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What the Kerner Commission Said About Ferguson: Nostradamus

I was having a relatively ineffectual day, the kind where your efforts come to naught, so I did what a reasonable person would do in such a situation- I went home and re-read the Kerner Commission Report.

One of the scholars interviewed in the study reported, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this commission- it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland- with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

When Dr. Kenneth B. Clark wrote this, there had been no O.J. riot, no Ferguson, no police body cams, and no Facebook streaming, no Charlottesville- and yet his statement and words ring true today. This man was frustrated by the persistence and repetition of race violence and the associated causes, and 50 years and a black president later, things are still-the-same.

And we don’t need to wonder why.

And we don’t really need another commission to explore the issue.

Because the causes and problems are eerily, creepily, frustratingly- the same.

The problem is that we have never actually taken the actions the study proposed, compounded with a glaring gap where the report made no proposal at all.

The report gives plenty of advice, mostly in re-training the police and National Guard. It also suggested an investment in supporting poor black communities on a scale never before seen- proportionate to the centuries of devastation imposed on the American black population.

What it did not do was prescribe anything to change the cause of the disparity and grief in the first place- white racism and the pervasive and profound lack of white understanding. It pointed a stern finger of blame in one direction (white America), then pointed the finger in the opposite direction moving forward.

Why should any of us be surprised that things have not changed?

The report has this big blind spot, ironically in line with the report’s own conclusions, in that it warns of an impending fracture between black and white- as if the two were ever together. When were we one? The report urges integration, but when it describes what integration is, it lays out abandoning the city and inserting black people into the white suburban community with its associated opportunities. It does so as if those white communities will magically accept these black interlopers, an action they had never done collectively. Why would they-we- change now?

The answer is pretty easy. In large part we haven’t.

We haven’t because, as the report clearly stated in 1967, we white people still don’t understand what it was all about in the first place. I was once taught, and I have seen hundreds of kids taught since, that the original problem was treating people differently because of skin color. That the problem was calling people that N-word. That the problem was the indignity of making people sit in the back of the bus. That the problem was a drinking fountain or entering a business through a separate door.

We were and are taught that the solution, as proposed by the undisputed leader and solution provider Dr. Martin Luther King, was to simply stop judging individuals by their skin, despite Dr. King having never taught that as a solution but rather a goal, but our lessons skipped the work in between. And I will say with confidence, despite the critics, that so many in my generation took the bait. We did it. We listened to our teachers, we followed the king, and we worked to not judge black people.  We idolized Michael Jordan, we listened to Snoop Dog, and we voted for Obama. We did what our teachers and our parents and our churches told us we needed to do to make the world better, we cheered for, and were nice to, black people.

And still Ferguson. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Moynihan Report (196-) and the Kerner Commission (1967) both, explained exactly how and why Ferguson and Baltimore would happen. It stated plain as day that racial violence breaks out in cities because the environment created by white policy makers and power brokers stifles black pursuit of happiness- that jobs were too scarce, that housing was too expensive and run down, that education was underutilized and underfunded, that life was too hard, and that unchecked police brutality in this environment touches off the powder keg- and that the general white population, the ones making major policy decisions and holding the collective purse strings, has absolutely no understanding of how hard life really is in what the report calls the ghetto.

It does not suggest that the solution is to stop saying the N-word out loud. It does not suggest that the problem was interpersonal rudeness and insensitivity. Yet that is where we white folks worked he hardest.

The report suggested monumental increased welfare support of poor black communities. Our investment was not monumental- but our resistance has been. I have been told by many people, in many instances, that this report warns of, and blames, the disintegration of the traditional black family as a cause of welfare dependence and community degeneration. Yet none of these people also explained to me that what this report really claims is that black men, black father’s, were and are being driven from their families by lack of opportunity and a system that prevents them from being able to both stay home and provide. No one told me that the problems with the welfare system were that it didn’t go far enough or last long enough to support any family from doing what they all wanted to do, which was to progress and become self-sufficient. Never once did the report state that government assistance generated laziness or lack of will to move on. What it did say is that the meager scraps provided through assistance were the best options available and were meted out in a manner that trapped individuals into dependence- and it stated outright that the only way out was a major tax funded increase on a majestic scale.

Yet I have heard so many cite the report as a justification for decreasing public assistance. I doubt those who told me this ever actually read the report.

The commission stated that violent and militaristic overreaction of law enforcement sparked the race riots of the 60’s and suggested substantial retraining and accountability of police. The current administration has stated outright it wants to reverse any efforts to do so. I have been told today that saying “black lives matter” is racist against white people and antagonistic to police. I am told that after watching videos of a handcuffed black kid in Oakland being shot by a cop on a subway platform, or a 12 year old black child being shot by officers when the 911 call suggested he had a toy gun, or when I watch a police officer shoot a mental health worker who was lying on his back with his hands in the air, or when I question how a handcuffed black kid gets his neck broken while in the back of a police van, that I should withhold judgement or emotion because the cop was afraid. I think of this argument and read it plastered across my Facebook feed, and then I read the report of Newark 50 years ago.

I read about how the National Guard had taken cover on corners and behind cars, lying flat for safety, because they were under sniper fire from a housing project. The local Director of Police arrived on the scene and walked boldly upright through the middle of this scene and no shots were fired. Eventually, as the officer finished surveying the scene, a gunshot finally came, sending the already hunkered Guardsmen scrambling. The officer, who knew this place, didn’t scramble but walked over to one of the soldiers and asked him if he was the one that fired. He said that he had. He had seen someone near a window and shot at them. The local officer stayed on the scene for several hours with no incident. Upon his departure two additional columns of Guardsmen were called to these scene and directed mass fire into the projects in response to reported snipers. And then I watch footage from Ferguson.

Or Charlottesville. And I wonder when we will follow the advice and recommendations we have been giving ourselves since before violence in Baltimore, L.A., Charlottesville, or anywhere going all the way back through reconstruction? When will WE, the white people who explicitly or implicitly control so much of what happens with our taxes, our public policy, our society, change? Change in a way that will help. Change in a way that will work. Get better in the big way, not just the one-on-one easy way.

Maybe more of us should start by simply reading, not reading about, the Kerner Commission report. Or the Ferguson Report Maybe even that one from Moynihan too.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/moynchapter5.htm

 

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I was Once Republican

Even before I was old enough to vote, I thought I was a Republican. It was part of my upbringing. It was my family, it was me, and I thought I was Republican because that party stood for what was right. img_1677Everyone around me was Republican and we all recoiled in horror, but not disbelief, when Bill Clinton’s affair moved past accusation into scientific fact. He, and the excusing of infidelity and immorality that he stood for, was what I stood against. Because that was what I thought a Republican was. And then I moved to Georgia.onknownsoldiers

In Georgia being a Republican meant you wanted the confederate battle flag to be incorporated on the state flag. That was not me. I didn’t want anything to do with that. But there was more to being a Republican than a flag, like spousal fidelity and financial accountability. I was for those things. But the other republicans made it obvious that they weren’t “for” me. Because I am Mormon. We, the other Republicans and I, were aligned politically, except for that flag, but they made it obvious at every turn that I was not only different, but bad. I was going to Hell. I was in a cult. I could not go to their Christian school; I could not be in their club, because Mormonism is bad.

I didn’t take it that hard. I understood. Growing up in Utah I had witnessed non-Mormon Christian kids being told they were bad. They weren’t welcome in homes and in clubs. They were Gentiles. Now it was my turn. I never thought it was right, not as a kid and not when I lived in Georgia, but that had nothing to do with being Republican. It was just an unfortunate overlap. But that flag thing, and everything it stood for, was enough to cause me not to register in the party of my birth. I still voted for W of course, I just wasn’t registered in a party. Then I moved to Philly.Processed with Snapseed.

Everyone I worked with in Philly was a Republican. It was a corporate job and we pushed a lot of money around. We were hard working, responsible, and deserved the associated rewards. Everyone else thought part of the rewards they deserved included strip clubs and debauchery. Not me. They were mostly married. It didn’t matter. It was just grown up fun and had nothing to do with politics. Democrats were the devil because they wanted to steal our wages, extort us with unions, and get fat on hand outs funded from our pockets. “Screw the religious right” they would say. “Stay out of my bedroom and my pocket,” they would say. “Besides, priests are messing with little boys and deserve to be fried. Democrats don’t believe in frying people and if anyone deserves it, it’s those priests.”

In Philadelphia I also got to know hard working poor people. They lived in violent neighborhoods with bad schools and toiled for every penny they got. Just pennies. Now not everyone worked hard, some had given up. Some were dragging themselves from hovel to handout, hating every minute of it, but seeing no alternative. They bought chips and candy with their EBT card, and paid their rent under the table in apartments where the plumbing didn’t work. It was hard for me to figure out. I never really did, but I learned to call a lot of these people my friends. My coworkers just called them lazy people looking for hand outs.

One day I was waiting to present a new product to one of my larger accounts. It was a family owned company in Southern New Jersey and they took pride in their history. Dad built the company up from the ground, Mom kept the books, and the two boys were running the day to day preparing themselves to take the wheel. It was election season and everyone was complaining about what the Democrats were doing to their property taxes. It was a solidly Republican room and I was waiting my turn. When the big boss, Dad, showed up, he got things under way, “Alright guys get it together. Watch your language because we have our Mormon boy rep here to go over a new product.” Everyone laughed. No problem. I have been to enough happy hours, drunk enough Shirley Temples with these guys to be used to the ribbing. Then there was that one guy. “Oh yeah, the Mormon guy. I know all about Mormons. I see them all the time in their white shirts on bikes. Supposed to be religious but all they do is cruise around North Philly screwin’ black chicks. That’s where you live right?”

I was a caught off guard. Not by his comment exactly, I was used to both crassness and ribbing, but I was more surprised by the complete lack of reaction in the room. The Dad, the Mom, the whole business, no one batted an eye, corrected the guy, nothing. This man had just made a comment designed to mock a specific set of ideals and beliefs that I hold sacred and central to who I am. It was no big deal. No one cared because there was business to attend to and everyone just looked at me, waiting for me to present this great new money making opportunity. These were the Republicans.

I eventually left that job and found myself enrolled in a university program where liberalism was baked into everything. If there were any Republicans there, they were hiding. Conversely, homosexuality and socialists were welcomed; in a way that would make my Republican roots shudder. I was happy to be in such an environment but I was unsure if I would be welcomed the same way.  I stood up the first day of orientation, in front of my classmates and all the professors, and announced my Mormonism. No one cared. Well, not no one, there was this one professor, but they, the rest of them, did invite me out for drinks. Upon realizing their faux-pa, they insisted I still come to the bar. It wasn’t a strip club kind of bar- because they thought those were bad. Ya know, because those places exploit women, promote debauchery and all that.occupypink

I am not a Democrat.  There are things in the platform I just won’t sign my name to. But since I left home, as I’ve grown, as I’ve lived, I have learned that the Democratic Party is not what I was taught it was- there is so much good there. I have learned that the Republican Party is not what I was taught it was- there is something dark and rotten. It does not stand for what I was taught it stands for and it has given a home to something to which I thought we were opposed. And so I am left politically adrift. I do not hate Republicans just like I don’t hate poor people. I do not demonize Democrats just like I don’t demonize Christianity. I am in the middle not because I lack convictions or ideology, but rather because I feel I am bound by them.

I will not give home and shelter to racism. I am devout in my religious convictions. And I stand in the middle and am surprised at the manner in which I find myself isolated. I am surprised because there are plenty of us in the middle, but most of us have gotten here mostly by a disgust at our own. We, or sort of they, are disgruntled with our one party or the other, yet still view the other party, the one opposed to the one from which they originated, as demonic. We have lost the Pollyannaish view of “our own” while also holding fast to what we assume the “others” are. And we have to assume because we venture into the middle but never look honestly all the way over into the other side.

So now I don’t know what I am and it frustrates me. It frustrates me because I have no desire to withdraw into seclusion or inaction. I have a compulsion to participate in public life, be part of society, to do good and make things better, but where is my vehicle? Where is the apparatus for me or anyone like me? I cannot go back to my roots- that party is too deep into something I abhor. I cannot be a Democrat- there is a non-negotiable technicality.

So where now? Am I alone?

 

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