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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Baltimore Riots and the Kerner Report

Spring 2015 witnesses riot and civil unrest engulfing the streets of Baltimore over the tragic death of an unarmed black man while in police custody. Thorny issues relating to law enforcement priorities and practices, racial profiling, due process and fundamental fairness under the law bubble to the surface once again.

For those old enough to remember, scenes from Baltimore conjure up images from the 1960s, standard-bearer for racial unrest in the modern civil rights era. Were the Baltimore riots (and events perhaps yet to come) the result of the mistreatment of just one man? Or is there more involved? As the national economy ebbs and flows, prosperity in this age of acquisitive individualism appears to have bypassed Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods, which remain largely unchanged in 50 years.

Why did they riot in Baltimore? Why did they riot in the 1960s? Are events related?

The 1960s riots took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles, as well as several other major northern US cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Newark.  The riots were not confined to the US, however.  Great Britain and South Africa also experienced race riots during this time.

The riots had begun in 1965, due to mounting civil unrest, and continued for three successive summers.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed a federal commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still in progress.  He determined to learn the cause of the race riots and unrest.  Upon signing the order establishing the commission, the president asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

The commission’s final report, named the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation.   The 426-page document became an instant best-seller, with over two million Americans purchasing copies.  Its basic finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. critiqued the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

One of the commission’s core findings was that the federal government had engaged in unfair and discriminatory loan practices.  For example, in important matters of employment, education and housing especially, federal low interest loans under the GI Bill were made available to World War II and Korean war veterans who were white, as an incentive to flee to the “safety” of the suburbs, where a better quality of life awaited.  Black veterans were illegally denied equal treatment under the law.

The Kerner Report’s most infamous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white --- separate and unequal.”  The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social service policies, also aiming some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media: “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

The federal commission concluded that the riots were the result of poverty, police brutality, poor schools, poor housing, attributed to “white racism” and its heritage of discrimination and exclusion.  The equation was a simple one: no education, no job, no housing and no political power equaled no hope.

Following the riots of the 1960s, America’s suburbs continued a trend of becoming more white and its cities more black.  This phenomenon occurred as much in the North and on the West Coast (Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles) as in the South (Atlanta and Charlotte).

The Johnson administration had the report analyzed but dismissed its recommendations, however, on budgetary grounds.  Soon the Great Society would be sidetracked anyway by external events in a far away place called Vietnam.  The War on Poverty would be swallowed up and replaced by the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs, with all the attendant shortcomings of that campaign.  Some argue persuasively that the resulting discriminatory enforcement of these laws was by design --- and is alive and well to the present day.

Is this some of what's going on --- and not going on --- in Baltimore?

-Michael D'Angelo

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Democracy and Self-Determination

Imagine the world in 1776. Rather than the history we have come to know, a foreign country imposes arbitrary boundaries around a fledgling conception of the United States of America to serve its own purposes. The European white settlers, imported African slaves and indigenous local native American Indian population are not consulted. They are thrown together in a haphazard arrangement of mercantile expediency, told they are a nation and admonished to get along as equals.

Democracy is self-rule, freedom in its purest collective sense. Self-determination is a process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government. Individually, it is a process by which a person controls their own life.

If only democracy were to be so simple.  Perhaps once upon a time it was simple.  But, today, when one nation’s economic “foreign policy” interests clash with a people’s right to self-determination in some other place, near or far, it gets complicated.

A New York Times editorial flashes across the screen with the nebulous title, Iraq’s Cycles of Revenge. Laying out the peoples and interests which comprise present day Iraq, the piece paints a worrisome picture of chronic behavior which is difficult to modify. Unfortunately, the piece merely scratches the surface of what may really be going on there.

For a better view, one need go back at least a hundred years. If it were only to be about democracy and self-determination, as President Wilson had envisioned at the Palace of Versailles peace table, to settle the differences which remained (among Western powers) at the end of World War I.

Long planned by Great Britain and France from the early days of World War I, the balance of the former Ottoman Empire was “partitioned.” Though not completed at Versailles, the partitioning facilitated the creation of the modern Arab World. The League of Nations then-governing world body granted the United Kingdom mandates over Mesopotamia and Palestine and Jordan. Out of the former, the nation of Iraq was conceived.

The British navy’s conversion to oil during World War I had provided the critical military advantage over its German rival, which was still using coal.  Consequently, absent its own domestic source of oil, Great Britain’s “Mandate for Iraq” was, purely and simply, a plan to implement a foreign policy initiative whose goal was to secure a safe, abundant domestic oil supply.  First and foremost, the oil would be used to power the royal navy in continued military domination of world shipping lanes.

The administration of the plan facilitated a secure supply of Arabian oil over land to Western EuropeBritain identified the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as the most favorable supply routes from the cities of Mosul and BasraBritain then struck upon a set of arbitrary lines around the physical arrangement, through which it could administer both efficiently and productively, and called it “Iraq.”

Suffice to say the local inhabitants were not consulted.  Consequently, it mattered little to Britain that the new nation would have a Shiite Muslim population in the south and east, Sunni Muslims in the west, and the nomadic Kurds in the north.  The latter group also had a significant population north of the arbitrary border, in southern Turkey.  As between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the Sunnis (Saddam Hussein’s people) were the decided minority, so Britain decided to arm and provide them with the local ruling authority under the mandate.  Some called it “nation building 101.”

These three disparate groups had little in common otherwise, with claims of Holy War made as early as 1920, when Muslim leaders began to organize an insurgent effort.  A fatwa (religious ruling) was then issued, which pointed out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims.  Muslim leaders thereafter called for a jihad (holy war) against the British.  Following World War II, with the torch of leadership of Western Civilization effectively passing from the British to the Americans, the phenomenon of Iraq officially became “our” problem.

In the aftermath following the toppling of its former dictator in 2003, the idea of an “Iraqi revolution” seems absurd, given the arbitrary nature of Iraq.  Let’s face reality: The indigenous population is no more “Iraqi” than we Americans are from Mars.

If it is about American core values of democracy and promoting human rights, what part do national energy security and our economic dependence on the commodity of oil play?  Are stewardship of the environment and the common duty to pay forward for future generations primary considerations?  How vital are American core values of equal protection of the laws coupled with freedom of worship as against thorny moral issues of race, color, creed and gender distinctions?  What is the relative importance of countering extremism, regardless of cause?

Above all, what part is to be played by ordinary citizens?  Who is to serve as our guide?

-Michael D’Angelo