I remember watching “Do the right thing” in American history class
and thinking at the end, “but what about the property damage?”
And then the teacher said “The white students always complain about the
property damage and the black students always talk about the behavior of
I was suitably embarrassed.
The issue brings to mind the old refrain of propertied people about riots with burnings: “why would they burn their own homes?”
Now, this is assuming that they burned those places deliberately! It is
entirely possible that a normal house fire got out of hand because the
firefighters couldn’t get there like they normally would. In the era of
the Watts riots and the April riots of 1968, there were a lot more houses and buildings burning than now because of
faulty wiring, no smoke detectors, people smoking, no circuit breakers,
and so on.
But, if we are
assuming that someone DID burn these places deliberately, we are
assuming that it was the rioters with their grievances, and not some
nefarious fiend who decided to use the riot as cover for their own
arson. A mass of people running around hitting each other and breaking
windows is an excellent time to do things that would otherwise get
If we assume that it WAS the rioters with their grievances, it is possible that, in the chaos of the situation, when so many people give themselves over to fury, they don't really know or care what they're burning, because the violence is all, and if the riot spreads to a certain place then fire is sure to follow. In many cases, as with the 1968 riots and the Rodney King riots, this was precisely the case. Why, they must be a bunch of mindless hoodlums then! No respect for property at all!
Which should really not be surprising, because most of these people don't own property.
And never will.
Notwithstanding the ways in which this issue has affected all non-white people in the United States, let us focus on its manifestation in the 20th century against black people. Over the course of the 20th century, black people have been
deliberately, systematically, flagrantly, loudly
excluded from owning any landed property whatsoever. In the 1940s
the wartime building projects were accompanied by a deliberate
re-segregation effort in the coastal cities, an effort demanded by the
WASPs in the federal government, such that in the dawn of the fucking Space Age you still had black people shoved into tent cities.
Such a mass of people in such a situation
would have a very different relationship to property than people who
expect to be able to buy a house. If you're black in a city north of D.C. any time between 1905 and 1980, you almost assuredly don't grow up thinking you might own a house someday.
Some of you reading this
are white folks. Perhaps Millennials. And one of the things I’ve heard
Millennials complaining about on the internet is “we can’t even afford
houses anymore.” Anymore. That is a pretty White thing to say,
because they're part of a cohort that, in its previous generations, once had a reasonable, widespread expectation to afford a house and keep it with the approval of the town and
the government. Maybe get a cheapo house if they're working class, but the broadness of white american prosperity in the 1940 - 2008 period, and the invention of the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, meant that landed property, from an acre to a postage stamp, was something that white people could factor into their individual plans for the future.
And this assumption is falling apart, as wages stagnate and prices rise. So, many members of my generation are angry because they feel excluded from the
power, prestige and freedom that property bestows. In some ways they are
the first generation of white folks in American history to say to themselves “what if
none of us can afford land?” And it is a disturbing thought, for white
folks, because so much of the history of white people in America is
about always having the chance to own land, somewhere west of Here.
(It's still pretty cheap in rural areas, but you have to put up with conservative neighbors and godawful job prospects.)
by houses and I resent them, now, for being something that I can never
have, for reminding me that all the promises that were made to me about prosperity and
The Economic Ladder were a fucking lie.
That’s a white person’s
perspective. Imagine what it’s like to know from your early years that
nobody will ever let you own property. You’d look at houses and
apartments a bit differently.
And if you keep getting kicked
from one apartment to another because your rent depends on bosses that
hire and fire at random, or because the property is being redeveloped,
or whatever nonsense it is this time…it’s hard to get too attached to
any particular abode.
And as for the conditions in such
apartments…Mike Royko spoke of ramshackle towers in Chicago where the
railing on a balcony was nothing more than a rusty chain-link fence, and
it gave way one time to let a few children fall to their deaths. No
services would go there, not firemen nor police nor utilities nor even
ambulances, sometimes. Black people in the 1970s had to beg the police
to actually visit their neighborhoods.
As for the conditions
now, I have seen places in my home city where
porches were rotting and falling down and paint was peeling. I did not
think then about what those places were like inside, but then I saw news
photos where the black mold made the apartment look like a rotting
hamburger. The landlord had come to fix things not once; the inspectors
had come and gone “check check check OK looks good.” IF they had
actually come at all. A sordid story of sordid stories, har har har.
imagine that if someone has been through all that, having received no
from their landlord, no repairs, and no messages, having seen nothing
resembling a city government that cares, they would not see a fire as
being much worse than living among rats and mold.
It’s not surprising that such people would say “burn baby burn”, whether or not they set the fires themselves.