In the late-1980s, I was teaching criminal justice, and my most popular course focused on Terrorism and Political Violence. In that course, one of my regular lectures concerned the impact of racial conflict and urban rioting on the U.S. presidential election in the then-inconceivably distant year of 2016. My discussion was firmly tongue-in-cheek, a theoretical exercise in postulating cyclical patterns in American violence. In light of recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere, though, and with spreading tensions between police and African-American communities, I wonder if the time has come to brush off my crystal ball.
My choice of 2016 was anything but random. Over the past century or so, racially-based rioting in the U.S. has followed chronological patterns that are remarkably consistent, although the reasons underlying these cycles are anything but clear. Particularly serious and major events occur at intervals of about 48 years, with more minor and sporadic outbreaks at the mid-point of that long cycle. Do understand that I am not offering any mystical forms of numerological interpretation here. I merely remark that, for whatever reasons, events have followed this pattern.
Although the pattern can be traced back into the mid-1890s, we might begin our observation in 1919, the hideous year of racial rioting and lethal pogroms in Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, and other centers. James Weldon Johnson memorably called it the Red Summer. Moving forward 24 years, we note serious but more localized outbreaks of racial conflict in 1943, with upheavals in Harlem and Detroit.
Another 24 years beyond that takes us to 1967, by far the worst year of the urban rioting of that decade. That was the legendary Long Hot Summer, when observers tabulated 159 riots across the nation. It was in 1967 that Newark burned, while the U.S. government sent the 82nd Airborne into Detroit.
Twenty-four years later, historically-inclined observers breathed a sigh of relief when 1991 passed without any grave outbreaks. The following Spring, though, brought the Los Angeles riots, and many lesser copycat events around the country. I stress that the pattern suggests gaps of roughly 24 years, rather than following a precise chronology.
It is not difficult to trace long-term historical patterns and even mystical dates. All you need to is to cherry-pick particular events, while ignoring others that do not fit the scheme. In this case, though, a pattern seems to emerge without such special pleading, as is suggested by the rarity of riots between the various peak years. Between the mid-1960s wave of riots and the Los Angeles events, for instance, American suffered remarkably few racial disturbances, the only real exception being the Miami riot of 1980.
Assuming they are grounded in some reality, what might account for such cycles? The obvious linkage is demographic, in that 24 years is roughly the span of a generation. We might for instance suggest that racial tensions rise to the point where they provoke severe violence, but that violence has far-reaching consequences. The sheer scale of loss and destruction deters people from seeking any recurrence of the event. Meanwhile, governments act to prevent such repetitions. The 1943 riots profoundly affected the thinking of liberals, inspiring the civil rights drive of the following two decades. Over time, though, new generations arise, lacking direct memories of the earlier carnage, and thus prepared to risk open confrontations with authority.
And so we list the years of major national violence: the Red Summer of 1919, the Long Hot Summer of 1967… and 2015? That was the theme of my long-ago lecture, and why I was speculating about whether those imaginary events might indeed have an impact on the presidential election immediately following. Hence my choice of 2016.
If this speculation proves unfounded, I look forward to publishing a groveling apology this time next year. I would love to be wrong.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Images of Terror: What We Can and Can’t Know About Terrorism . He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.