This piece was the 3rd prize winner in the Academic Category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.

A city is an amazing place full of diversity, a coming together of many different individuals and their traditions, beliefs, and ways of life. With so many diverse cultures inhabiting the same geographical area – sharing space, government, and resources – tension is created, and in many cases, conflict. The purpose of this essay is to look at urban ethnic conflict and the factors that cause and contribute to both these conflict and their resolutions. The essay looks at conflict by examining cities with historical ethnic struggles – Johannesburg and Los Angeles, one slowly emerging from its ethnic crisis, the other still firmly entrenched – and through examining the burgeoning ethnic strife between Muslim and African citizens and immigrants in Paris. By looking at these three examples in all stages of ethnic conflict, the author hopes to come to a fuller understanding of ethnically based conflict in the modern urban world and what is being done to work towards a more peaceful resolution.

The United States and Canada are somewhat unique in the world in that they are both large, global countries, with a population built on immigration and diversity. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 41.4% of the U.S. population identify as non-Caucasian (U.S. Census Bureau). In contrast, the number for England is 8.7% (BBC) . In addition to the high number of ethnicities, 80% of U.S. citizens live in what the Census Bureau qualifies as “a metropolitan area.” This high density urban environment creates an unparalleled urban experience, filled with diversity and culture – but it also creates a situation ripe for conflict.

In urban theory, the ‘up and out’ movement of immigrants and ethnicities, the social and economic mobility of the classes to move their way up inside the enclave they reside in – Chinatown, Little Italy, etc. – and then outwards into integrated society, is widely accepted as truth in urban migration patterns (Phillips, Pg. 210). The one historical exception to this rule in American society is the African-American ethnic community. There are several reasons for this. A repressive history of racism against African-Americans for 175 years in American society, perception of negative ‘black traits’ – “presumed laziness, violent proclivities, welfare-seeking, unreliability, shiftlessness, lack of ambition” (Phillips, Pg. 242) – class structures, and elitist community power structures are all factors. The lumpenproletariat of black men and women in the United States, and their continual struggle to join in the climbing of the socio-economic ladder, are one of the hugest sources of ethnic conflict in the U.S. today.

In 1965 in Los Angeles, California, the “submerged, exploited, and very possibly permanent proletariat” (Glazer and Moynihan, Pg. 299) of African-American society fought back. Watts, a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles, was the stage for an explosive combination of ethnicity, poverty, and discrimination. A population reliant on welfare and public housing, Watts was nonetheless overlooked by the Welfare Planning Council (Bullock, Pg. 17), which did not even have a master plan for the Watts area. On the night of August 11, two brothers were arrested and billyclubbed for a traffic violation. Bystanders spread the news, and the next night, rioting broke out among the black citizens of Watts. Arson of “department stores, clothing stores, pawn shops, liquor stores, and many grocery stores” (Bullock, Pg. 34) destroyed the main strip, 103rd street. Over the next five days, 31 blacks were killed; 2,000,000 dollars worth of damage was caused, and the national guard had to be called into cordon off the entire Watts area (it took both soldiers and tanks to effectively cordon off the neighborhood) (Bullock).

The frustrations of the black residents of Watts are evident and easily (at least, in hindsight) understood. 99% of the neighborhood was black, and yet only five of the 205 police officers that patrolled the neighborhood were African-American. One out of eight adults was without a high school education, because many of the ‘integrated’ high schools in the area would not take black students from the middle schools in Watts ( The ethnic conflict that came to a head in the riots was a result of the American policy of domination – defacto or dejour state segregation of minorities – towards blacks. Perhaps this policy of domination, in contrast with America’s general policy of assimilation – absorbing ethnicity – towards other immigrants, is what causes the African-American population to buck the ‘upwards and outwards’ trend and remain socially and economically stigmatized (Guibernau & Rex, Pg. 280). The Rodney King riots of 1992, in particular, show that Los Angeles has not been able to effectively work towards a solution to the ethnic conflict taking place within its municipal borders. Even more inflammatory than the Watts riots, these occurred when four police officers beat senseless a defenseless black motorist, sparking riots that eventually involved the black population of South Central L.A. (a Watts-like area of poverty and low income), Korean store owners, and mainly white police and military forces. 45 died; a billion dollars worth of damage was caused, and over 1,000 people were rendered homeless by the arson of their houses and businesses. That ‘Watts, v2.0’, if you will, could be allowed to occur again in the same area as the original rioting, involving the same ethnic factions and with a similar effect – one has to wonder if Los Angeles has even begin down the path towards ethnic reconciliation, or if perhaps in 2015 or 2020, yet another huge protest will rock the city.

Ethnic conflict – urban or not – has never been a uniquely American proposition, of course. One of the most famous examples of ethnic conflict is South Africa. Four main acknowledged ethnicities populate South Africa – Africans, Whites, Indians, and Coloreds (people of mixed race). While a majority – 73% – of South Africans are of African decent, 16% are white, and colored and Indian residents make up the remaining 11% (Statistics South Africa). The South African policy of apartheid – meaning ‘separated’ in Afrikaans – segregated these races over the entire country, but nowhere was this more apparent than in the capital of Johannesburg. Johannesburg was literally divided into racial districts in 1950. 13 separate ethnic ‘boroughs’ were created. This was “essentially a period of disintegration from a metropolitan perspective (Beall, Crankshaw, Parnell, Pg. 74).” The segregation of the city created, on a small scale, the “ethnic islands” talked about by Brown in The Ethnicity Reader. This disruption of ethnic geography destabilized the city, and gave Johannesburg the reputation of being the “most dangerous city in the world (Wikipedia)”. The first major incident of ethnic violence broke out in 1976, when a students union, representing Soweto (SOuth WEst TOwnships) – the poverty-stricken African districts of town – protested. Police fired into the crowd, and over the next year, over 1,000 people were shot. In 1994, when the African National Congress won 69% of the seats in the South African parliament, the policies of apartheid were officially abolished and the slow healing process between the four ethnicities – and especially blacks and whites – could begin.

Whereas Los Angeles is an example of de jour discrimination against ethnic minorities, Johannesburg was an example of de facto discrimination – state supported discrimination. When the discriminationalist national policies of apartheid-era South Africa ended, there was huge potential for Johannesburg to turn into an example of Los Angeles-style de jour discrimination, racism and segregation. Instead, the city came together under the banner slogan of “one city, one taxpayer” and reassigned tax burdens so that poorer neighborhoods would receive the same benefits and necessities – sewer, water, electricity – as the richer white neighborhoods (Beall, Crankshaw, Parnell, Pg. 74). An even tax division was the first step towards solving the ethnic conflict after apartheid.

Johannesburg has gone through several processes since official re-integration in 1994 that have helped turn its ‘ethnic islands’ into a more homogenous mixture of ethnicities. Many of these have focused on (intentionally or not) equalizing the gap between the powerful, economically elite white minority and the African, colored, and Indian majority. Geographic integration has been the most important of these for Johannesburg – a flood of poorer black citizens to parts of the city other than the Soweto and Alexandra districts created an opportunity for both ethnic integration and large inner city poverty. Due to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs, “urban per capita income levels [in Johannesburg] have reverted to 1970 levels (Beall, Crankshaw, Parnell, Pg. 12).” Both blacks and whites felt the depressing effects of these structural adjustment programs in the years following integration. The upshot of these programs was an increased investment in Johannesburg’s infrastructure, and an evening of the footing between races and ethnicities in the city.

Another equalizing factor has been the “rebuilding of Soweto through targeted public investment (Bollins, Pg. 252).” Public works including roads and bridges linking Soweto to downtown Johannesburg have been undertaken, which, it is hoped, will revitalize this poverty-stricken, almost exclusively black district. As for the downtown itself, traditionally a white area, there has been a ‘capital flight’ of businesses out of the traditional Central Business District. The growth of ‘mall culture’ has created a need for shops elsewhere in Johannesburg, and many of the shops downtown has “changed dramatically, with banks, shops, markets and stalls all catering for a predominantly African trade (Beall, Crankshaw, Parnell, Pg. 113).” More even representation on city council and among elected officials has also helped to even Johannesburg’s leadership and more fully represent all citizens.

The ethnic integration and the cessation of ethnic conflict in Johannesburg have not been completely achieved. Indeed, today, Johannesburg faces new issues – reverse racism, white flight – that endanger its slow recovery. Crime rates skyrocketed upon integration, and have only recently begun to recede. Even so, Johannesburg has come a long way since the days of apartheid, both as a city and as a multi-ethnic community. As of 2001, 91% of residents in Johannesburg have garbage removal and 86% have a flush toilet (Statistics South Africa). These numbers a few years ago, especially in the black population, would have been unthinkable. Johannesburg has become one of the only ‘global cities’, if you will, in Africa. If Johannesburg can stay the course of ethnic integration and racial harmony that it is currently on, it will succeed in being a success story that Los Angeles, one of the largest first-world cities on the globe, would do well to learn from.

Unfortunately, the modern world continues to be able to see the formation of ethnic unrest and, if unsolved, its inevitable transition into ethnic conflict. The current rioting in Paris, France is an unfortunate but perfect example of emerging ethnic conflict in an urban setting.
In the First World War, many North African countries sent soldiers to defend France from the invading German-Austrian forces. Descendants of these soldiers and other Muslim immigrants still live in France today – nearly three million of them (IJPS). Out of a total population of 60 million people, that’s a substantial ethnic minority (CIA). The first major clash between the Muslim ethnic minority and the French ethnic majority occurred in 1989, when thousands of Muslims protested in Paris against the illegality of girls wearing the traditional headscarf in schools. This was the beginning of Muslim unrest in Paris, and it continued, fueled by other issues – Muslim holidays, ethnic violence, and secular schools. The latest series of riots are only the culmination of many years of frustration and ethnic injustice towards the Muslim minority. The 450,000 strong Haraki Muslim group have been targeted as terrorists and are the victims of violence by right-wing French groups. Over 80% of the Haraki are unemployed (IJPS) and living in slums around Paris. As we can see, the Muslim community in Paris seems to have undergone the same strife and abuse as the black community of Watts, in Los Angeles. The pattern follows true for the next, more violent step, as well.

On October 27th, 2005, two Muslim boys were running from French policemen when they were electrocuted by a power substation. With rumors of police brutality flying, disenfranchised Muslim teens – first in Paris suburbs, and then spread through France – began rioting. The riots, still sporadically continuing as this essay is being written, are magnanimous in scale (in one nights, 1500 cars were burned). Through various measures, including declaring a 3-month state of emergency, Jacques Chirac and his government have been able to get some control over the riots and the urban landscape (Aljazeera).

On December 15th, Jacques Chirac called for a “collective fight against racism”. He announced the creation of a national volunteer corps that will give jobs to 50,000 French youth by 2007, and declared that nothing can be built in society “unless we fight this poison for society that is discrimination.” Chirac’s actions, while prompt in the scope of the recent riots, are on second glance badly overdue. It has been sixteen years since the first protests against ethnic mistreatment in Paris in 1989, and only now are government programs being instated to help solve this problem and more smoothly assimilate the Muslim and North African population into French society. Indeed, Chirac’s own Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy called poor Muslim youth ‘rabble’ and declared ‘war without mercy’ on protest in poor sub-Parisian slums mere days before the rioting broke out.

It seems hard today in our modern paradigm to see the Paris riots as anything but an isolated uprising, soon to be put down by the French government. Civil unrest in an established first-world country such as France seems far-fetched, even impossible. Indeed, “first world societies took to seeing themselves as “non-ethnic” social formations, increasingly homogenous as gemeinschafliche relations of religion, ancestry and culture gave way to instrumental affiliations based on interest, occupational specialization, and the functional imperatives of a complex technical economy (Wacquant, Pg. 2).” Unfortunately, the Marxian ideal of ethnicity, race and class differences being done away with by the ‘proletarian army’ did not take into account the continuing dominance of capitalism as an economic standard through the world. The ethnically and economically oppressed (as the Haraki can attest, often the same group in urban and suburban Paris) have gained nothing from Marxian ideals or government decrees about the end of class and ethnic differences. Instead, “there was no poverty debate in France (meaning no doubt of its existence) yet there was no political mobilization around the issue as well as no official policy to combat it (Wacquant, Pg. 2).” It is little wonder that the simmering ethnic conflict in French society has boiled over into the massive violence occurring today.

As the Watts Riot or Soweto protest of their time, the French Muslim youth riots in Paris bring important questions to the fore about our society in the modern urban world. As we have seen in Johannesburg, it IS possible for cities to begin the long process of ethnic reconciliation and to see the gradual end of ethnic conflict; however, as graphically demonstrated in Los Angeles, ethnic strife continues to be an issue in the most modern of countries and the largest of cities. As the world’s urban centers grow more and more global, what can be done to curb the seemingly inevitable clash of ethnicities within their tightly-packed municipal borders?

The first step in ethnic peace is equal representation, both on city councils and in city laws. Johannesburg, using the ‘one city, one taxpayer’ slogan, has shown how effective re-allocation of wealth and payment can be in integrating previously segregated areas; the election of a proportional amount of ethnic delegates (African, Indian, and colored) to the city district councils has put ethnic issues like poverty, discrimination, and segregation in the forefront of the urban governmental agenda, which brings us to the second step in the peace process.

With more ethnic representation in city government, funds for education can be allocated more evenly across the metropolis and across class and ethnic divisions. In Watts, where even today, a staggering 60.3% of adults in the zip code have no diploma, and an even more amazing 97% (compared to a national average of 75.6%) will not go on to higher education (Census Bureau), this lack of education translates to a high joblessness rate (52.8% are unemployed) and a stunning 39.4% of individuals living below the poverty level. With a better educational system that has more funding, more resources, and more attention on a city-wide level, Watts residents can move out into the labor force or into higher education that will allow the next generation to support themselves and continue the gradual ascent ‘up and out’ that blacks in urban America have for so long been denied.

A third – and very important – step is the changing attitude of the citizens themselves, both minority and majority. While the kind of racism implied by a “presumed laziness, violent proclivities, welfare-seeking, unreliability, shiftlessness, [and] lack of ambition” exists, there will always be ethnic strife in society. Indeed, Johannesburg still has far to go before ethnic equality is achieved – reverse racism, racism of the black population against the white, has become an issue in the city. In Paris, as long as remarks like Interior Minister Sarkozy’s are being made (“rabble”) in reference to Muslims and North Africans, true equality will never be gained – and thus ethnic peace never attained – no matter how many economic rejuvenation programs President Chirac puts into action.

The lessons we have learned from these case studies show that the idea of ethnic community – according to Anthony Smith, a “named human population with a myth of common ancestry, shared memories, and cultural elements (Guibernau & Rex, Pg. 81) – need not disappear in order to have ethnic peace. Instead, what has to disappear is the policy of domination against ethnic minorities, giving way to assimilation and hopefully multiculturalism. The forced creation of Posen’s ‘ethnic islands (Guibernau & Rex, Pg. 84)’ inside urban areas – Soweto, Watts, South Central, the Parisian ‘slurbs’ surrounding the city – must cease, as well. Only with equal rights (both de facto and de jour) in society will ethnic groups overcome difference and conflict and be able to live in harmony.

Related Topics


Alex Burkholder is a 3rd year Urban Studies hopeful, and will find just about any way to make a paper you assign to him about cities - whether or not the class in question has anything to do with them. He enjoys Walt Whitman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he hopes death is a never-ending lunch date with Jane Jacobs.