are only one possible trigger. To be fair, Katz published the book prior to the Occupy movement; still, it seems to me that characterizing the U.K. riots primarily as an outbreak of racial tensions misses the point. Unfortunately Katz’s answer to my question [at 1:03:10 of the recording] wasn’t really clear; he stated dissatisfaction with attempts made thus far to explain these riots and that he intended to conduct his own investigation. Let’s hope that race won’t be the sole interpretive lens applied in this effort. Cities are arenas for the staging of social and economic protests writ large, which may or may not reflect racial dimensions.

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