This month marks the 50th anniversary of the riots that began in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The riots—sometimes referred to as the Holy Week Uprising or King assassination riots—spread through 110 cities across the United States. As historian Peter B. Levy notes,
Fifty-four cities suffered at least $100,000 in property damage, with the nation’s capital and Baltimore topping the list at approximately $15 million and $12 million, respectively. Thousands of small shopkeepers saw their life savings go up in smoke. Combined, 43 men and women were killed, approximately 3,500 were injured, and 27,000 were arrested. Not until over 58,000 National Guardsmen and army troops joined local state and police forces did the uprisings cease.10 Put somewhat differently, during Holy Week 1968, the United States experienced its greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War.
From 1964 to 1971, as many as 700 riots erupted in cities across America. The large numbers of injuries, deaths, property damage that occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods caused considerable short-term damage on the communities. But the impact over the long run (from 1960 to 1980) was even more severe.
In 2004, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published two papers that examined the effect of the riots in the 1960s and early 1970s. According to the NBER,
Until 1975, the racial gap in average earnings among full-time male workers in the United States narrowed. There were periods of sharp convergence, as in the 1940s, alternating with periods of relative stasis, as in the 1950s and early 1960s. After 1970, racial convergence in earnings slowed markedly, in part because many low-wage black males were no longer engaged in full-time work, the authors note. The proportion of blacks living in high-poverty urban neighborhoods increased as well, and residential segregation led to increasingly poor socioeconomic outcomes among young blacks.
The research found a relative decline in median black family income of approximately nine percent in cities that experienced severe riots relative to those that did not, controlling for several other relevant city characteristics. Between 1960 and 1980, severe riot cities had relative declines in male employment rates of four to seven percentage points. Individual-level data for the 1970s suggests that this decline was especially large for men under the age of 30.
A second paper investigated the influence of riots on central city residential property values, especially black-owned properties:
They find that the riots significantly depressed the median value of black-owned property between 1960 and 1970, with little or no rebound in the 1970s. The baseline estimates for severe-riot cities relative to small-or-no-riot cities range from approximately 14 to 20 percent for black-owned properties, and from 6 to 10 percent for all central-city residential properties. Household-level data for the 1970s indicate that the racial gap in property values widened substantially in riot-afflicted cities relative to others.
There is no clear causal mechanism that explains these dispiriting effects. But the authors of the study list some of the possible factors involved:
Property risk might seem higher in central city neighborhoods than before the riots, causing insurance premiums to rise; taxes for income redistribution or more police and fire protection might increase, and municipal bonds may be more difficult to place; retail outlets might close; businesses and employment opportunities might relocate; middle and higher income households might move away; burned out buildings might be an eyesore; and so on.
Whatever the initial causes, the effect of the riots was economic harm that has lasted fifty years. However justified they might have seemed at the time, the riots serve as a reminder that the unintended consequences of our actions can have a destructive impact on our children for generations to come.