Racial Differences in Protest Participation

Racial Differences in Protest Participation

By Peter K. Eisinger, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Understanding of the phenomenon of political protest has been inhibited by the view that protest is fundamentally extraordinary or unconventional in character and that those who use it do so because they lack the resources to employ more conventional means of political expression. This article challenges this unqualified view by examining survey data based on black and white samples from the city of Milwaukee which relate to racial attitudes toward protest, the social characteristics of protest participants, and to the uses and organization of protest in the two racial communities. The analysis reveals widespread support for protest in the black community in contrast to the general antipathy found among whites. Both black and white protesters are found to be socioeconomically better-off than nonprotesters in their respective racial communities, but a variety of indicators suggest that black protesters are more integrated and typical members of their community than white protesters are of theirs. Data on the uses and organization of protest show that it has become an institutionalized feature of the black pursuit of urban politics in Milwaukee in contrast to its generally ad hoc and less frequent role for whites.

We may conclude from all this that protest represents a widely accepted, integral part of black politics in the city, while for whites protest is indeed unconventional, a violation of dominant social norms. This conclusion is used as a basis for speculating on the relationship of protest participation to the possession of social resources and on the capacity of social resources to offset the costs incurred in the form of social disapproval for violating white norms against protest behavior.

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