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The Evolution of Protest Discourse: from the Detroit Riots to Black Lives Matter


Source: BruceEmmerling


The 1967 Detroit Riots are considered by some to be the among the most violent riots in the history of the United States. Although initiated by the police raid of an illegal after-hours club, the Riots took place against the backdrop of a city strife with economic and racial tension. Predominantly black neighborhoods, such as Virginia Park, experienced severe overcrowding. Racial profiling and police brutality had become commonplace amongst the overwhelmingly white police force.

Racial tensions and discrimination were thus at the forefront of the discourse surrounding the Riots. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report (which sought to explore the events of the riots, what provoked them, and what could be done to prevent future riots) has been noted as a rich site in which to explore this discourse and how the Riots contributed to the nation’s understanding of “race” as well as “riots”. Matthew Hughey’s recently published article, “Of Riots and Racism: Fifty Years Since the Best Laid Schemes of the Kerner Commission, (1968-2018)”, explores the logic of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report and its contribution to the epistemology of race.

As Hughey notes, “race” and “riots” are hardly neutral or stable concepts. Rather, what is considered to be a racial issue or how a “riot” is defined (and delineated from a “protest”, for example) has great implications for the discourse surrounding such events and how they are handled in the future. With that in mind, Hughey explores how the Report defines and employs these concepts, particularly in regard to the assumptions, paradoxes, and silences in the report.

Hughey finds that the Report makes several peculiar assumptions about the nature of riots. First, riots are described as invariant events that are isolated from one another, rather than part of a broader social pattern. Furthermore, riots are described as destructive and reactionary events, rather than potentially being means for social reform or opportunities for introspection. Finally, Hughey argues that the Report does not explore the social processes behind riots; rather, riots are presented as independent events that are not rooted in a particular social environment. Even more, the Report often uses psychological moralistic explanations for riots, thus pinning their cause on individual decisions and psyches.

This conceptualization of riots is also rooted in the Report’s understanding of race. The Report rooted riots in the black community; consequently, riots and race are in some ways confounded. Whiteness, however, is only mentioned in regard to extremists (specifically white terrorists) rather than its role in everyday racism. As Hughey notes:

“…the KCR again retreated into the vague definition and left the causal role of racism unexplored. The ‘tension’ between the police and African Americans was not analyzed as a result of the white racist policing or white racist behaviors more generally, but ‘the total society’…” (Hughey 2018: 629).

Although the Kerner Commission Report speaks to events of the 1960s, it strikes me that these perspectives persist today and resonate with contemporary protests-particularly Black Lives Matter (BLM). Although clearly there are many differences between them, BLM, like the Detroit Riots, is a product of police brutality and racial tensions. Furthermore, the public discourse surrounding BLM offers a similar opportunity to explore how Americans come to define and understand race, riots, and their relationship.

BLM has undoubtedly shifted the discourse surrounding race and racism in this country and, yet, the pushback against it resonates with the assumptions made in the Kerner Commission Report nearly 60 years ago. First, critics of BLM seemingly continue to conflate race and violent protest. Despite the relatively peaceful nature of BLM, the fixation on particular photographs of protests, such as Robert Cohen’s iconic image of a protestor throwing a tear gas canister, shift the public’s focus towards the potential for violence. In reality, Cohen’s photograph documents a protestor throwing back a tear gas canister that the police had thrown towards the crowd, yet its true meaning has been overlooked in favor of an interpretation that paints the movement in a more negative light.

Additionally, white Americans have been similarly resistant to being accountable for the violence enacted towards African Americans. While some shift blame onto victims for their own deaths, others blame a few “bad apples” that have sullied the good name of law enforcement officers. Perhaps more striking is the counter-movement, “All Lives Matter”; “All Lives Matter” not only dismisses arguments that whites are somehow implicated in violence towards African Americans but also attempts to switch the discourse on victimization to include whites. Thus, like the discourse surrounding the Detroit Riots, contemporary conversation excludes how white Americans are implicated in everyday racism and, rather, points towards extremists. Furthermore, “All Lives Matter” rhetoric excuses white Americans from their accountability by erasing race from the conversation entirely.

Although clearly, our cultural understandings of race and racism have radically changed since the 1960’, it is also evident that many of our assumptions have persisted over time. This cursory comparison of BLM and the Kerner Commission Report demonstrates how race and violence are repeatedly conflated and whiteness continues to be left out of public discourse or, even, used to undermine progressive movements. This comparative approach demonstrates the need to further shift public discourse, particularly in regard to how white Americans use and deploy the concepts of “race” and “riot”.


By Jessica Poling



Carney, Nikita. 2016. “All Lives Matter, but so Does Race: Black Lives Matter and the Evolving Role of Social Media”, Humanity & Society 40(2):180-199.

Hughey, Matthew. 2018. “Of Riots and Racism: Fifty Years Since the Best Laid Schemes of the Kerner Commission, (1968-2018)”, Sociological Forum 33(3):619-642.

Lopez, German. “Why you should stop saying ‘all lives matters,’ explained in 9 different ways”, Vox. Jul 11 2016.

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