Book Review of "The Deadly Riot" by Donald Horowitz

By Kevin Lamb
Volume 11, Number 3 (Spring 2001)
Issue theme: "George W. Bush, last Republican president? And does it matter?"

Over the past few months, violence has engulfed several multi-ethnic regions across several continents, from Borneo to Macedonia to Zimbabwe. Meanwhile newly released U.S. Census figures reveal a sizable demographic trend in the ethnic transformation of America's population. The census data expose substantial underestimates for illegal immigrants who have entered the U.S. since 1990, and provide new evidence for the continued balkanization of major urban areas like New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. Perhaps even more disturbing, the latest census results show an influx of Hispanic immigrants across America's suburban landscape, with pronounced demographic consequences for the nation's heartland.

The critical factor that links these domestic and international trends is ethnicity. Several recent front-page articles in the Washington Post underscore its significance. One of two below-the-fold stories in the final edition of March 16 proclaims, "Immigration Fueling Big U.S. Cities; N.Y. Population Tops 8 Million, a Record," while the adjacent article declares, "Ethnic Warfare Finds Macedonia; Once-Peaceful Country Drawn Into Regional Conflict." Again, the ethnic dimension is the one factor that connects these two unrelated events. Moreover, another front-page Washington Post article less than a week later carries the following headline: "The Culture Clash Next Door; Neighborhood Quarrels Take On Ethnic Tint as [Prince George's County] Gains Hispanics." The article highlights the cultural rift in a feuding relationship between an elderly African-American leader of a local civic association and her younger Hispanic neighbor, a recent El Salvadoran immigrant. This particular conflict is reinforced by a set of clashing values, interests, and expectations that expose an ethno-cultural divide in one of Maryland's more ethnically diverse counties.

While multi-ethnic societies continue to unravel around the world, launching new waves of violence, Americans are constantly reassured by "educated" elites that a healthy society is one that is increasingly "diverse" and that their national survival rests upon a multi-ethnic future. Ethnic tribalism continues to fuel much of the violence across Africa, Eastern Europe, and Indonesia. Why should Americans believe that the source of these destructive trends abroad - multi-ethnic diversity - is the solution to their own future well-being? As Jan and Birgitta S. Tullberg, economists at the University of Stockholm, point out, ethnic conflicts have killed millions "since the end of World War II." Yet some scholars deny that inherited human traits contribute to the fatal consequences of clashing ethnic groups.

A few perceptive scholars are beginning to reassess the importance of ethnicity in human endeavors, given the persistence of ethnic conflict. Just what exactly is ethnicity? What societal implications arise from resource competition between ethnic groups? What causes ethnic violence and, in particular, what conditions spark ethnic riots? Are increasingly diverse, multi-ethnic societies inherently unstable?

Two exceptional books, distinct but complementary, scrutinize various aspects of ethnicity. Donald L. Horowitz, James B. Duke Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University, is the recent author of The Deadly Ethnic Riot, an encyclopedic panorama that dissects the various stages of an ethnic riot as a distinct form of violence. Pierre L. van den Berghe's The Ethnic Phenomenon, first published in 1981 and re-released in 1987 as a paperback, puts forth the sociobiological case that ethnicity is a natural phenomenon - an inherent condition of human nature. By viewing ethnicity through a sociobiological prism, van den Berghe's thesis runs counter to the prevailing anthropological zeitgeist.

In order to understand the conditions that propel an ethnic riot, one must first grasp the essentials of ethnicity. Common bonds of language, culture, and race forge the basis for ethnic differences. The pioneering research of E. O. Wilson and W. D. Hamilton on the evolutionary origins of human social behavior paved the way for the empirical framework of sociobiology. This emerging cross-disciplinary field regards kinship, the social ranking of genetic relationships, as the key to understanding altruistic patterns of human behavior.

Van den Berghe views ethnicity as an extended form of kinship. Human relationships typically emerge along ethnic lines from mutual ties of language, culture, and race, much like the old clich´┐Ż of like gravitating to like. The benchmark for reciprocal social interaction is a common set of traits, interests, customs, and values. People interact with and seek out other people much like themselves, often joining clubs and associations like the Elks, Moose Lodge or Lions Clubs for the camaraderie of friendship and goodwill. By the same token, a self-assortment process leads most individuals to seek out communities that are compatible with their own values and interests. These shared experiences more often than not reflect intra-ethnic patterns; that these social bonds and associations generate ethnic solidarity, and to some degree ethnocentrism, is simply not a coincidence.

Again, kinship is the key to understanding this "This emerging cross-disciplinary field [of sociobiology] regards kinship, the social ranking of genetic relationships, as the key to understanding altruistic patterns of human behavior."level of human interaction and cooperation; the extent to which people are genetically and culturally related in terms of a common ancestry. (Some geneticists continue to make untenable claims, primarily on ideological grounds, that inherited human differences, in terms of biological and behavioral traits, are genetically insignificant.) In articulating the sociobiological claim that ethnicity is a stubborn fact of nature, van den Burghe argues that ethnicity is nothing more than a natural division of mankind. As a scholar with progressive views, van den Burghe presents a reasonably objective case that societies would be better off accepting the reality of ethnic differences and understand their larger social and political implications than trying to airbrush them out of the picture. In fact, the author devotes most of his book to examining ethnicity's larger social and political contexts and reconsidering the ethnic dimensions of the nation-state, caste societies, class differences, colonialism, slavery, and resource competition.

According to van den Burghe, ethnic group competition often sparks ethnic conflict. He identifies three "mechanisms" - specialization, territoriality, and hierarchy - that massage competition over resources. In terms of resource competition, these broad conditions usually regulate ethnic relations. Politically, multi-ethnic states can vary from autocratic colonialism and imperialism to the collectivism of liberal social democracies. South Africa is an example of a nation-state that implemented a set of ethnocentric laws (apartheid), which although ethnically repressive, maintained a given degree of order and continuity for the minority-ruled government. As van den Burghe points out, "Most states that embark on such an official policy of recognizing and entrenching ethnic pluralism are quite fragile."

The flip side of ethnicity, as a natural category of group differences, is that the symbiotic in-group/out-group arrangement can, under certain circumstances, generate between-group animosities. The right combination of factors can produce what Horowitz refers to as the "deadly ethnic riot." Although similar circumstances could trigger other kinds of ethnic violence, lethal ethnic riots are distinct forms of ethnic turmoil. Ethnic rioters specifically target other ethnic groups, typically in vengeful waves of assaults. Furthermore, ethnic rioters usually coordinate and carry out their lethal objectives in carefully orches-trated attacks rather than in randomly inadvertent and spontaneous upheavals. The rioters typically have a reputation for aggression while the window for conducting a violent rampage usually occurs when the threat of reprisal or retaliation is minimal.

Horowitz's magisterial tome covers a vast amount of research on the topic of ethnic rioting, analyzing and dissecting various stages and phases of conditions that culminate in ethnic riots. What emerges, as in the case of van den Burghe's work, is a sobering view that departs from conventional "progressive" theories of ethnicity. Both van den Berghe and Horowitz stress the fact that standard models of ethnicity no longer hold up under empirical scrutiny. Horowitz considers that much of this theorizing has been vacuous and has overlooked the actual sources of ethnic animosity. Perhaps unparalleled in scope, this account is likely be the definitive study for some time.

Examples vary in terms of the magnitude of severity, from the Rwandan massacres of 1994 in which the Hutu majority brutally slaughtered the lives of 800,000 to one million of the rival Tutsi minority, to the recent small-scale ethnic riot that occurred in Seattle on Fat Tuesday, where a predominantly black mob of rioters caused one death, seventy injuries and considerable property damage. Horowitz claims that the West remains relatively free of widespread ethnic rioting, unlike Sri Lanka, Ghana or India, but much of the ethnic violence more common in the West, from "lynchings" to "wilding" episodes, falls outside of Horowitz's ontological analysis. Nevertheless, as the U.S. population begins to reflect the indigenous nature of Third World nations, will "deadly ethnic riots" be far behind?

When it comes to multi-cultural diversity, the ethnic factor goes to the core issue of assimilation - the nationalization process that allows host countries to absorb recent immigrants. The political stability of the nation-state becomes fragile if immigrant groups retain their ethno-cultural homogeneity rather than assimilate into their host countries. By solidifying their group status, usually within a defined geographic region, various ethnic blocks cultivate their group's bargaining influence as political leverage. One problem that confronts an increasingly pluralistic multi-ethnic society involves transfer-of-wealth schemes: How large should the size of the public sector be? What criteria should determine how the public pie gets divided? Given the size constraints of the public sector, are increasingly diverse nations, with expanding dissimilar needs, capable of maintaining an orderly tranquil society when additional strains are placed on a limited public sector? Again, the issue of resource competition looms large, for which groups stand to benefit the most from increases in the public sector? The same groups that continue to stagnate relative to per capita income, educational test scores, health benefits, energy, transportation, and child care allowances.

As Garrett Hardin points out, "Whenever a nation commits itself to internal multiculturalism, it is headed for trouble." On the outskirts of suburbia, rural America is witnessing a steady transformation in which the Mosque, Temple, and Hindu Shrine are replacing the rustic "Chew-Mail-Pouch-Tobacco" barns of local farmers as regional landmarks. In north Silver Spring, MD, on Route 29, just a few miles from rural farmland, motorists pass two signs in the southbound lane that proclaim, "Support Justice for Sikhs in India." While the "managerial elite" in the United States insists on radically transforming the national character, the ethnic factor continues to reverberate with warning signs about the future of the glorious "Melting Pot."

About the author

Kevin Lamb is a library assistant for Newsweek magazine.