The Causes of the Detroit Riot
By David Henderson
On this day that commemorates the birthday of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my favorite bloggers, Timothy Taylor, aka the Conversable Economist, revisits the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 that examined the causes of the racial riots. I don’t claim to know all the causes of all the riots, but I do think that much of the commentary on the Kerner Commission’s report has missed some key facts in the report about the causes of the Detroit riot. That’s understandable because the Kerner Commission, despite reporting these facts, seemed to have missed their significance also.
Here’s what I wrote in my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey in a chapter titled “Free Markets versus Discrimination.”
During a five-day period in July 1967, 43 people were killed during a riot in Detroit’s inner city. President Johnson then appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the so-called Kerner Commission, named after the then-governor of Illinois who headed it–to look into the causes of that and other riots during the summer of 1967 and to make recommendations that would prevent such riots in the future. When its report came out in 1968, it made a big splash. The report stated that black poverty was a big cause of the Detroit riots, and its recommendations for more government jobs and housing programs for inner-city residents were explicitly based on that assumption. These recommendations are what received much of the publicity at the time and are what most people took away from the report. Too bad more people didn’t actually read the report. The Commission’s own account of the Detroit riot tells a different story. Here’s the report’s first paragraph on Detroit:
On Saturday evening, July 22, the Detroit Police Department raided five “blind pigs.” The blind pigs had their origin in prohibition days, and survived as private social clubs. Often, they were after-hours drinking and gambling spots.
These “blind pigs” were places that inner-city blacks went to be with their friends, to drink, and to gamble; in other words, they were places where people went to peacefully enjoy themselves and each other. The police had a policy of raiding these places, presumably because the gambling and drinking were illegal. The police expected only two dozen people to be at the fifth blind pig, the United Community and Civic League on 12th Street, but instead found 82 people gathered to welcome home two Vietnam veterans, and proceeded to arrest them. “Some,” says the Commission report, “voiced resentment at the police intrusion.” The resentment spread and the riot began.
In short, the triggering cause of the Detroit riot, in which more people were killed than in any other riot that summer, was the government crackdown on people who were going about their lives peacefully. The last straw for those who rioted was the government suppression of peaceful, albeit illegal, black capitalism. Interestingly, in its many pages of recommendations for more government programs, the Commission never suggested that the government should end its policy of preventing black people from peacefully drinking and gambling.
The government’s fingerprints show up elsewhere in the Commission’s report. Urban renewal “had changed 12th Street [where the riot began] from an integrated community into an almost totally black one…” says the report. The report tells of another area of the inner city to which the rioting had not spread. “As the rioting waxed and waned,” states the report, “one area of the ghetto remained insulated.” The 21,000 residents of a 150-square-block area on the northeast side had previously banded together in the Positive Neighborhood Action Committee (PNAC) and had formed neighborhood block clubs. These block clubs were quickly mobilized to prevent the riot from spreading to this area. “Youngsters,” writes the Commission, “agreeing to stay in the neighborhood, participated in detouring traffic.” The result: no riots, no deaths, no injuries, and only two small fires, one of which was set in an empty building.
What made this area different was obviously the close community the residents had formed. But why had a community developed there and not elsewhere? The report’s authors unwittingly hint at the answer. “Although opposed to urban renewal,” the Commission reports, “they [the PNAC] had agreed to co-sponsor with the Archdiocese of Detroit a housing project to be controlled jointly by the archdiocese and PNAC.” In other words, the area that had avoided rioting had also successfully resisted urban renewal, the federal government’s program of tearing down urban housing in which poor people lived and replacing it with fewer houses aimed at a more upscale market. Economist Martin Anderson, in his 1963 book, The Federal Bulldozer, showed that urban renewal had torn down roughly four housing units for every unit it built. The Commission, instead of admitting that urban renewal was a contributing factor, recommended more of it. Their phrasing is interesting, though, because it admits so much about the sorry history of the program:
Urban renewal has been an extremely controversial program since its inception. We recognize that in many cities it has demolished more housing than it has erected, and that it has often caused dislocation among disadvantaged groups.
Nevertheless, we believe that a greatly expanded but reoriented urban renewal program is necessary to the health of our cities.
In short, the commission’s remedy for poison was to increase the dosage.