Burning Dislike: Ethnic Violence in High Schools

Burning Dislike: Ethnic Violence in High Schools

by Martin Sanchez-Jankowski

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Violence in schools has more potential to involve large numbers of students, produce injuries, disrupt instructional time, and cause property damage than any other form of youth violence. Burning Dislike is the first book to use direct observation of everyday violent interactions to explore ethnic conflict in high schools. Why do young people engage in violence while in school? What is it about ethnicity that leads to fights?

Through the use of two direct observational studies conducted twenty-six years apart, Martín Sánchez-Jankowski documents the process of ethnic school violence from start to finish. In addition to shedding light on what causes this type of violence and how it progresses over time, Burning Dislike provides strategic policy suggestions to address this troubling phenomenon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289215
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Martín Sánchez-Jankowski is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society and Cracks in the Pavement: Social Change and Resilience in Poor Neighborhoods, among other books.


Read an Excerpt

Burning Dislike

Ethnic Violence in High Schools

By Martín Sánchez-Jankowski


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-28921-5


Toward an Understanding of Ethnic Violence in Schools

The thornbush is the old obstacle in the road. It must catch fire if you want to go further. — Franz Kafka, The Third Octavo Notebook, November 21, 1917

Violence in this study has been defined as an act of aggression aimed at causing some degree of pain or physical injury to the targeted individual(s). What distinguishes its various forms has more to do with the motive and target of the aggression than it does with either the type of aggressive movement involved or the tools used. In this regard, the motive for ethnic violence in schools is to injure someone because of his or her observed or assumed ethnic identity. Ethnic violence has some behavioral characteristics similar to other forms of violence, but the dynamic through which it completes its life course assumes a particular pattern. This chapter will outline the life course characteristics of ethnic violence in schools, by which I mean the course that it takes from start to finish. Many of the tenets advanced in the present theory can also be ascribed to ethnic violence that takes place in contexts other than a school, as well as various forms of nonethnic violence. However, the sequencing of these other phenomena could very well be different.

A number of theories offer explanations for why ethnic violence occurs in schools, but they address ethnic violence in general wherever it may occur. As we will see, some aspects of these theories are relevant to ethnic violence in school, but because the school occupies a unique physical, social, and cultural location in American society they do not fully explain the school phenomenon. Randall Collins and Donald L. Horowitz propose two of the theories most pertinent to school violence. While they deal directly with violence in great depth, including the issue of ethnicity associated with it, they still do not cover the full dynamics of ethnic violence.

Collins's theory has enormous breadth in that it attempts to theorize the micro processes of violence across social environments and targets. It focuses on the individual and what gets him or her to engage in violence; and although a number of interactional factors (e.g., competition or an argument) may provide the impetus for violence, the engine that drives all violence is what he calls a "forward panic." This forward panic is "a pattern developing in time, the buildup of tension/fear and the shift to sudden weakness of the victim ... [that] opens the dark tunnel down into which people collectively fall." Obviously, in part this concept suggests that individuals have a dark side that enables them to do evil things in the right situation. Thus it would seem that there is nothing unique about any particular situation, including one that involves ethnic violence, since once the processes begin they have a life of their own. The argument assumes that all violence is more or less phenomenologically the same; the only thing that differs is the situational content that triggers a sequence.

Although there is much to be learned from this perspective, it eliminates, or at minimum blurs, factors that work together to create variance in the types of violence. Factors at the macro level, like the history of social interaction between individuals and groups, economic pressures within and between groups, and current social structural arrangements, as well as factors at the micro level, like the motives, timing, type of involvement chosen, and structure of engagement (length, intensity, targets), all play a part in the character of the violence engaged in as well as its interactional path. Thus if one accepts Randall Collins's approach, all violence is phenomenologically similar. Yet earlier I proposed a definition of violence as the use of physical force to damage or injure another person. Further, I suggested that the common denominator for all that is generally referred to as violence begins with some aspect of "aggression," or the act of initiating hostile action toward other persons. However, where, when, with whom, how, and why that aggression takes place are significant in producing phenomenologically different forms such as sexual violence, domestic violence, and war, to name a few. All can involve aggression in the form of physical force and bodily injuries, but the sociological character and interpretation of each are different.

Ethnic violence is one such form. It is differentiated from other forms of violence in that it takes place when two or more people from different ethnic groups attack one another and when the reason for the attack has specifically to do with both ethnic identity and the identification of an ethnic other. While some of the reasons for this type of attack will be similar to those found in other forms of violence, there are some important differences in the micro dynamics related to where, when, with whom, how, and so on, as well as significant differences in the macro (i.e., structural) and meso (i.e., situational) conditions that both bring about this type of violence and shape the trajectory it assumes.

Whereas Collins's theoretical approach is focused on the micro processes involved in general violence that would include ethnic-oriented violence, Donald Horowitz's conceptual framework is directed toward the macro and meso conditions that encompass ethnic conflict generally and ethnic riots more specifically. Within this framework, there is a buildup of tension between members of each group, as Collins also theorizes, and the victimizers employ some form of instrumental calculus to choose targets that will produce the desired objective, such as revenge, deterrence, or an expression of protest. Horowitz then argues that a social provocation occurs in which the dynamics of group action take control, creating a frenzy that results in numerous injuries and deaths. One of the most important parts of his work for the issues that the present book confronts is his argument that the "deadly ethnic riot" has a rhythmic process that plays out in a particular way. Nonetheless, despite the important implications of his study for our understanding of ethnic violence in schools, Horowitz's primary concern with explaining violence that leads to deaths, such as the deadly ethnic riot and war, establishes some limits to his conceptual framework's ability to explain other forms of ethnic violence involving simply a few individuals, informal groups engaged in a brawl, or ethnic riots where there is no premeditated attempt to cause fatalities and where no fatalities occur. Thus for ethnic violence among students attending high schools there is a need to identify which processional facets are the same as those described by Horowitz and which are different.

The theory I present below focuses on a variety of forms of aggression in high school that produce physical and psychological trauma, although not necessarily fatalities. High school is a particularly fruitful place to examine interethnic violence precisely because society considers it completely off limits for that kind of behavior. Obviously, some of the formal propositions I advance will be applicable to the more general phenomenon of violence (as well as ethnic violence more broadly), but my main concern is to offer a theory of ethnic violence among students attending public schools in the United States. In drafting this theory, which is derived from the present study's data in dialogue with existing models and presented as a road map of what will follow in the substantive chapters, I shall rely heavily on the metaphor of fires, particular forest fires, to explain the phenomenon of ethnic violence in schools.


Although on occasions fire can be used strategically as a productive mechanism, it is generally dangerous because it can damage and destroy the physical, social, and psychological objects it touches. Aggression associated with ethnicity in high schools has the same power, and, interestingly, its "life course" assumes characteristics most often observed in fires. The origins of an encounter involving interethnic violence are usually associated with the acts that immediately precede it, but the broader social origins of ethnic violence lie in the historical experience of the ethnic groups before they enter the host country. The first encounter with members from other groups, as well as the group's historical record of socioeconomic mobility, plays a significant role in group relations. Each group has a history through which it will interpret present events and develop what it understands to be appropriate modes of interaction with other groups. How the other group responds to these modes of interaction is, in turn, predicated on its interpretation of these behaviors in light of its own historical experience. Thus the origins of ethnic violence are imbedded in the social interactive histories of all the participating groups. This evolutionary process of an ethnic group in its relationships with other groups provides the social ecology for future interactions.

To return to the fire analogy, the story of forest fires begins with the type of vegetation in a particular locale. That vegetation is the result of what developed, either naturally or with human intervention, a number of years before. Thus both natural evolution and deliberate human intervention determine the kind of vegetation that will exist in a particular place and time. The case of California provides just such an example because most of the state has a dry climate and this has forced native plants to develop the capability of existing for very long dry periods. This process has created plants that are durable but structurally brittle and vulnerable to fire.

In addition, arborists in California made decisions to intervene and plant the eucalyptus tree for shade. Native to the dry climate of Australia, the eucalyptus could grow to extraordinary heights with shade foliage in conditions of very little moisture. As it turned out, California had a perfect climate for eucalyptus and they proliferated there. The tree's structural composition was dry and brittle just like that of the natural flora. Thus not only was it vulnerable to fire, but it burned quickly with extreme heat and broke into small hot embers that the winds spewed a considerable distance, igniting new fires. In the social environment, an ethnic group's historical development and the state's attempt to improve life for some groups and not for others can also create the conditions and situations that provoke volatile and violent episodes between ethnic groups.


The content of social situations is greatly determined by the structural conditions in which they occur. These social conditions that affect the relations between groups and individuals of a particular locale in part reflect the macro structural conditions affecting the nation, state, or city. Many of these conditions are related to the economy and the problems associated with managing to make a comfortable life within it. Some arise from general problems such as a national recession or a business's outsourcing of production to take advantage of less expensive labor. Other conditions can simply be the change in business preferences for certain ethnic groups to do particular labor, creating a situation where one ethnic group gets job opportunities at the expense of another group or is viewed that way by a group not being hired at the same rate. In addition, employers sometimes recruit particular ethnic workers to replace incumbent employees so they can increase their economic advantages (avoid unionization, reduce wages and benefits, and increase productivity with longer hours). These practices create conflict between the groups, and where there is a long history of such situations, as in the United States, the structural circumstances present at the time and any history between currently interacting groups related to past conflicts over economic spoils create ripe conditions for group violence.

In addition to problems within the structure of the labor market, the housing market can create conditions for ethnic tension and conflict. For example, newly arriving ethnic groups seeking housing find that the housing market is unable to provide them with options, constraining them to live in a specific area. Often this means high concentrations of diverse peoples living in limited space, forcing members of their populations to have unrelenting contact with each other. This is a recipe for increasing conflict between the groups.

Social circumstances can also create a climate predisposing to ethnic violence. The first of these concerns the cultural orientations of the various groups interacting in a particular locale. The greater the degree of difference in cultural orientation between the groups, the greater their alienation, dislike, resentment, and prejudice toward each other. Religion plays a large role, mainly because religious beliefs usually encompass morals, values, and worldviews that can be a source of significant difference in what is considered "right," "just," and "sacred." In addition to religion, specific customs associated with different cultures can play a role in organizing interactions between ethnic groups, particularly the case of the clothing, food, and behavior thought to be appropriate for in-group and out-group members. The tensions between Jews, Moslems, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs, all of whom have issues with some elements of the customs (religion, dress, food, and behavior) associated with the rival groups, are examples, and who fights with whom against whom varies by country and region as insults to these customs occur or as competition for limited resources (material, natural, informational, cultural, etc.) increases.

Last, the primary language spoken by a group establishes communicative boundaries between themselves and other groups and influences interactions. Much of what will be used to establish legitimate membership in an ethnic group is determined by language preference, ability, and usage. Likewise, much that will be used to misinterpret the motives of others from a different ethnic group will be drawn from conversations in which languages vary among those directly involved, or those listening to them.

Ultimately these preconditions — greater material competition, wide cultural differences, and frequent close encounters — create a climate that makes ethnic conflict possible, but it is the immediate socioeconomic conditions (i.e., the "weather") in a particular locale that make ethnic violence probable. Essentially, the immediate social pressures create a "current condition" that escalates the possibility of conflict just as the presence of extremely hot weather with high winds increases the risk of a fire occurring and decreases the fire authority's ability to combat it. Some examples of these social pressures are the existence of a segmented labor market with a large supply of unskilled or semiskilled laborers who are forced to compete for a small number of jobs; a recession or the exodus of businesses that formerly employed significant numbers of people in low-skilled jobs; ethnic or racial discrimination in the occupational and housing markets that reduces the options of those who have been the targets of this bias; and a reduction in governmental benefits for those who are having difficulty in securing a job, housing, and health care. States within the United States and cities within states differ in demographic composition, economy, and history of social relations, which creates variation in the types of situations faced in different locales even when the same ethnic groups exist in significant numbers. The conditions present at any one time can simply follow the general climatic pattern and create a hazardous situation for some limited period of time, or they can deviate from the general trend by being more intense or being present for a longer-than-normal period (e.g., in the natural realm, drought or extra-rainy and wet conditions). Crises such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods can create strains on those who confront them; riots can produce environments where ethnic tensions and hostilities grow. These specific conditions are responsible for establishing an incendiary situation among ethnic groups, and I conceptualize them as "social weather." I do this because these conditions occur during a specific time and space and represent a sharp accentuation of a general "social climate." Therefore, despite the general societal belief that schools should be exempt from any type of violence, the fact that ethnic violence occurs in a public high school underscores the point that it is a part of, and cannot be separated from, the local social environment.


Excerpted from Burning Dislike by Martín Sánchez-Jankowski. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Figures and Tables, xi,
Preface, xiii,
Introduction, 1,
1. Toward an Understanding of Ethnic Violence in Schools, 19,
2. Kindling: The History of Ethnic Conflict, 35,
3. Climate and Weather: Social Conditions and Structural Change, 54,
4. Sparks and Smoke: The Start of Ethnic Violence, 75,
5. Fire: The Maturation of Ethnic Violence, 106,
6. Dousing and Suffocating the Flames: Violence Suppression, 143,
7. Monitoring the Embers: Keeping the Peace, 165,
Conclusion, 187,
Methodological Appendix, 203,
Notes, 215,
Bibliography, 267,
Index, 283,

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