Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Kerner Commission (1968): Weigel pt. 4

From George Weigel's provocative essay in First Things on "six moments" from the 1960s that continue to have tremendous impact on today's politics and society.

The Sixties began with the American civil-rights movement at the height of its classic phase; the Sixties ended with the leaders of classic civil-rights activism dead or marginalized. A movement for national reconciliation in a color-blind society had been seized by race-baiters who preached a gospel of victimization and identified the struggles of black America with the revolutionary theories of such Third World ideologues as Frantz Fanon.

This happened in an astonishingly short period of time. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he shared presidential pens with Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins; within half a decade, King was dead, men like Wilkins were charged with being “Oreos” by the new black militants, and a culture of victimization had settled like a thick fog over America’s inner urban areas. Dr. King’s dream of a nation come to the mountaintop of justice had been displaced by chants of “Burn, baby, burn!” Equality of opportunity was passé; racial quotas masqueraded under the euphemism of “affirmative action”; King’s righteous demand that his children be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin was inverted by race-hustlers and shakedown artists—an inversion subsequently validated by activist judges. The result was the alienation of the majority population and the descent of American inner cities into a miasma of broken families, illegitimacy, crime, substance abuse, and poverty.

Why and how one part of the American drama of race played out this way can be debated. But the fact that it happened continues to shape the American politics of the early twenty-first century. Perhaps the pivotal moment was the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, more formally known as the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, created by President Johnson to determine the cause of the racial riots that had burned across America in the summer of 1967.

By 1967, the United States had faced the original sin of its founding and was making immense strides in building what is today the most racially egalitarian major nation on the planet. Segregation of public ­institutions had been declared unconstitutional and segregation of public facilities outlawed. The poll tax in federal elections had been banned by the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, Americans of African descent had been rapidly enfranchised, and, as the 1964 Democratic National Convention demonstrated, black America had begun to play a significant role in national politics. That all this had been accomplished by a religiously grounded movement of national moral and legal reform, in which blacks and whites worked, marched, and bled together, held out the prospect of further progress in sustaining racial equality before the law, creating equality of economic opportunity, and strengthening the culture of responsibility throughout American society

The Kerner Commission, however, seemed blind to many of these positive dynamics, proposing an analysis in which black “frustration” and white “racism” were the two forces shaping American urban life. Black America was a victim, and a victim could not be held morally responsible for lashing out against his victimization. According to the Kerner Commission’s analysis, racist white America was similarly bereft of moral resources, such that government, rather than the institutions of civil society that had been so central to the classic civil-rights movement, had to become the principal agent of enforced social change in order to deal with the crisis of an America “moving toward two societies . . . separate and unequal.”

While the Kerner Commission was rewriting the national narrative on civil rights in favor of a storyline of racial victimization and irresistible irresponsibility—precisely what King, Wilkins, and others of their generation had fought against...

The emergence of what presidential historian Steven Hayward has called a “therapeutic victim culture,” which would have a profound impact on American politics, began with the collapse of the classic civil-rights movement in the mid-Sixties: which is to say, at its greatest moment of triumph. The classic civil-rights movement was determined to reshape America through moral reason; distorted into a twisted parody of itself through the victim culture, it was followed by a moralism self-consciously detached from reason that would prove incapable of calling anyone, black or white, to the great cause of equal justice for all.

As usual, those who paid the heaviest price were those with the least resources to withstand the breakdown of moral reason and the culture of responsibility in entire neighborhoods: the underclass....


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