Janet Abu-Lughod hears the riotous language of the unheard.

Janet Abu-Lughod examines 20th century riots in America's three largest cities.

Janet Abu-Lughod examines 20th century riots in America's three largest cities.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called riots “the language of the unheard,” but Janet Abu-Lughod has listened.

In a thought-provoking and well-researched book, Race, Space and Riots in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the distinguished sociologist seeks for, identifies and explores similarities and differences between uprising in America’s three largest cities. 

Abu-Lughod examines the infamous riots of 1919 and 1968 in Chicago, in New York in 1943 and 1964-she could have taken on the Civil War draft riots in 1863, but chose to focus on last century-and the 1965 Watts and 1992 “Rodney King” riots in Los Angeles.

For each city, she delves into the background to, causes of, and official response to, the upheaval  Abu-Lughod has a brief contemporary section for each city and concludes the book with lessons learned for the future.

It’s an ambitious agenda-although this book actually represents a narrowing from one of Abu-Lughod’s previous works,New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities, which covered 400 years in each of the cities’ histories-but she is more than up to the task.

Meticulously documented, the work is particularly strong in its description of the conditions that lead up to riots and in its discussion of how commentators often focus myopically on an individual instance rather than looking at  the connection between the most recent riot of and others.

Abu-Lughod also effectively points out how often official analyses of riots focus on surface, rather than core causes, even though progressive action by authorities can make a positive difference (Fiorella LaGuardia’sactions after the 1943 Harlem riot are noteworthy in this regard.).  The book has some minor factual errors and Abu-Lughod’s writing style veers unpredictably between conversational and scholarly modes. 

Still, for an engaging effort to make connections between events that are all too often studied in isolation, Race, Space and Riots is a worthy choice.

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