In the past two weeks, cities around the United States (and throughout the world) have erupted in protests for racial equality sparked by the death of George Floyd — an unarmed black man killed by the police. Floyd was suffocated by a Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, even as Floyd told him “I can’t breathe.”
While the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, outbreaks of rioting and looting have occurred and received a disproportionate amount of coverage and attention. As a result, the descriptor “race riot” has appeared in the news and on social media.
When Americans think of race riots, they may remember recent events such as the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri protesting Michael Brown’s death at the hands of the police, or the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles, California protesting Rodney King’s brutal beating by the police. However, these modern demonstrations against racial injustice have little to do with the race riots of the twentieth century.
Merriam-Webster defines a race riot as “a riot caused by racial dissensions or hatreds,” and when many Americans hear the term, they envision a clash between two racial groups, with both sides contributing equally to the violence. However, as Lauren Jackson writes in Essence Magazine, historically “race riots were not interracial struggles but were coordinated acts against the possibility of black survival.”
Race riot is a problematic term because it “doesn’t lay blame on anyone—it just indicates that two racial groups were at odds,” said Dr. Meghan Martinez, a professor in Florida State University’s Department of History who specializes in racial violence and racial injustice in the US. “The reality is that most if not all ‘race riots’ are acts of aggression perpetrated by one group against another. In American history, the aggressor has most often been white mobs who attack either neighboring black communities or black people within their own communities.”
In the early twentieth century, “race riot” emerged as a euphemistic descriptor used by the white-controlled media to describe the attempted massacres of black communities. By implying that there was blame on “both sides,” it reframed the narrative from one of white supremacist violence and intimidation against innocent black citizens to one of equal violence and racial grievance, obscuring who the real perpetrators and victims were.
In actuality, most of these so-called “race riots” were massacres. For example, in the Tulsa, Oklahoma Race Riot, which took place almost a century ago in 1921, white Tulsans “deliberately burned or otherwise destroyed homes credibly estimated to have numbered 1,256, along with virtually every other structure — including churches, schools, businesses, even a hospital and library — in the Greenwood district,” a prosperous black neighborhood also known as “Black Wall Street.” 300 people were also killed in the riots, but “not one of these criminal acts was then or ever has been prosecuted or punished by government at any level: municipal, county, state, or federal” (Tulsa Historical Society and Museum).
The intention of white Americans in Tulsa was clear — to raze a successful black neighborhood to the ground and kill or drive all black Tulsans out of the community. However, the white press termed Tulsa a “race riot,” and the label has stuck. “To call something like the destruction of Black Wall Street the Tulsa Race Riot is a complete misnomer,” Martinez said “The black community who lived there were wholly outmatched, invaded, and violently attacked (even bombed) by a violent white mob.”
According to Martinez, the causes of race riots differed, but were usually rooted in white Americans’ desire to punish black communities for a perceived “transgression” against the white supremacist order. “Sometimes… they have become financially successful (like in Tulsa, OK), sometimes they are attacked for wanting to vote (like in Ocoee, FL), sometimes it is because of an accusation of sexual assault or murder of a white woman (like in, Rosewood, FL),” she said. However, “the end results of these ‘race riots’ is often the same — Black people are murdered, their homes, businesses, and churches are razed, and it is made clear to black communities that although the institution of slavery is a thing of the past, white people still have power over them.”
Much like the police killings of unarmed black men and women in modern America, “so many of these so-called riots begin and end this way, with Black people doing something that ought to be so ordinary—working, walking, writing, praying—and being met with white terror for their trouble” (Jackson). Although there is no equivalent between the massacres of black communities in the twentieth century and modern demonstrations calling for racial justice, neither should be characterized as race riots. “I wouldn’t even call actions incited by black communities today “race riots,” I would call them civil uprisings,” Martinez said. “We have to be honest about power structures in America. We are only calling these events “race riots” because we see the race of the actors rather than the actual issues at hand.”
Using the term “race riot” now to describe the protests and insurrections taking place throughout America serves the same purpose that the label has historically — to obscure who committed the act of violence which began these protests — white Americans — and to depict the black Americans expressing a desire to live their lives free of violence and harassment as morally on par with the white Americans committing violence and harassment. Referring to white supremacist massacres and justified uprisings by black Americans as “race riots” can even be a called a form of gaslighting — yet another example of the powerful co-opting the language of victimization to make the people they are oppressing wonder if they really have it all that bad.
Language doesn’t just reflect a society’s reality, it also shapes it. It is therefore important to recognize the history of “race riot” functioning as a misnomer used to cover up massacres, and to refrain from using the term to describe the uprisings currently happening in the United States. “The uprisings were spurred by the death of George Floyd, but they are not just about George Floyd. They are about all of the injustice that led to this moment—they are about protesting a country where a man like George Floyd could be killed mercilessly in broad day light, on camera, crying out for his mother while the police officers who killed him banked on the fact that their badges would protect them from murder charges,” Martinez said “Until America makes good on the promise of equality for all citizens, we will continue to see these explosions.”