Politics and Prejudice

Gov. Otto Kerner, of Illinois, Chair of the 1967 Kerner Commission

Julian E. Zelizer in The Atlantic writes that the racial divergence of the present recalls the post-riot period of the 1960s. Zelizer returns to the Kerner Commission report, requested but then ignored by Lyndon Johnson. The report concludes, pointedly: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” There are ways the report now seems prophetically true, and also mistaken. There is a black America and a white America. There is also a poor white America — separate and unequal. And many blacks have succeeded in what some would call an America of many hues and beliefs. America today has made progress on racial questions; and yet profound problems remain. Which is why Zelizer’s look backwards is so helpful.

“[Kerner] Commission staffers had produced a blistering and radical draft report on November 22, 1967. The 176-page report, “The America of Racism,” recounted the deep-seated racial divisions that shaped urban America, and it was damning about Johnson’s beloved Great Society programs, which the report said offered only token assistance while leaving the “white power structure” in place. What’s more, the draft treated rioting as an understandable political response to racial oppression. “A truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” they wrote, “an unwillingness to compromise or wait any longer, to risk death rather than have their people continue in a subordinate status.” Kerner then nixed the report, and his staff director fired all 120 social scientists who had worked on it.

Nevertheless, the final Kerner Report was still incredibly hard-hitting: “This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Though the commissioners had softened the language from the first draft, much of the data remained the same and the overall argument was still incredibly powerful. The report focused on institutional racism. This meant that racism was not just a product of bad individuals who believed that African Americans were inferior to white Americans, but that these racial hierarchies were literally embedded in the structure of society.

“Segregation and poverty,” the report said, “have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The riots in Newark and Detroit, the report continued, “were not caused by, nor were they the consequences of, any organized plan or ‘conspiracy.’” The rioters were educated and had been employed in recent years; most of them were furious about facing constant discrimination when seeking new employment, trying to find a place to live, or, worst of all, interacting with hostile law-enforcement officials.

The police received the most scrutiny in the report. In a haunting section, the report explained, “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods.” The rioting had shown that police enforcement had become a problem not a solution in race relations. More aggressive policing and militarized officers had become city officials’ de facto response to urban decay. “In several cities, the principal response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The report stressed that law-enforcement officers were not “merely a spark factor” to the riots but that they had come to symbolize “white power, white racism, and white oppression.”

Much has changed in 50 years; yet for too many black men and women, the police remain a constant source of fear. Two black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police this week. One man appears clearly to be innocent. The other was killed in what appears to be a severe overreaction from the police. One murder was caught on video. The aftermath of the other murder was streamed live on Facebook. Put these two apparent murders in the context of the killings of Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and the recent history of 100s of others; there is an epidemic of murders of black men and women at the hands of the police. We have a problem.

There is, of course, another problem. When a black man chose to retaliate by assassinating white police officers in Dallas, when he committed a brutal, calculated, and hateful mass murder, it is easy to use this tragedy to hide from real problems. There are many slogans today. We have #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive. And there are grounds for shouting both, as both blacks and police are subject to hateful, disgusting, and deadly prejudice. We need, however, to move beyond slogans and equivalencies.

990 people were shot by the police in 2015. The Washington Post lists and describes each shooting. Four-hundred-ninety-four of the shot were white. Two-hundred-fifty-eight were black. Some will focus only on the killing of non-whites and say that the police are racist. That is too simple. Some will point to the number of whites killed to argue against a racial problem amongst the police. That is wrong.

Rather the 990 police-induced fatalities makes visible are at least three problems. One is an overly militarized, highly armed, police force. The use of a drone to blow up the sniper in Dallas is only one example of a police culture that has become overly militarized. At the very least, the Dallas police could have sent a drone in to release laughing gas or some sedative. Instead, the police simply used a robot to kill a criminal without a trial. True, this particular criminal deserved it and it is hard to get too riled up about the death of a mass murderer. But in a democracy the police are not supposed to kill without trial. The militarized culture of violence that we are importing into our civilian police departments has led to a police force that increasingly looks and feels like an occupying army, covered in body armor, driving armored vehicles, and wielding military grade weaponry. Both Edmund Burke and Hannah Arendt have warned of the domestic dangers for democracy of sending young people off to fight wars of occupation, that these young soldiers will return seeing the world as divided between good and evil, Christian and Muslim, and too often between black and white. We need to be honest that there is some reason for the police to act that way given the violence and danger of some of our cities; law and order is important. But we also need to take seriously the fact that our militarized police force and our ever-expanding jails are signs of a broken, prejudiced, and unjust criminal justice system. There is a justified sense in many communities that the police are an occupying power.

A second problem the killings expose is the division of America into rich enclaves and poor ghettos — white and black ghettos — in which drugs, poverty, and hopeless have created a class of humanity is largely divorced from the middle class values and middle class privileges of our urban and suburban civilization. There is a racial component to American poverty, but it is not simply a problem of race. There are now multiple cultures of poverty in the United States. To take just three examples, there is an urban black culture of poverty, there is a small-town white culture of drugs and poverty, and there is the insular hillbilly culture of Appalachian poverty. America is in danger of coming apart into a nation of super-wealthy enclaves surrounded by large swathes of desolate poverty. We can talk about the one percent and the super rich, we can talk about inequality. We can talk about poverty (thought we rarely do). But we must not forget that such extreme inequality leads to feelings of disdain and contempt that enable killing and imprisoning of people who seem almost foreign if not inhuman. We will not address the problem of police violence without tackling the cancer of extreme poverty, fear, and hopelessness.

And the third problem underlying police violence is racial prejudice. While both whites and blacks are shot by the police, study after study shows that blacks are shot in higher percentages, both as a percent of the population and as percent of police incidents. This is not difficult to understand. It does not mean that all policemen and women are racists. The police who shoot both black and white people are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. The majority of police are overwhelmingly good people, well meaning public servants. But they suffer from the same prejudices that infect our society. Not only many whites, but also many blacks, view an armed black male civilian to be more dangerous than an armed white male civilian. They view a hysterical black woman with less equanimity than a hysterical white woman. They are more likely to stop and more likely to shoot a black than a white teenager wearing a hoodie. And, most pointedly, there is a longstanding view that the killing of a black person is not as socially and institutionally consequential as the killing of a white person. These are prejudices.

It is true, as Hannah Arendt understood, that “Man cannot live without prejudices.” We all structure our world with certain pre-judgments that we are taught to share. To live without prejudices would require us to pass judgment on every person and every situation we encounter, which would necessitate a “superhuman alertness.” But prejudices are also dangerous.

“The danger of prejudice lies in the very fact that it is always anchored in the past — so uncommonly well-anchored that it not only anticipates and blocks judgment, but also makes both judgment and a genuine experience of the present impossible. If we want to dispel prejudices, we must first discover the past judgments contained within them, which is to say, we must reveal whatever truth lies within them. If we neglect to do this, whole battalions of enlightened orators and entire libraries of brochures will achieve nothing, as is made eminently clear by the truly endless and endlessly fruitless efforts to deal with issues burdened with ancient prejudices, such as the problem of the Jews, or of Negroes in the United States.”

We cannot extinguish prejudice. But we can dispel wrong and unjust prejudices. Which is why Arendt argues that “in all times and places it is the task of politics to shed light upon and dispel prejudices, which is not to say that its task is to train people to be unprejudiced or that those who work toward such enlightenment are themselves free of prejudice.” We will not alter prejudices, however, by lecturing people on what we think is right. To change and dispel prejudice is the activity of politics, which above all means seeking to persuade people that what their opinions are mistaken. This is especially difficult when prejudices are rooted in world-views. But it is not impossible. There is a world where prejudices are questioned and challenged in the name of both reality and justice. That is the world of politics.

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

Zelizer, Julian E. “Is America Repeating the Mistakes of 1968?” theatlantic.com. theatlantic.com. 8 July 2016. Web. 8 July 2016.

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