Earlier this week, President Biden gave a speech on the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. In 1921, white mobs burned down 35 square blocks of a Black area in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said to be at the time one of the wealthiest Black communities in America. The violence was set off after 10 white people and two Black people were killed in a standoff outside a jail where a Black crime suspect was being held. A 2001 Oklahoma state commission found death certificates for 39 people who died in the Tulsa riots, 26 black and 13 white, although there are unsubstantiated reports that there may have been as many as 300 killed. The economic damage that resulted from the destruction of “Black Wall Street,” as the area was known, is estimated at about $200 million in today’s money.
“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try,” Biden said, calling the massacre “an act of hate and domestic terrorism with a through line that exists today, still.”
The idea that the wounds of the massacre persist is one shared by much of the press. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have all argued that Tulsa destroyed generations of Black wealth, the effects of which can be felt to this day. But is this the case? Is an event from 100 years ago, however horrific, truly the biggest problem facing struggling communities?
Tulsa was a crime, and certainly worth remembering. Yet the U.S. has had devastating urban riots on a somewhat regular basis since the 1960s—and many more devastating than Tulsa in terms of financial cost. According to the criminologist Barry Latzer, “from 1964 to 1972, a staggering total of 752 riots occurred, resulting in 228 deaths, 12,741 injuries, 69,099 arrests, and 15,835 incidents of arson.” The 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles killed 63 people—higher than the number of confirmed killed in Tulsa. Most recently, at least 19 people died in two weeks of rioting last summer in response to the death of George Floyd.
These deaths weren’t the result of racism. But aren’t they worthy of mention? Aren’t they worth incorporating in the story we tell about threats to Black life and Black property, if for no other reason than so we can better stop them?
It is an unfortunate fact about the American press that it is selective in which modern crimes it focuses on. Police shootings of Blacks and hate crimes against minorities committed by whites—a tiny portion of the violence that occurs in this country—get the most attention. Victims of everyday crimes, the background noise of our society and culture, are largely ignored, given that the victims and perpetrators of the majority of crimes committed are of the same race.
And while it’s nice to see the media using the Tulsa massacre to finally acknowledge what researchers have long known—that riots can have devastating, long-term consequences for a community—the economic damages of Tulsa do not compare to more recent riots. The riot of 100 years ago caused the modern equivalent of $200 million in damage, compared to $1.4 billion in the Rodney King riots and as much as $2 billion last summer.
Why are we to believe that the economic destruction from a century ago has more relevance to the plight of Black Americans today than much more extensive damage in the recent past? Even if we concede the moral damage of the racism fueling the massacre, surely anyone invested in the economic health of our most unfortunate communities should broaden their lens.
Perhaps we should set aside a day to remember all victims of rioting, as the consequences can indeed be devastating both for the families of those killed or injured and the larger affected community.
But that is not what identity politics does; it demands we focus on white supremacy as the cause of problems currently faced by the Black community, rather than policy decisions and cultural changes rooted in the 1960s—not coincidently, when large scale urban rioting started to become more common.
But it’s not just that the press and liberal commentariat ignore today’s riots and the devastating impact they’ve had on the Black community. What’s most disturbing is attempts to justify, or even glorify, recent rioting. Much of academia now refers to the Rodney King riots as an “uprising,” as if it was an honorable struggle for freedom rather than a criminal rampage. And NPR famously did an interview last summer with an author who wrote a book called “In Defense of Looting.” While most among the political and media establishment do not go nearly that far, the outsized focus on Tulsa shows that violence that supports the preferred narrative will always be given the most attention. A political agenda, not concern for victims, is what motivates the commemoration of Tulsa.
This is of course what the identity Left does. One reason they succeed, however, is that Republicans are happy to go along. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik put out statements commemorating Tulsa, without pointing out the hypocrisy of the other side.
There is of course nothing wrong with honoring the victims of the riots. Yet historical tragedies should not be used in the service of a political agenda that has a slanted perspective on American history and the modern causes of urban blight. If we care about the problems of our inner cities, we cannot denounce rioters from a century ago while ignoring or excusing their modern contemporaries.
Richard Hanania is the president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology and a Research Fellow at Defense Priorities (Twitter: @RichardHanania)
The views in this article are the writer’s own.