Friday, May 09, 2008

The Kerner Commission Report of 1968: a "culture war" milestone

Sen. Fred Harris with President Lyndon Johnson

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known to the press and the public as the Kerner Commission, made a study and a report on urban violence. President Johnson appointed the commission originally to investigate the causes of riots in 1967 in Newark and Detroit. But many cities were struck by race-related violence.

Excerpts from the Commission's report are available online. Bill Moyers reported earlier this year on the Commission, including an interview with former Sen. Fred Harris, a prominent member of the Commission.

At about 12 minutes into the video, Harris makes several good observations, including this:

What we telling about-- with racism was not-- one white person hating one black-- or all black people. We're talking about kind of an institutional racism which existed. And where people live in all white neighborhoods. Send their kids to all white schools. Drive quickly through black section maybe, or on the train, to a job where all their associates are white. And don't see anything odd about it. That was what-

BILL MOYERS: The natural order of things.

FRED HARRIS: That's right. That's what we were talking about.

BILL MOYERS: For civil rights leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. the Kerner Report confirmed reality

MARTIN LUTHER KING: And now we see the surfacing of old prejudices and hostilities that have always been there and they're out in the open — that's very good they're out in the open because you can deal with them much better when they are there to see and when people admit them. My analysis was no more pessimistic or gloomy than the Kerner Commission's report the other day. I do feel that we've got to say in no uncertain terms that racism is alive and on the throne in American society and that we are moving towards two societies... separate and unequal and if something isn't done to stop this in a very determined manner, things can really get worse. (my emphasis)
I'll mention at this point that I was acquainted personally with Fred Harris at one point in my past. (Long story.) And every time I hear him speak or read something he's written, I realize how much of an impression he made on me.

But, ohmygod! That scary black preacher Jeremiah Wright said "racism is alive and on the throne in American society". That must mean he's divisive and angry and, uh .. oh, that was Martin Luther King. The guy who's on a postage stamp now. The "I have a dream" guy.

The following excerpt is classic Fred:

BILL MOYERS: The Reagan conservatives were quite critical of the Kerner Commission as being unbalanced and simplistic. They say, for example, that you failed to take into consideration that the close correlation between being born out of wedlock, and growing up without a father, and being poor, that your work over the years actually exempts the poor from being responsible for their own condition. [In other words, the "culture war" argument]

FRED HARRIS: Well, you know, the breakdown in families is just like sort of crime and narcotics and so forth. These are the consequences. They're the handmaidens in the sense of-poverty

FRED HARRIS: I said at the time, there are a lot of people who want to-- punish people for being poor. You know, say, "It's your own fault." We want to punish people for being poor. I said, "I I used to poor myself. And being poor is punishment enough." I think what you need to do is to help people-- up, give 'em a hand up. And recognize the kind of terrible conditions that they're grown up in. (my emphasis)
You need to see the video to get the full effect, though.

Fred Harris with Bill Moyers, 2008

Fred Harris is my kind of white guy.

Now, the "culture warriors" will always try to seize on any comments like those, which describe a chronic problem in terms of its institutional and broader sociological dimensions and say, oh, this liberal just wants to let criminals rob and kill and rape and never hold them responsible for their acts.

But that's a ridiculous claim. What it's really is about is trying to get people to reframe real social problems as purely individual problems. Conservatives have become near-obsessive about doing that on white racism. That why I like the way Fred framed that comment about racism not being a matter of "one white person hating one black-- or all black people" but a matter of institutional effects which constrain the way people live their lives. Plenty enough individual feelings of contempt, hatred and fear come out of that. But the social problem of white racism is not primarily about whether individual whites feel that they don't have any personal feelings of being racially superior. By trying to redefine racism as some matter of personal manners, conservatives want to reject the notion of addressing the broader social and institutional results of racism.

The Kerner Commission's report combined both concerns as follows:

The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

This alternative will require a commitment to national action--compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and dis­order nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the free­dom of every citizen. The community cannot--it will not--­tolerate coercion and mob rule.

Violence and destruction must be ended--in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. (my emphasis)
Fred was chairman of the Democratic Party in 1968-9, at the start of what we now know as the "culture war". Now, he's about as far from "elitist" as a former Senator and longtime college professor can get. But he's also not afraid to point out the plain fact that sometimes people get snookered into doing things that aren't in their own best interests.

In a 1973 book called The New Populism, he included the following. ("New Populism" was a concept he started using in 1969. "Populism" has come to be so vague now as to almost be meaningless. But it's never had the strong connotation in America that it has in Europe of rightwing demagoguery - though some rightwing demagogues in America have called themselves "populists".) Fred quoted the famous Southern white minister Will Campbell:

The problems of blacks and whites in America overlap to a considerable degree. Marshall Frady wrote in Life magazine in 1972 about Will D. Campbell, a Yale-educated Southern Baptist preacher in Nashville, Tennessee, who'd had to do a lot of the same hard thinking that Monsignor Baroni and I had done.

"Some of my black friends like Stokely Carmichael," [a famous advocate of "Black Power" in the 1960s] he told Frady, "started telling me, 'Look here, man, we pretty much got things cool and together with our folks. If you want to help out real bad, why don't you go to work on your people!' I said, 'Man, you happen to be talking about red-necks - they'll kill me.' And he said, "That sort of means they're the problem then, don't it?' "

Answering that question, Campbell began to spend a good part of his time with working-class Southern whites, and he began to see a parallel. "Whatever it is that's keeping the red-neck a Kluxer and the black man a nigger - whatever's keeping them outside and poor and without any hope - is the same thing for both," he said.

In some ways it's been more damaging for the white. "In a way, see," Campbell said, "the red-neck's been the special victim of the whole system. It took his head away. The system got about everything else from the black man — his back, a portion portion of his spirit maybe - but it never really managed to get his head. All along, the black man's known more or less what's been going on. But the red-neck - hell, he's never known who the enemy was. If you remember anything about the course of Populism, every time the poor white began getting together in natural alliance with the equally dispossessed black, he'd be told that it meant blacks were going to ravish his wimminfolks, and the Bolsheviks were going to invade the courthouse. He's never known how he's been had."
At the end of the Moyers interview, he asks Fred why democracy in America can't seem to deal with the persisting problems of racism and urban poverty. Fred responds:

Well I think first of all-- people don't really realize that conditions are so bad for so many people in poverty and-- and for African-Americans, and for Hispanics. I think a lot of people say, well, didn't we do all that? And I think if people knew these conditions and that's what we ought to do on the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Report is to get people to see that these problems of race and poverty are still with us. Also, I think we need to approach this on a basis of that we're all in this together. Somebody said we may not have all come over on the same boat but we're all in the same boat now.

And here's the interesting thing. Every poll that's taken shows that two-thirds of Americans think America's on the wrong footing. They're headed in the wrong direction. And there's overwhelming support for example this: do you think we ought to spend more on-- in prevention-- by putting money in education and training and jobs, instead of police and prisons. Overwhelmingly people say, yes. Do you think that we ought to have a social net-- so-- just to catch people falling out and to give them another chance? Oh, yes, they strongly believe in that. What about healthcare? We got 46 million people without health insurance. And yet overwhelmingly Americans say, yes, I think we ought to have-- healthcare even if-- everybody-- universal healthcare even if it costs us more money. So the public is way ahead of the politicians I think.

And I just think that, as I said, it's in our own interests, and everybody's interests to try to do something about it. We can do it. (my emphasis)
Fred has definitely been one of the good guys. For the last four decades.

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