The recent rise of gun-related and racial violence in the United States has made the country a point of renewed contention abroad. From a European perspective, it appears to be a violent outbreak that could cause the U.S. to lapse into segregation, an unwelcome paradox for the “melting pot” of the world.
As foreigners are well aware, race-related outbursts of violence aren’t new to the United States. In 1992, Rodney King’s brutal treatment at the hands of police officers led to mass rioting in Los Angeles and resulted in $1 billion worth of property damage to the area. King’s final statement on the issue was the simple plea: “Can we all get along here?”
The early 1990s coincided with the end of the “Reagan Boom”, when the U.S. economy found itself deeply in debt, as savings and loan associations came crashing down while oil prices skyrocketed. The country’s output slowed, leaving thousands unemployed in its wake. The King riots took place two years into the recession, sparking a series of race riots that hadn’t been seen since the 1960s.
Interestingly, all of this caused the race discussion to move away from a narrow understanding of the divide between whites and blacks, with a larger focus on the widespread effects of rioting and violence as it affected cultural groups across the country. Fast-forward more than 20 years to 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The public outcry following this event led to mass rioting, which was exacerbated when police abuse of power was made public through social media. The following year, citizens of Baltimore protested the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who died of spinal cord injuries he suffered while in police custody. Protests over Gray’s death once again led to massive property damage and looting.
But are the root causes of America’s outbreaks of racial violence only skin deep? Or is there another, more insidious cause behind it? Upon closer examination, another pattern begins to emerge: that of economic inequality.