Saturday, March 29, 2008

Moyers on Race and Poverty - the Kerner Commission Report of 1968

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with former Senator Fred Harris (D-OK), one of the original members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission.

Convened by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of 1967’s riots among inner-city blacks in Detroit and dozens of other cities, the Kerner Commission sought to learn what had happened, why the riots had occurred, and what could be done to prevent similar events from happening again. The resulting (and immediately controversial) 1968 Kerner Report concluded that the riots emerged from severe poverty and limited opportunity in America’s urban ghettoes, for which the Report blamed institutional racism.

The report recommended a series of measures to try and change the situation, including using the government to create jobs, expanding affirmative action, and beefing up welfare and other social services. Regarding the Commission’s recommendations, Harris said:

“I think virtually everything [the Kerner Commission recommended] was right... one of the awfulest things that came out of the Reagan presidency and later was the feeling that government can’t do anything right and that everything it does is wrong. The truth is that virtually everything we tried worked. We just quit trying it. Or we didn’t try it hard enough. And that’s what we need to get back to.

We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about a decade after the Kerner Commission report and then, particularly with the advent of the Reagan administration and so forth, that progress stopped. And we began to go backwards... When we cut out a lot of these social programs, or the money for them... [and] we don’t emphasize jobs and training and education and so forth as we had been doing, there are bad consequences from that... 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.”

Moyers also interviewed Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who offered his own perspective:

"The knee jerk reaction [is] to spend more money. Well, you know what? I can show you places in the city of Newark where we're doing more with less simply because we have good people stepping forward and saying, "I'm not gonna tolerate this any more in my nation, in my community, on my block." They're doing mentoring programs. You have grassroots leaders... Because it's all about the spirit. It all comes down to a spiritual transformation... At some point in America, we're going to have to get beyond blame and start accepting responsibility."

Are the Kerner Commission’s findings relevant today? Why or why not?

My formative background has exposed me to the problems of elitism and economic inequality, in those very places that just before my birth had exploded in riot and assignation. I have seen both the positive and negative potential of America in the aftermath of Kerner Commission, and Fred Harris is right, we never finished the processes recommended by the 1967 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Thus, their findings are still relevant.

I do not believe that governments can solve racism, end elitism, or change human nature. Our greed and fear divide humanity in conflict, to unify the white and black community in the U.S. would require overcoming both human nature and the prejudice of past experience, and only death can eventually erase that memory. Individually we have the potential of reason, it may be possible to achieve change, to educate ourselves and gain enlightenment, to overcome our evolved tribal nature by rational self-interest, but such can not be forced upon us by government. Government can, at best, encourage and motivate such unity through legislation and economic policy, and inspire our potential by its own example.

Today, the problem has grown multi-fold, not only does a legacy of American slavery and segregation remain, but there is a new form of slavery evolving among the undocumented and disenfranchised, from both Latin America and the Pacific Rim. The people are trapped in a form of illegitimate limbo, unable to legally enter American society, and unwilling to return to the horrible conditions of their home country, conditions American policies create and perpetuate, they live as an invisible underclass here.

These new slaves compete with our poorest American Citizens, and this hinders America's social progress. The wealthy use this slave labor to secure their lifestyles, abusing these undocumented people, and reducing opportunities for social advancement and economic mobility among U.S. Citizens. This hinders the fair distribution of wealth, and pits the new slaves against the uneducated poor, as wages are under-cut and we compete for resources. Add this to the development of the prison-industry and the legal process of criminalizing the poor, and our government is again guilty of amplifying social injustice.

Are the Commission’s recommendations of more government-created jobs, expanded affirmative action, increased welfare, etc. a practical strategy for helping inner cities? Why or why not?

Some of the original Kerner Commission recommendations are now outdated, but all levels of government should be compelled to hire people who reflect the population they serve. If applications from any protected group or class of people seem to be lacking in either quality or quantity, the government should be compelled to take steps to correct that problem. Even if that means specifically financing education for those under-represented groups to prepare them for the government jobs of the future.

In a free society, one can not compel the private sector to hire those who they do not consider qualified, for whatever reason. Although, regulations can and do limit adverse discrimination. However I believe market forces and the genius of individual innovation will force the private sector to hire people based upon their abilities alone, regardless of social prejudices, or else face an inability to compete.

Governments can influence these Social Justice problems directly by eliminating their benefits to the wealthy. However, our current government is cleverly financed by the wealthy, through the campaign finance system, and the rotating door between government service and lobbyists, political consultants and government contractors. It would take revolutionary campaign finance reform and publicly-funded elections to re-balance the power between the rich and everyone else.

After the revolution, we can start by integrating and equalizing the public education system between rich and poor, actually try and finish following the Kerner Commission recommendations. Perhaps a contempoary NACCD Report should be done?

Which do you think is the more effective approach to tackling the problems of the inner city --- Fred Harris' top-down government strategy or Cory Booker's emphasis on individual and grassroots responsibility?

Cory Booker is wise beyond his years (I'm the same age), and he is right. Top down strategies can influence only policy, you can not force individuals to change, and the public is made of individuals.

This all really boils down to the definition of 'RESOURCES', some people think that directing public resources means spending public MONEY. What Mr. Booker is saying is that you can throw all the money at a problem till you run out of it, but it will not change anything unless good people spend their TIME doing what needs to be done.

Perhaps we should impose a SOCIAL JUSTICE Tax on all Americans, you can pay it with 10% of your MONEY, or 10% of your TIME. Get people to spend time in our public schools, to work with our prisoners, our homeless, our sick, our poor. Many wealthy sociopaths would rather pay the $10%, but the good people will give their time, and that attention will leverage their abilities to create the community we all deserve.

What do you think? (Please Comment)

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