Ethnic Riots: Can they ever Cease to Exist?


by Amanda Jarrett


Executive Summary

  • This article defines ethnic riots as violence motivated by ethnic hatred, and it examines ethnic conflict between opposing groups of people.
  • It argues that all sectors/members of society must share power and learn to coexist.
  • It considers how ethnic riots can lead to financial and political complications.
  • Sporting events are examined as a volatile ‘new’ sphere in which ethnic hatred is displayed, leading to the possibility of ethnic conflict erupting.
  • Globally the media, technology and rumours can fuel the desire to cultivate ethnic riots.
  • Police and policies created are at the forefront of stopping ethnic riots before they break out.

An ethnic group is defined as pertaining to or characteristic of people, especially a group sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion, or language. Ethnic riots can be produced from this where violence is motivated by ethnic hatred and ethnic conflict between two or more groups of people. Displaced aggression and powerful emotions are harnessed to target a certain group of people who already are disliked. This is the case with many ethnic conflicts being expressions of ‘modern hate’ and largely products of the twentieth century. This cultural construction of fear differs from riots, which are a form of civil disorder formed by unorganised groups that suddenly act against authority, property, or people, compared to ethnic riots that target cultures other than their own. Ethnic riots can produce extreme consequences for the political systems in which they occur as it can reverberate throughout the world for many decades to come due to incidents that have happened in the past.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and historian, once wrote that:

…the entire man is, so to speak, to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of origin; and the circumstances which accompanied their birth and contributed to their rise, affect the whole term of their being.

This statement reflects citizens, for when born they are too young to make decisions and therefore parents decide for them. Parents will decide the culture to which they will belong, which religion they will follow, and what language(s) they will speak. In saying this, ethnic conflicts can be found in every type of society, they do not just disappear when societies modernise, as ethnic riots are rich in history. If people want to prevent ethnic riots then societies must share power and learn to coexist. Ethnic conflicts erupt among neighbours, among people who live intermingled with one another; they are forced to share the same resources and institutions. This is the greatest challenge in resolving ethnic conflict and riots worldwide, as there are often no agreed boundaries to retreat behind.

Ethnic riots can simmer for decades, indicating that new generations will become involved in the violence that occurs due to groups of people disliking one another with the hatred being passed on through families and friends. From 1918 to the 1990s, both Croatia and Serbia were part of Yugoslavia and hence there were no ‘external’ boundaries to retreat behind. Ethnic riots between Serbs and Croats re-emerged following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, culminating in ‘ethnic cleansing’. Serbia and Croatia also disputed land, including islands off the mainland’s coast. Much of the tension and hatred of the 1990s could be traced back to the first half of the Second World War, when Serbs were subjected to genocidal treatment at a time when fascist Croatia enjoyed the benefits of being allied to Nazi Germany. A lawsuit began in 2010, with the Republic of Serbia filing against the Republic of Croatia due to the genocide that occurred. The case covers missing people, those killed, expellees and refugees, and brutal actions that took place in concentration camps. This case not only has political complications but also has significant financial aspects because both countries are vying for damages. Due to these ethnic-based situations that occurred decades ago, in today’s sphere some Croats and Serbs now show their hatred for one another in regards to sporting events—including on the other side of the globe here in Australia.

Now, when individual or team representatives of these two countries play each other, precautionary measures are put in place. In 2007, spectators were gathered at the Australian Open Tennis event watching a Croatia player and a Serbian player battle it out in Rod Laver Arena. Issues arose when an ethnic brawl broke out with 150 people involved, as Serbs were chanting ‘DIE CROATIANS, DIE’. This example of unacceptable behaviour reiterates the fact that issues that occurred decades ago remain very strong in people’s minds today. Tennis is one example of unfriendly behaviour, but worldwide Serbs and Croats also are known for having a short but fierce rivalry in football. In 2013, Serbia and Croatia will play each other to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Precautionary measures are in place already in an attempt to prevent ethnic conflict before it can break out. Serbia and Croatia are cooperating to ban foreign guests from coming to the stadia at which the two games will take place, because they fear for their safety. This is a big step to take; ending ethnic warfare often requires the expensive and delicate construction such as having to hire riot squads to help at the matches. Even where violence is clearly rooted in a preexisting conflict, it should not be treated as a natural, self-explanatory outgrowth of such conflict, allowing Serbs and Croats to keep resorting to violence as part of their disagreements. Although FIFA has to let Serbia and Croatia play each other, instead of banning foreign guests they could go a step further to reduce any ethnic riots from occurring by banning spectators all together. It would not be the first time UEFA or FIFA resorted to playing a match inside an empty stadium in Europe.

In the public sphere today the role of the press in spreading riots can be detrimental, by sharing news on a global scale where it is heard throughout the world. This can therefore lead to riots occurring in different locations as it sparks the emotions of those ethnic groups involved. The media aim to exaggerate issues, to tear at heartstrings and make people want to fight for what they believe in. Using optical illusions and around the world television coverage has contributed to the riots occurring. It is not only the media that can cause riots to intensify but also the rumours that surround the build-up to such situations. As a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, rumours of impending violence can precipitate actual riots, as people believe in what they have heard whether it be through the use of technology or other means.

When looking back through history there was not the technology that exists today. Instead, the use of rumours is what caused ethnic riots to break out whereas through the use of social media or text messaging in the twenty-first century the harmful side effects of an ethnic riot can transpire. The Harlem riots during World War II began when a white policeman arrested a negro woman for disorderly conduct. A negro soldier tried to intervene and a fight broke out, with both men ending up in hospital with injuries. These were the actual facts, whereas the account that spread through the black community included a negro soldier shot in the back and killed by a white policemen. This story, formed by rumours, had the local black community believing that once again they were being poorly treated, needing to get retribution for what was in fact a fake rumour.

Along with rumours that float around any given situations another issue is the use of technology to spread a message; for example, that a riot is going to occur. In 2005, through the use of various text messages sent to ethnic groups of Middle Eastern appearance living in Australia and also caucasian Australians, people flocked to Cronulla after a group of volunteer surf lifesavers allegedly had been assaulted. The media exaggerated what had occurred therefore the text messages were sent out in retaliation, with 5000 people gathering at Cronulla beach to protest. It became violent when a man of Middle Eastern appearance was spotted and then attacked, beginning battles for nights to follow. Another example in today’s sphere of how rumours and the media play a part in ethnic riots that occur is the Indians living in Australia facing racial abuse. Indians organized rallies via text messages in Melbourne and Sydney and intense media coverage of the perceived hate crimes commenced in India, which were targeted at not only Australia but also Victoria Police. Once again at the Australian Open in 2010, two protesters dressed up as members of the Ku Klux Klan and protested over the racist violence against Indians, resulting in both being fined by police for ‘inciting a riot’.

Just as media and technology are involved in facilitating ethnic riots, it is the job of police officers of Australia to try and stop ethnic riots from occurring in the first place. All around the world the relationship of a police force with its local community is crucial because they need to control and collect information that will reduce the likelihood of future ethnic rioting. Police along with leaders of the community need to be monitoring and ameliorating law enforcement abuses that might damage relationships between authorities and those whom they serve and protect. If a relationship is damaged, the police may not get the cooperation needed when something goes wrong in the neighborhood. As mention previously, that is where people are intermingled with one another and forced to share the same resources and institutions. The police force need to address issues in the areas as ethnic riots can be set off by an indiscretion starting unexpectedly where the police may not have adequate force or transport in the locality to assist with the issue at hand. This is the reason that laws have been introduced to try and downplay the ethnic riots occurring in the first place. The early policies were related to trying to change people to become one and forget about their past.

In 1901, the ‘White Australia Policy’ was introduced favouring certain ethnicities to migrate to Australia. The intention of this policy was to promote a homogenous population following Britain’s footsteps, allowing only (western or northern) Europeans into the country. Looking back at the situation today, many Australians are ashamed of how this occurred. Australia today is promoted as a multicultural society. This policy may have been introduced to prevent any ethnic riots from forming, or they simply may have just been racist, discriminating against people according to their skin colour and making the assumption that anyone with white skin is superior to those with a different colour. This could be the basis of the future ethnic riots, as groups in society believe themselves to be better than others.

The term ‘boat people’ is used to refer to refugees, illegal immigrants, or asylum seekers. These ‘boat people’ try and arrive into Australia undetected and begin a new life. They are stopped by the government apparently due to the fear that we will be overrun, and yet the figures that are being let into Australia suggest otherwise. Currently, there are 2.7 million refugees in Afghanistan and a million in Iran, compared to only 23,500 in Australia. Some Australians fear what could happen if we let hundreds of different nationalities into this country, such as ethnic rioting, and thus support making policies contributing to harder entry, preventing any further potential threats in the future. This view disagrees with everything that Australia now tries to represent, as these ‘boat people’ who would be trying to join communities would make our economy much stronger. They could be trained to work in all different fields, particularly where the country is desperate for workers.

Ethnic riots are a constant menace that never will be able to be prevented completely. Governments and police all over the world can eliminate issues that stem from the disputes, however, and try to fix issues at hand. This will help the situation, but ethnic riots are strongly related to an individual’s upbringing in regards to the groups that you surround yourself with and the families that have raised you. To mitigate ethnic riots, media and technology need to emphasise the negative effects that ethnic hatred and ethnic conflict have on the political and financial sphere in the globe today, by learning to share power and coexist. Through this paper, it is evident that issues that occurred throughout history still exist today and there is no telling when, or if, divergent groups of people that carry the past with them will move into the twenty-first century and live harmoniously within a more peaceful global community.


Selected further reading:

Brubaker, R & D Laitin, ‘Ethnic and Nationalist Violence’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 24, 1998, pp. 423-452, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Cederman, LE, A Wimmer & B Min, ‘Why do Ethnic Groups Rebel? New Data and Analysis’, World Politics, vol. 62, no. 1, 2012, pp. 87-119, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Horowitz, DL, ‘Direct, Displaced and Cumulative Ethnic Aggression’, Comparative Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1973, pp. 1-16, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Lieberson S & AR Silverman, ‘The Precipitants and Underlying Conditions of Race Riots’, American Sociological Review, vol. 30, no. 6, 1965, pp. 887-898, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Marx, G, ‘Issueless Riots’, American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 391, 1970, pp. 21-33, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Perez AD, KM Berg & DJ Myers, ‘Police and Riots 1967-1969’, Journal of Black Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2003, pp. 153-182, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Sadowski, Y, ‘Ethnic Conflict’, Foreign Policy, no. 111, 1998, pp. 12-23, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Sen, SR, ‘Communal Riots: Anticipation, Containment and Prevention’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 28, no. 15, 1993, 627-631, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Ward, R, ‘Black and White Australians: Race Relations in History’, The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2, 1983, pp. 160-167, retrieved 20 September 2012, JSTOR.


Ware, H, Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’ and why don’t they get on planes?’, The Conversation, 2012, retrieved 10 October 2012, <http://theconversation.edu.au/who-are-australias-boat-people-and-why-dont-they-get-on-planes-8361>.

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Amanda Jarrett, Ethnic Riots: Can they ever Cease to Exist? Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/ethnic-riots

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/ethnic-riots