The Kids are All White: Riots, Pathology and the Real Meaning of Color-Blindness

Published as a ZNet Commentary, August 26, 1999

O.K., so let me get this straight: If people of color respond to an unjust verdict in a police brutality trial, not to mention years of racial and economic oppression, by taking to the streets, burning stuff, looting stores and engaging in assorted violence, it’s called a riot. But if white kids get angry at the thought of paying $10 for a veggie burrito during a three-day music festival, and decide to burn stuff, loot ATM machines, throw human feces at camera crews, and engage in assorted violence, that’s called a disturbance, or likened to “a frat party to a large degree,” or considered mere “youthful exuberance?”

And whereas the first event is “raced” — that is, discussed as a racial event, or “race riot,” — the latter is discussed as a “youth melee,” with no mention of the racial makeup of said youngsters. Welcome to the color-blind world of 1999: where color is still quite visible, but where whiteness remains unobservable to the naked eye; where deviance and anti-social behavior remain individualized when the perpetrators of said mayhem are melanin-challenged, but where race becomes the focal point of analysis whenever the black and brown are involved.

And while most commentators avoid discussing the conditions that contribute to the first kind of uprising (as if mere irrationality causes those people to lose control), they pay ample attention to the root causes of white violence. In the case of Woodstock ’99, these included “conditions that were deplorable and animalistic,” to quote one MTV commentator: among them, not only the overpriced cuisine — including $4 pretzels and bottled water (oh the humanity!) — but also the fact that the trash wasn’t picked up for three days! To quote another MTV spokesperson: “It was like a concentration camp.” Indeed, Mauthausen and Dachau surely had nothing on the open field in Rome, New York.

Excuse me, but this is some bullshit. What happened at Woodstock was not a sociopolitical rebellion against corporate greed and expensive foodstuffs (after all, these same folks thought nothing of forking over $150 for tickets, nor additional hundreds for corporate beer, t-shirts, tattoos and body-piercings). And it was not, as one of the event organizers claimed, the work of “a few knuckleheads,” or better yet, “anarchists.” This was a riot: in fact, if the thing which makes a race riot a race riot is the overwhelming involvement of people of one race in the festivities, then this was a race riot. Ninety-nine percent of those involved were white, to judge from attendance figures and news coverage. Compare this with the multicultural riots in Los Angeles in 1992: thirteen percent white, twenty-five percent black (betcha’ never heard that before), and sixty percent Latino. Yet, everyone considers that to have been a race riot–in fact a black riot, which statistically it was not.

So let’s play a game: Let’s imagine that 225,000 black folks — mainly young adults — were to gather for a three-day concert. And let’s imagine a significant number of these were to flaunt their drug use and underage alcohol consumption, within sight of cameras and security. And let’s imagine that a sizable minority of these black youth — on the third day of the event — began overturning parked cars, ripping up tents and vendor booths, pulling down lighting stands and speaker scaffolding, and finally, setting fires throughout the venue.

In this scenario, would anyone refuse to call it a riot? Would there have only been thirty-seven arrests (only seven for activities connected to the rioting) — as was the case at Woodstock — despite the thousands involved in illegal activity from the time the gates first opened? What’s more, does anyone believe that an event where ninety-nine percent of the attendees were people of color — even if it were one-tenth the size of the crowd at Woodstock — would have been allowed to happen at all with no official law enforcement presence? Because that’s what happened here: no police on the premises until ninety minutes after the rioting began. Prior to that, there were only security guards, untrained to deal with a riot situation, not to mention the half-dozen or so sexual assaults and rapes that apparently occurred.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Woodstock should have been run like a police state, nor that folks should have been busted for smoking pot. I’m simply saying that this event was treated differently than would have been a “black event,” where the majority of participants were of color. Consider the reaction during the recent Hot 97 concert at the Meadowlands: according to press reports, when a few members of an “angry crowd” of a thousand black folks began pushing security guards after they were locked out of the hip-hop show — despite having tickets — hundreds of cops descended on the venue immediately. According to the New York Daily News: “An Army of state troopers, New Jersey Transit police, and cops from a dozen nearby towns brought the outburst under control in about forty minutes.” Likewise, when black collegians gathered in Atlanta for the annual “Freaknik” a few years back, the entire police force was mobilized, and the first sign of lawlessness — including minor traffic violations — was met with the full force of law enforcement: searches, pat-downs, ticketing, and arrest.

Needless to say, at neither of these events, nor the popular Smokin’ Grooves Tour in 1997 — largely attended by people of color — would folks have been able to sell $48 bongs (as was done at Woodstock): after all, drug use and paraphernalia are illegal for those with dark skin, as a brief look at who’s filling our jail cells will make abundantly clear.

And of course that the racial makeup of the Woodstock rioters was a non-issue from the beginning is no surprise. Whenever whites engage in destructive behavior, their race is seen as irrelevant, whereas the same acts engaged in by Blacks or Latinos bring out the chorus of neo-eugenicists, clamoring to explain how there’s something either genetic or culturally defective about the swarthier types which causes them to act that way.

So when white boys, and only white boys, shoot up or blow up their schools; and when whites, and only whites, get involved with some ritualistic, Satanic, vampire cult that kills folks and cannibalizes them; and when white folks (at least ninety percent of the time) are the ones committing serial murder, it’s as if no one can see skin color anymore. But let black folks do some of that crazy shit just once, and see how long it takes for the racial pathology police to flash their pseudo-intellectual badges.

And Woodstock wasn’t the first white riot to be deracialized by the media as of late. This kind of thing happens all the time, with little comment from the larger society. Since 1995 alone, there have been riots involving white college students at Colorado University in Boulder, Iowa State, Penn State, the Universities of Wisconsin at Whitewater and Oshkosh, Southern Illinois University, the University of Delaware, Michigan State, Washington State, the University of Akron and the University of New Hampshire. And for what reason did these students decide to burn, loot and destroy? Either because of the results of a football game, or because of a crackdown on underage drinking. So here I sit, patiently waiting for Charles Murray to explain to me with scientific precision what it is about white folks’ DNA that makes them riot for the sake of $1 tequila shots.

All kidding aside, the fact is that our unwillingness to break out of well-worn stereotypes about what danger looks like — and thus, our widespread adherence to the notion that people of color are the ones to watch out for — makes us all less safe and is the source of widespread injustice. Most obviously, it means that people of color will continue to bear the brunt of discrimination by those who perceive them deviant, pathological and criminally-inclined: a form of discrimination which many commentators like Dinesh D’Souza have deemed “rational,” given the supposed disproportionate law-breaking by Blacks and Latinos.

Likewise, skewed perceptions of criminality cause us to let down our guards to many of the most serious threats to public safety: not only the random violence engaged in by whites, but also the well-calculated violence of wealthy whites in corporate America–folks whose decisions each year contribute directly to injury, illness and even death. And that’s a kind of violence the “root causes” of which no one seems interested in researching.

Yes, it’s been a banner summer for white violence: Ben Smith’s shooting spree, Woodstock ’99, the day-trader in affluent Buckhead, the delivery driver in Gadsden, Alabama, and now the neo-Nazi who shot up the Jewish Community Center in L.A. Surely this is enough of a trend to warrant a few hundred thousand dollars from the Bradley foundation to study the phenomenon and a book deal with the Free Press.

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