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Ethnic violence rooted in group competition

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

As the line leaps and tumbles through post-Civil War American history. U.S. 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 violence initially. South, East and Central European groups were all targeted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Asian immigrants were even more so.
  • Immigration prompted more and more persistent violence against native-born African Americans than against immigrants. More than half the 263 violent events in the high-immigration period of 1877 to 1914 were aimed at native-born African Americans. They were also the primary target of conflict events in the other high-immigration period Olzak has plotted: 1965-85.
  • 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.
  • Group violence against white ethnic groups generated protests and expanded the market for ethnic newspapers, of which there were hundreds at the early height of immigration. Higher levels of violence against African Americans, however, apparently caused many of their papers to go out of business. "Very often, the people delivering the black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, were beaten up," Olzak said.

"Perhaps the least powerful group - the one least in a position to retaliate - is the most likely to receive the aggression" or, alternatively, she said, "perhaps there is a "visual boundary" that makes it generally easier for groups to target African Americans."

  • National, regional or local economic downturns increase ethnic violence and protests against it. In some situations, employers purposely replaced workers of one ethnic group with workers of a newer group to reduce pay rates.
  • In the 1965-85 time period, police were the second-most frequent social group attacked during race and ethnic unrest.

"Despite the fact that police officers called to the scene of a conflict may have been from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, it appears that they did become common targets of minorities and ethnic grievances, perhaps viewed as symbols of the majority group or of the system," Olzak said.

  • 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 in the same metropolitan area immediately rises, and, to a lesser degree, the likelihood rises throughout the country. This was true before television and radio and even in places where most of the populace could not read, Olzak said. "You cannot blame the contagion of ethnic unrest on CNN," she said.

"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," she 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, Olzak systematically analyzes massive amounts of data about the past. Her primary goal is to isolate the impact of various factors - such as economic downturns, government repression or waves of immigration - associated with rising or declining rates of ethnic violence.

Undergraduates are crucial members of the research team. They often start out by reading assigned newspaper accounts of events, which they code according to a manual developed by Olzak and her former graduate students at Cornell University.

"It's exciting to have bright, energetic students who aren't afraid to speak up and tell you when they think something is not making sense," she said. "They call my attention to such issues as how do we capture the fact that many of the events that start out as protests turn into violent confrontations? Do we code this event as a protest or a conflict? We all go off and think about the problem, and sometimes we have an entire seminar just on how to code a single, complicated event."

As a result, she said, the manual and research techniques constantly undergo refinement.

"The manual will always be a work in progress," she said.

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

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

Olzak said that her contemporary data on standard metropolitan statistical areas in the United States indicates that ethnic violence occurs where competing groups are in close proximity - sharing the same environmental niche. Forced school desegregation, increased ethnic violence in the short run, especially in such locales as Boston, where there was a tradition of informal ethnic segregation, or in the South, with its de jure segregation.

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 anger or grievances but is a group phenomenon. I don't believe people have to be conscious of their competition level or even understand it to engage in conflict. Perhaps after the conflict - as a result of the collective behavior - people say, 'This is my enemy. I've got to stop these people from getting hired at my plant.' "

Olzak and Johan Oliver of the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria also have begun to study the patterns of collective ethnic violence in South Africa, and Olzak and her students are expanding the time periods analyzed in the United States. Other researchers apply similar research methods to study ethnic conflict in Europe and the Soviet Union, she said.

Until the 1960s, researchers of ethnic conflict believed that tensions between groups with different physical appearances, language and cultural backgrounds decreased as nations became more industrialized. As class and occupational status became more salient to people's lives, ethnic loyalties would be replaced by "modern" identities, many theorists believed.

They were forced to reconsider these claims when ethnicity erupted as an issue in many industrialized countries, including a major outbreak of violence and protests in the 1960s in the United States.

Many case studies were conducted of 1960s attacks, protests or riots, Olzak said, but the studies had the built-in weakness of looking only at events that occurred, not at the absence of events in some locations under similar conditions. Her techniques, known as "event history analysis," and "time series analysis" gather information from newspaper accounts, along with other economic and demographic data, allowing researchers also to include analysis of time periods and locales where no events erupted.

This allows the production of curves that show both the contagion effect and its flip side - the long periods without violent ethnic events.

"I am just as interested in understanding the low points and flat periods as the high points of conflict," Olzak said.

"The question that nags at me is very similar to one that was asked by C. Vann Woodward in his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward pointed out that segregation and repression reappeared after the Civil War in the form of Jim Crow laws; that is, there was a dynamic to race relations.

"The strange career of Jim Crow is this same curve of repression and violence that appears on my graphs."



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