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Economic forces that can turn protests into riots

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So far in 2016, more than 700 people have been shot and killed by police. Why do some cases lead to social unrest, such as last week’s riots in Charlotte, North Carolina, while most result in peaceful protests or none at all?

The key may reside with cities’ underlying economic structures, with some harboring a combustible kindling resulting from a combination of segregated neighborhoods, widening income inequality and oppressive financial and policing policies. Since 2009, the country has witnessed riots in cities including Oakland, California; Baltimore; and Ferguson, Missouri.

Rioting may have a political impetus, in which rioters direct their actions toward creating societal change, but economic undercurrents are also at play. While traditional economic theory holds the belief that people won’t harm others without the opportunity to gain something for themselves, more recent research has found that a majority of people will opt to destroy other people’s money if it shrinks inequality, and poorer groups are more likely to take such action.

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While Charlotte has been held up as an example of the economic growth of the “modern South,” the city is bifurcated according to race, income and opportunity. As one protester told McClatchy, “We’re not somewhere where you have great opportunities.”

Charlotte’s poverty rate has nearly doubled since 2000, while about 70 percent of black households earn less than $60,000 annually, University of North Carolina professor Gene Nichol wrote earlier this year. About 60 percent of white families in Charlotte make more than $60,000.

On top of that, black consumers in North Carolina are more likely to be targeted by predatory payday lenders. The Center for Responsible Lending found that most payday lenders are located in black neighborhoods. Blacks also face a type of behavior from retailers that adds to the feeling of disenfranchisement, or “shopping while black,” such as the allegations against Macy’s for racial profiling against minority customers.

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“Those who are watched feel disrespected, and constantly reminded that they are not in charge,” Cornell University professor Louis Hyman told City Labs. “Riots provide that sense of control, but at a terrible cost.”

Like Charlotte, Oakland has also struggled with income inequality in the shadow of the rapidly growing tech industry. Baltimore, which has a strong black middle class, also suffers from pockets of deep poverty and racial segregation. 

Income inequality is increasingly a hallmark of American society, from big cities such as New York to smaller towns, yet rioting remains relatively rare. But when protesters perceive they’ve suffered through years of injustices and believe social institutions are failing to address those problems, it may create the spark that can transform a peaceful protest into a riot.