Date of Award

Winter 2020

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cliff Brown

Second Advisor

Cesar Rebellon

Third Advisor

Lucy Salyer


This dissertation is a comparative analysis of American race riots, within and across historical eras, from Emancipation (1863) to the War on Drugs (1972). I argue that changes in the status of African-American citizenship produced different forms of race rioting. Examining riot events across eras reveals how ethical principles at the core of democracy are undermined in specific socio-historical contexts—especially equality of participation in collective self-governance. Congressional testimony, state-sponsored riot investigations, and archival data indicate that riots have been used historically to structure racial inequality in both political institutions and economic relations. While race riots have proven instrumental in maintaining white supremacy, Black rebellion has largely proven detrimental for African-American communities. Racial collective violence has enduring consequences, especially for economic inequality.Part I examines how whites systematically employed disciplinary riots to ‘redeem’ state governments for the Democratic Party for more than seven decades following the Civil War, with enduring structural consequences for African-American political participation and economic progress. The first two chapters analyze white riot violence from Reconstruction and Redemption (1863 - 1877). Chapters 3 through 5 examine white-initiated riot violence around the turn of the 20th century through World War I, a period of intensifying racism known as the Nadir of American race relations. Several riot events of this era border on racial cleansing: violence employed to rob, intimidate, and expel Black Americans from the community. Property was often transferred to white ownership when Black refugees did not return, hence white riot violence has implications for the present wealth gap separating blacks from whites in the U.S. Part II examines the rise of black militancy (1930 - 1972) and the corresponding shift in racial collective violence to Black rebellion. Chapter 6 examines the shift to Black-initiated collective violence, called reciprocal riot, between 1935 and 1943, during World War II. Chapter 7 shows how Black Americans used the rituals of violence to engage in compensatory rebellion against white supremacy, first in New York (1964) and then in Los Angeles (1965). Chapter 8 examines the racial explosion that occurred in 1967 and 1968—the peak years of Black rebellion—with an analysis of the two most destructive riot events of those years: Newark and Detroit. White Discipline, Black Rebellion concludes with a chapter that connects these findings with the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s racial reckoning that began to unfold in 2020. The urban riots of the 1960s and early 70s had significant consequences for Black communities, including the militarization of law enforcement. Race riots have been weaponized against African-American advancement at critical points in United States history. This dissertation traces how disciplinary violence proved instrumental in the maintenance of white supremacy, especially in the seven decades following the Civil War; conversely, rebellion impeded Black progress, both politically and economically, with consequences that endure across generations.