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Ethnic violence rooted in group competition

STANFORD -- Cross burnings, swastika paintings, lynching, beatings and riots - each represented by a dot - compose a line that runs across Susan Olzak's chalkboard.

As the line leaps and tumbles through post-Civil War American history, ethnic relations appear less like a melting pot than a roller coaster. Olzak's job is to figure out the dynamics of the ride.

What the Stanford University sociologist has discovered will be published later this year in book form by Stanford University Press. Among her findings:

  • Immigrant groups often met with violence initially. South, eastern and central European groups all were targeted in the late 19th and early 20th century. Asian immigrants were even more victimized.
  • Immigration-prompted violence, however, was even more persistent against a non-immigrant group - native-born African Americans. More than half the 263 violent events in the high-immigration period of 1877 to 1914 were aimed at American born blacks. A similar pattern shows in the other high-immigration period Olzak has plotted: 1965-1985.
  • Regardless of their literacy rates, white immigrants were able to move up from lower-status jobs more quickly in cities with large black populations than in those without, lending credibility to the hypothesis that the presence of lower-status blacks enabled some white ethnics to move up out of segregated occupations.
  • National, regional or local economic downturns increase ethnic violence and protests against it.
  • Ethnic violence is contagious. When a group paints a swastika on a synagogue in California or smears white shoe polish on the face of an African American child in New York, the likelihood of another event immediately rises.

"It may be that these competitive pressures and tensions are raised to some threshold level, and when a spark goes off in New York City or Cedar Rapids or New Orleans, it's like flames are ignited all around the country," Olzak said.

Olzak's research is the first to systematically compare patterns of group violence and protest for various ethnic groups in the United States. Her studies of ethnically motivated collective violence exclude fights or random crime between two individuals of different ethnic groups.

Using computers and mathematical models, she systematically analyzes massive amounts of data about the past. Her goal is to isolate the impact of various factors associated with rising or declining rates of ethnic violence.

Periods with little violence or protest may either be explained by low competition among groups or high repression of some groups, she said.

"The former Soviet Union, for instance, didn't have as many episodes of ethnic unrest in the streets while the tanks were there," Olzak said.

Most ethnic violence occurs where competing groups are in close proximity. However, she also found that ethnic violence does not always occur among the groups who are most directly in competition.

"We have found lots of violence or collective action events that were anti-Asian American or anti-African American in places where very few Asian or African Americans lived. The people involved did not have their jobs threatened by these groups," she said.

"That suggests that the conflict does not spring from individual grievances but is a more complex social phenomenon."



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