What is behind the riots? The violent riots emerging from peaceful protests that have swept liberal, Democratic big cities across the United States in the aftermath of the horrifying death of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police on May 25 can only be understood in the context of the evolving class structure of American and Western European society. In my recent book The New Class War and the essays on which it was based in the journal American Affairs, I have explained that in the United States and other North Atlantic democracies, the greatest geographic divide is between high-density hub cities and low-density heartlands. The riots are a hub city phenomenon—and so are their most striking participants, affluent young white rioters dressed like ninjas.
Most factories, warehouses, distribution centers, and new industrial structures like server farms are located in the low-density heartlands, along with industrialized agriculture and energy and mining. The class system in the heartlands tends to be more egalitarian, if only by default, because these regions have relatively fewer rich and poor people as a share of the population than working-class residents. Native-born white citizens are the majority in the decentralized exurban heartlands. However, contrary to the outdated equation of “urban” and “minority” and “poor,” most African Americans and Hispanic Americans belong to the working class and live in the suburbs, exurbs, and small towns.
The hub cities have a radically different social structure than the heartlands. At the top are affluent members of the managerial-professional overclass, which includes well-educated immigrants as well as natives. Their incomes vary, but people with college or post-graduate educations dominate the upper rungs of corporate management, finance, business and professional services, government and the nonprofit sector in hub cities like New York, Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, and Austin.
As young adults, the children of the overclass often spend their 20s in the same few cities, living in gentrified bohemian neighborhoods that used to be factory or tenement districts. Often as they work their way up the cursus honorum of their class, they benefit from elite apprenticeships in the form of unpaid or underpaid internships, which are not available to young people whose parents cannot afford to subsidize them.