Social change and agency

Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century — these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.

There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they “want” that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.

But much social and historical change doesn’t look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.

Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?

This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of “contentious politics”.

But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.

Change through social movements

When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to “incumbents” — current power holders and the structures that they control — through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions — demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” in James Scott’s words. And they can support “ideological” campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force — both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.

Change through influential organizations

Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)

Change through state power

The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.

Change through education, media, entertainment

Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.

Change through generational and demographic shifts

These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was “generational change and value replacement” (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:

Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.

Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.

A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal — even though no individual has become more liberal.

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be “systemic” rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt — Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in “no.” These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether — outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.

What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the “incumbents” who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Dr. King’s sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.

(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopiassocial progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social actionprotest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate powerunintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)

Remembering MLK

Our democracy is shaken by the extreme right today, and racism lies at the bottom of the fears and antagonisms that have been used to stir up violent actions and threats against our government and our democratic institutions. Republican leaders, Fox News executives and personalities, incendiary conspiracy-theory followers, ordinary Americans everywhere … step back from the precipice, recall for yourselves what our American democracy can be, and step back to embrace the democratic values that we all must share. Dr. King helped us with his vision and his activism. But more than fifty years after his murder, our country has not embraced the vision of equality and multi-racial democracy for which he advocated, and for which he gave his life.

Here is a beautiful contribution to the NPR Story Corps that records Clara Jean Ester’s memory of being present for Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (link). It is an amazing piece of historical memory and deeply moving. 

And here is a short excerpt from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, in which he speaks of the arc of history (link). It speaks to a fundamental confidence in the eventual triumph of the struggle for freedom and equality. Was Dr. King right?

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. MLK, March 31, 1968

The arc of justice

It has been over a month since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The horror, brutality, and relentless cruelty of George Floyd’s death moves everyone who thinks about it. But George Floyd is, of course, not alone. Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and Eric Garner was choked to death by New York City police in the same year. The Washington Post has created a database of police shootings since 2015 (link), which includes shootings but not other causes of death. According to the data reported there for more than 5,000 deaths recorded in 2015-2020, black individuals are 2.38 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals, and Hispanic individuals are 1.77 times as likely to be shot and killed by police as white individuals. During the past five years, persons shot and killed by police included 2,479 white individuals (13 per million), 1,298 black individuals (31 per million), 904 Hispanic individuals (23 per million), and 219 “other” individuals (4 per million). Plainly there are severe racial disparities in these data. Black and brown people are much more likely to be shot by police than white people. Plainly these data demonstrate beyond argument the very clear arithmetic that black men and women are treated very differently from their white counterparts when it comes to police behavior.

Thanks to the availability of video evidence, a small number of these deaths at the hands of police have provoked widespread public outrage and protest. The Black Lives Matter movement has demanded that policing must change, and that police officers and superiors must be held accountable for unjustified use of force. But it is evident from the Washington Post data that most cases do not gain much public recognition or concern; and even worse, nothing much has changed in the five years since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death in terms of the frequency of police killings. There has not been a sea change in the use of deadly force against young men of color by police across the country. According to the WP data, there were an average of more than 250 shooting deaths per year of black individuals, and only a few of these received national attention.

What change can we observe since Michael Brown’s death and Eric Garner’s death? The Black Lives Matter movement has been a persistent and courageous effort to demand we put racism and racist oppression aside. The public reaction to George Floyd’s murder in the past month has been massive, sustained, and powerful. The persistent demonstrations that have occurred across the country — with broad support across all racial groups — seem to give some hope that American society is finally waking up to the deadly, crushing realities of racism in our country — and is coming to realize that we must change. We must change our thinking, our acceptance of racial disparities, our toleration of hateful rhetoric and white supremacy, and our social and legal institutions. Is it possible that much of white America has at last emerged from centuries of psychosis and blindness on the subject of race, and is ready to demand change? Can we finally make a different America? In the words of Langston Hughes, “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath—America will be!”

Michael Brown was killed at about the time of the 2014 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. A small group of sociologists undertook to write a letter — a manifesto, really — concerning the pervasiveness and impact of racism and racial disparities in America. Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh organized a small group of sociologists in attendance to draft the letter during the ASA conference in San Francisco, and over 1800 sociologists signed the letter. Nicki Lisa Cole contributed to writing the letter and summarizes its main points and recommendations here, and the text of the document can be found here. It is a powerful statement, both fact-based and normatively insistent. The whole document demands our attention, but here are two paragraphs that are especially important in today’s climate of outrage about violent and unjustified use of force by police:

The relationship between African Americans and law enforcement is fraught with a long history of injustice, state violence and abuse of power. This history is compounded by a string of recent police actions that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Mo.), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles, Calif.), Eric Garner (Staten Island, N.Y.), John Crawford (Beavercreek, Ohio), Oscar Grant (Oakland, Calif.), and the beating of Marlene Pinnock (Los Angeles, Calif.) by a California Highway Patrol officer. These events reflect a pattern of racialized policing, and will continue to occur in the absence of a national, long-term strategy that considers the role of historic social processes that have institutionalized racism within police departments and the criminal justice system more broadly.

Law enforcement’s hyper-surveillance of black and brown youth has created a climate of suspicion of people of color among police departments and within communities. The disrespect and targeting of black men and women by police departments across the nation creates an antagonistic relationship that undermines community trust and inhibits effective policing. Instead of feeling protected by police, many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers who may be acting on implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes and assumptions of black criminality. Similarly, the police tactics used to intimidate protesters exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Ferguson are rooted in the history of repression of African American protest movements and attitudes about blacks that often drive contemporary police practices.

These descriptions are not ideological, and they are not statements of political opinion. Rather, they are fact-based observations about racial disparities in our society that any honest observer would agree with. Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City is an ethnographic documentation of many of the insights about surveillance, disrespect, and antagonism in Philadelphia (link).

Sociologists, public health experts, historians, and other social scientists have honestly and passionately about the nature of the race regime in America. Michelle Alexander captures the thrust of much of this analysis in her outstanding book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and the phrase “the New Jim Crow” is brilliant as a description of life today for tens of millions of African-Americans. But the current moment demands more than simply analysis and policy recommendations — it demands an ability to listen and a better ability of all of America to understand and feel the life experience that racism has created in our country. It seems that we need to listen to a poetic voice as well as a sociological or political analysis.

One of those voices is Langston Hughes. Here are two of Langston Hughes’ incredibly powerful poems from the 1930s that speak to our times, “The Kids Who Die” and “Let America Be America Again”.

The Kids Who Die
1938

This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.

Kids will die in the swamps of Mississippi
Organizing sharecroppers
Kids will die in the streets of Chicago
Organizing workers
Kids will die in the orange groves of California
Telling others to get together
Whites and Filipinos,
Negroes and Mexicans,
All kinds of kids will die
Who don’t believe in lies, and bribes, and contentment
And a lousy peace.

Of course, the wise and the learned
Who pen editorials in the papers,
And the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names
White and black,
Who make surveys and write books
Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die,
And the sleazy courts,
And the bribe-reaching police,
And the blood-loving generals,
And the money-loving preachers
Will all raise their hands against the kids who die,
Beating them with laws and clubs and bayonets and bullets
To frighten the people—
For the kids who die are like iron in the blood of the people—
And the old and rich don’t want the people
To taste the iron of the kids who die,
Don’t want the people to get wise to their own power,
To believe an Angelo Herndon, or even get together

Listen, kids who die—
Maybe, now, there will be no monument for you
Except in our hearts
Maybe your bodies’ll be lost in a swamp
Or a prison grave, or the potter’s field,
Or the rivers where you’re drowned like Leibknecht
But the day will come—
You are sure yourselves that it is coming—
When the marching feet of the masses
Will raise for you a living monument of love,
And joy, and laughter,
And black hands and white hands clasped as one,
And a song that reaches the sky—
The song of the life triumphant
Through the kids who die.

Let America be America again
1935

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

The assault on democracy by the right

A democracy depends crucially upon a core set of normative commitments that are accepted on all sides — political parties, citizens, government officials, judges, legislators. Central among these is the idea of the political equality of all citizens and the crucial importance of maintaining equality in the availability of access to formal political involvement in democratic processes. In particular, the right to vote must be inviolate for every citizen, without regard to region, religion, gender, race, national origin, or any other criterion. John Rawls encapsulates these commitments within his conception of the political values of a just society in Political Liberalism.

The third feature of a political conception of justice is that its content is expressed in terms of certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. This public culture comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary), as well as historic texts and documents that are common knowledge. (13) … A sense of justice is the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of social cooperation. Given the nature of the political conception as specifying a public basis of justification, a sense of justice also expresses a willingness, if not the desire, to act in relation to others on terms that they also can publicly endorse. (18)

The Voting Rights Act in 1965 was an important step in the development of racial equality in the United States for a number of reasons; but most important was the clear statement it made guaranteeing voting rights to African-American citizens, and the judicial remedies it established for addressing efforts made in various states or localities to limit or block the exercise of those rights. The act prohibited literacy tests for voting rights and other practices that inhibited or prevented voter registration and voter participation in elections.

However, the Supreme Court decision in 2013 (Shelby County v Holder) eliminated the fundamental force of the 1965 act by removing the foundation of the requirement of pre-clearance of changes in voting procedures in certain states and jurisdictions. This action appears to have had the effect of allowing states to take steps that reduce participation in elections by under-served minorities (link).

Also important is the idea that the formal decisions within a democracy should depend upon citizens’ preferences, not the expenditure of money in favor of or against a given candidate or act of legislation. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission found the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to be unconstitutional because it restricted the freedom of speech of legal persons (corporations and unions). This ruling gave essentially unlimited rights to corporations to provide financial support to candidate and legislative initiatives; this decision in one stroke diminished the political voice of ordinary voters to a vanishing level. Big money in politics became the decisive factor in determining the outcomes of political disagreements within our democracy. (Here is a summary from the Washington Post on the effects of Citizens United on campaign spending; link.)

The 2014 book by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, is profoundly alarming for a number of reasons. They make clear the pivotal role that the politics of race have played in American electoral politics since the Nixon presidency. Most recently, the Tea Party social movement appears to be substantially motivated by racism.

The question is: where did this upsurge in “old-fashioned racism” come from? Based on the best survey data on support for the Tea Party, it seems reasonable to credit the movement for at least some of the infusion of more extreme racial views and actions into American politics. We begin by considering the racial attitudes of Tea Party supporters and what that suggests about the animating racial politics of the movement wing of the Republican Party. In this, we rely on two sources of data: the multi-state surveys of support for the Tea Party conducted by Parker and Barreto in 2010 and 2011 and Abramowitz’s analysis of the October 2010 wave of the American National Election Studies. (KL 5008)

Based on this survey data, they conclude:

Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (KL 5053)

Most alarming is the evidence McAdam and Kloos offer of a deliberate, widespread effort to suppress the voting rights of specific groups. Voter suppression occurs through restrictions on the voting process itself; and more systemically, it occurs through the ever-more-impactful ability of state legislators to engage in data-supported strategies of gerrymandering. And they connect the dots from these attitudes about race to political strategies by elected officials reflecting this movement:

Nor is the imprint of race and racism on today’s GOP only a matter of attitudes. It was also reflected in the party’s transparent efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters in the run-up to the 2012 election. It may well be that the country has never seen a more coordinated national effort to constrain the voting rights of particular groups than we saw in 2012. Throughout the country, Republican legislators and other officials sought to enact new laws or modify established voting procedures which, in virtually all instances, would have made it harder—in some cases, much harder—for poor and minority voters to exercise the franchise. (KL 5053)

Through gerrymandering the votes of a large percentage of the electorate are functionally meaningless; they live in districts that have been designed as “safe districts” in which the candidates of one party (most commonly the Republican Party, though there are certainly examples of Democratic gerrymandering as well) are all but certain to win election. Consider these completely deranged districts from Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina:

And nation-wide, the power of state legislatures to create gerrymandered districts has led to a lopsided political map, where only a few districts are genuinely competitive:

So the preferences of a given block of voters among candidates in a Republican safe district have zero likelihood of bringing about the election of the competing candidate. McAdam and Kloos are very explicit about the threat to democracy these efforts and the deliberateness with which the Republican Party has carried out these strategies over the past several decades. They are explicit as well in documenting the goal of these efforts: to suppress votes by racial groups who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates for office.

The efforts at voter suppression documented by McAdam and Kloos have continued unabated, even accelerated, since the 2014 publication of their book.

The hard question raised by Deeply Divided is not answered in the book, because it is very hard to answer at all: how will the public manage to claim back its rights of equality and equal participation? How will democracy be restored as the operative principle of our country?

Rob Sellers on recent social psychology

Scientific fields are shaped by many apparently contingent and capricious facts. This is one of the key insights of science and technology studies. And yet eventually it seems that scientific communities succeed in going beyond the limitations of these somewhat arbitrary starting points. The human sciences are especially vulnerable to this kind of arbitrariness, and facts about race, gender, and sexuality have been seen to have created arbitrary starting points in various fields of the social and human sciences.

A case in point is the discipline of social psychology. Social psychology studies how individual human beings are shaped in their behavior by the social arrangements in which they mature and live. And yet all too often it has emerged that researchers in this discipline have brought with them a lot of baggage in the form of their own social assumptions which have distorted the theories and methods they have developed.

Rob Sellers is an accomplished social psychologist at the University of Michigan who has thought deeply about the intersections of race and academic life. He also has an unusual and deep appreciation of the history of his discipline. In this recent interview he discusses the legacies of four important African American social psychologists and their impact on the discipline. His subjects are Claude Steele, James Jackson, James Jones, and Jim Sidanius. He argues that these men, all of the same generation and born in the late 1940s, brought about a crucial reorientation in the ways that social psychologists thought about and studied the lives of black people. They have each had distinguished careers and have overseen large numbers of PhD students. Their influence on social psychology has been very substantial.

The interview is worth watching in its entirety — I hope there will also be a second interview that pressures some of these issues more fully — but here are some highlights.

There was an assumption among earlier generations of social psychology that white behavior and experience was normal, and that other identities were abnormal. James Jackson provided a fundamental reset to this presupposition by demonstrating how normal black lives were. This represented something like a paradigm change for the discipline, in that it brought about a fundamental reorientation of the perspectives social psychologists brought to their research.

A parallel assumption in earlier research in social psychology, according to Sellers, was that black lives were somehow “damaged” — low self-esteem, low ability to cope. Jackson demonstrated that this assumption too was fundamentally wrong. Black individuals performed similarly to whites in accepted tests of self-esteem. And the premise of damage underestimates the dignity and persistent success of African American communities.

Claude Steele contributed to an understanding of differences in performance across major social categories through his theory of stereotype threat (link). As Rob Sellers observes, Steele’s experimental research on the effects of stereotypes and presuppositions about differences in capacity between groups has made a very large contribution to both social psychology and the field of education. At the same time, Sellers signals in the interview that he has some hesitations about the magnitude of the effect of stereotype threat (19:45).

Sellers credits James Jones’s research on prejudice with making a large difference in which we understand contemporary racism and the experience of being black within a racially divided society. He also made highly original contributions to the study of African-American culture, finding linkages back to West African cultural meanings and practices. Sellers accepts the idea that cultural assumptions and practices can persist for many generations beyond their original setting.

Another common assumption in social psychology was that intergroup conflict (for example, racism) was cultural and historically contingent. Jim Sidanius advanced a general theory, social dominance theory (along with Felicia Pratto), which undertook to explain racism and other forms of intergroup oppression as an evolutionary consequence of competition for resources, including access to reproduction.

Another important observation Sellers makes in the interview is that the men described here, for all their heterodoxy, were pretty mainstream in their scientific behavior. They established their reputations and careers through research that found acceptance in the main journals and institutions of the time. By contrast, another group of black psychologists rejected the mainstream more directly. Sellers described the revolt in 1969 of the Association of Black Psychologists and the competition this engendered between the mainstream APA and the more activist ABP.

One interesting point that comes out of this interview is the depth of Rob Sellers’ own knowledge of the social psychology of high-level athletes. His comments about Jackie Robinson are particularly interesting.

The question I hope to pursue in my next conversation with Rob is whether the particular experiences of race that these men had in America in the 1950s as children (in the Midwest) and the 1960s as young adults shaped their scientific ideas in any direct ways. It seems intuitively likely that this was the case. But it isn’t possible to easily read off of their work the imprint of the experience of racism in earlier stages of their lives. And yet when we look closely at the biographies of a range of black intellectuals we find a clear imprint of the early experiences on contemporary consciousness. (For illustrations see posts on Ahmad Rahman and Phil Richards; link, link).

The second American revolution

The first American Revolution broke the bonds of control exercised by a colonial power over the actions and aspirations of a relatively small number of people in North America in 1776 — about 2.5 million people. The second American Revolution promises to affect vastly larger numbers of Americans and their freedom, and it is not yet complete. (There were about 19 million African-Americans in the United States in 1960.)

This is the Civil Rights revolution, which has been underway since 1865 (the end of the Civil War); which took increased urgency in the 1930s through the 1950s (the period of Jim Crow laws and a coercive, violent form of white supremacy); and which came to fruition in the 1960s with collective action by thousands of ordinary people and the courageous, wise leadership of men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, it is this second American revolution that is the most important piece of his legacy.

And this is indeed a revolution. It requires a sustained and vigilant struggle against a powerful status quo; it requires gaining political power and exercising political power; and it promises to enhance the lives, dignity, and freedoms of millions of Americans.

This revolution is not complete. The assault on voting rights that we have seen in the past decade, the persistent gaps that exist in income, health, and education between white Americans and black Americans, the ever-more-blatant expressions of racist ideas at the highest level — all these unmistakeable social facts establish that the struggle for racial equality is not finished.

Dr. King’s genius was his understanding from early in his vocation that change would require courage and sacrifice, and that it would also require great political wisdom. It was Dr. King’s genius to realize that enduring social change requires changing the way that people think; it requires moral change as well as structural change. This is why Dr. King’s profoundly persuasive rhetoric was so important; he was able to express through his speeches and his teaching a set of moral values that almost all Americans could embrace. And by embracing these values they themselves changed.

The struggle in South Africa against apartheid combined both aspects of this story — anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The American civil rights movement focused on uprooting the system of racial oppression and discrimination this country had created since Reconstruction. It focused on creating the space necessary for African-American men and women, boys and girls, to engage in their own struggles for freedom and for personal growth. It insisted upon the same opportunities for black children that were enjoyed by the children of the majority population.

Will the values of racial equality and opportunity prevail? Will American democracy finally embrace and make real the values of equality, dignity, and opportunity that Dr. King expressed so eloquently? Will the second American revolution finally erase the institutions and behaviors of several centuries of oppression?

Dr. King had a fundamental optimism that was grounded in his faith: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But of course we understand that only long, sustained commitment to justice can bring about this arc of change. And the forces of reaction are particularly strong in the current epoch of political struggle. So it will require the courage and persistence of millions of Americans to these ideals if racial justice is finally to prevail.

Here is an impromptu example of King’s passionate commitment to social change through non-violence. This was recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1966, during James Meredith’s March against Fear.

New understandings of populism

 

It is apparent, on this first round of the presidential elections in France, that we urgently need to understand better the dynamics and causes of radical populism in democratic polities. What is populism? Why does it have such virulence in the current moment as a political movement? What roles do racism, xenophobia, resentment, and economic fear play in the readiness of ordinary citizens in Europe and America to support radical populist candidates and platforms?

The topic has been the subject of research by very talented investigators over the past twenty years. Several recent books are especially relevant in the current moment. Particularly relevant are Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction; Jan-Werner Muller’s What Is Populism?; and a recent collection by Social Europe edited by Henning Meyer, Understanding the Populist Revolt. Taken together, the three sources provide an excellent basis for thinking further about the nature of radical populism.

Mudde and Kaltwasser argue that populism differs from other political umbrella terms (socialism, fascism) in one important respect: it is less specific in identifying a well defined ideological program. It is, in their words, “an essentially contested concept”. Here are a few of their central ideas:

A more recent approach considers populism, first and foremost, as a political strategy employed by a specific type of leader who seeks to govern based on direct and unmediated support from their followers. It is particularly popular among students of Latin American and non-Western societies. The approach emphasizes that populism implies the emergence of a strong and charismatic figure, who concentrates power and maintains a direct connection with the masses. (kl 677-680)

Beyond the lack of scholarly agreement on the defining attributes of populism, agreement is general that all forms of populism include some kind of appeal to “the people” and a denunciation of “the elite.” Accordingly, it is not overly contentious to state that populism always involves a critique of the establishment and an adulation of the common people. More concretely, we define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. (kl 700-705)

This means that populism can take very different shapes, which are contingent on the ways in which the core concepts of populism appear to be related to other concepts, forming interpretative frames that might be more or less appealing to different societies. Seen in this light, populism must be understood as a kind of mental map through which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality. It is not so much a coherent ideological tradition as a set of ideas that, in the real world, appears in combination with quite different, and sometimes contradictory, ideologies. (kl 713-717)

A common thread of populist rhetoric is that the movement is “anti-elitist” and that it speaks on behalf of “the people”. Elites, according to populist leaders, have dominated policy and captured the benefits of society; “the people” have been left behind by elites who care nothing for their wellbeing. These tropes make perfect interpretive sense of Trumpism — the campaign’s attack on the media, scientists, politicians, and universities, its virulent personal attacks against Hillary Clinton, and its efforts to divide “the real Americans” from others — immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and urban dwellers. And this is the most important point: by claiming to speak uniquely for “the people”, there is an implicit openness to authoritarianism in populist politics.

So what is “not-Populism”? What is a political ideology and movement that falls outside the populist rubric? They identify pluralism as the main rival:

Pluralism is the direct opposite of the dualist perspective of both populism and elitism, instead holding that society is divided into a broad variety of partly overlapping social groups with different ideas and interests. Within pluralism diversity is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Pluralists believe that a society should have many centers of power and that politics, through compromise and consensus, should reflect the interests and values of as many different groups as possible. Thus, the main idea is that power is supposed to be distributed throughout society in order to avoid specific groups— be they men; ethnic communities; economic, intellectual, military or political cadres, etc.— acquiring the capacity to impose their will upon the others. (kl 733-738)

Mudde and Kaltwasser pay close attention to what seems like the most important current problem: mobilization around populist political agendas.

By mobilization we mean the engagement of a wide range of individuals to raise awareness of a particular problem, leading them to act collectively to support their cause. Overall, three types of populist mobilization can be identified: personalist leadership, social movement, and political party. (kl 1246-1248)

They highlight three kinds of mechanisms of mobilization: social movements, charismatic leaders, and local grassroots organizations. (See an earlier post on work by McAdam and Kloos on racialized social movements in the United States; link.)

What factors lead to success in populist mobilization?

For any political actor to be successful, there has to be a demand for her message. Most populist actors combine populism with one or more so-called host ideologies, such as some form of nationalism or socialism. Although populism is often noted as a reason for their success, many electoral studies instead focus exclusively on the accompanying features, such as xenophobia in western Europe or socioeconomic support for disadvantaged groups in Latin America. This is in part a consequence of the lack of available data at the mass level. Empirical studies of populist attitudes are still in their infancy, but they do show that populist attitudes are quite widespread among populations in countries with relevant populist parties (e.g., Netherlands) and social movements (e.g., the United States) as well as in countries with no relevant populist actors (e.g., Chile). (Kindle Locations 2063-2069)

This passage highlights some of the kinds of messages that populists have deployed to support mobilization — xenophobia and its cousins, and “nation first!” appeals for economic improvement for “the people”. Mudde and Kaltwasser highlight the use of mistrust as a political theme — “elites” are abusing “the people’s” interests and needs, the elites cannot be trusted.  Appeals by populist leaders to fear, mistrust, and resentment of others have proven widespread and durable in numerous countries, including the recent presidential campaign in the United States.

A crucially important question before us is why racist and xenophobic attitudes appear to be becoming more common and more readily mobilized, in Europe and in the United States. Why is the rhetoric of division and hate so powerful in today’s politics? Mudde and Kaltwasser do not shed much light on this question; indeed, they barely confront the topic. The terms “hate” and “race” do not appear in the book at all. They address the topic of xenophobia more generally (largely in the context of immigration issues). But they do not consider the more basic question: why is hate such a powerful political theme in the politics of extremist populism?

The other two books mentioned above provide more insight into this question, and I will return to them in a subsequent post.

*     *     *

There is today a little bit of good news for everyone concerned about the ascendancy of extremist populist politics in modern democracies. It appears that political novice and moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron has slightly bested far-right populist Marine Le Pen in today’s French election results (23.7% vs. 21.8%, with 96% of polls reported). So the final round will involve a run-off election between the two leading candidates, and almost all commentators agree that the advantage in the second round will go to Macron. So the anxiety felt by many around the world that France would follow Great Britain (Brexit) and the United States (Trump) with an unexpected victory for the extreme right populist position is now much abated.

Trumpism

What kind of political movement does Donald Trump represent? How did we get here? And what will be needed to defeat this divisive and anti-democratic political agenda?

There is a tendency to see Trump as a bolt out of the blue, an anomaly — an extraordinary showman who somehow conned just enough voters to gain him the Republican nomination and then to prevail as a minority vote getter with an electoral college majority. But now that we’ve had a few months to reflect on the election, it seems a little more clear that Trump represents something different and even more worrisome. His presidency is more like an American version of a global phenomenon — a populist ultra-rightist who has come to power on the strength of a political program of xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, and racism.

The extreme right has made sizable gains in Europe in the past forty years. Pippa Norris provides a summary statistic on the rise of the radical right in Western Europe:

This graph documents the substantial increase in the electoral strength of the extreme right, more than tripling as a share of the total electorate since 1980. (It is interesting to note that the share of the extreme right declined after 2000.) Populist extreme right parties have become powerful in almost every European country.

The parallels between Trump’s most outlandish political messages as an unorthodox campaigner and the political ideology of the European extreme right parties are exact and uncanny. Take first his right-wing populism. Cas Mudde attempted to distill the “populist zeitgeist” of the European extreme right in a 2004 article (link), based on his long study of the extreme right parties of Europe. The match with the Trump campaign is exact. Populism is anti-elitist, and its leaders marshal resentment against “corrupt elites”. Mudde writes:

I define populism as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Populism, so defined, has two opposites: elitism and pluralism. (543)

Moreover, populism is fundamentally divisive between “us” and “them”:

Opponents are not just people with different priorities and values, they are evil! Consequently, compromise is impossible, as it ‘corrupts’ the purity. (544)

The visceral antagonism whipped up against the Clintons during the Trump campaign illustrate this theme.

So who are the “people” of the populist right? They are the people of the imaginary “heartland”:

The concept of the heartland helps to emphasize that the people in the populist propaganda are neither real nor all-inclusive, but are in fact a mythical and constructed sub-set of the whole population. In other words, the people of the populists are an ‘imagined community’, much like the nation of the nationalists. (546)

Further, as Mudde documents for European far-right parties, populist politicians are frequently antagonistic to the media — with the right-wing populist view that the media serves the interests of the elites, not the heartland. This line of thought has an extensive research literature as well — for example, Mazzoleni et al, The Media and Neo-Populism: A Contemporary Comparative Analysis. “In the populist mind, the elite are the henchmen of ‘special interests'” (561) — a line of heartland thinking that plays into dark conspiratorial theories and anti-Semitism. (Recall the closing political ad sponsored by the Trump campaign with its strong implications of anti-Semitic innuendo; link.)

Piero Ignazi offered a detailed analysis of extreme right parties based on their core ideologies in 1995 (link). He refers to the summary offered by H.G. Betz:

Betz (1993) has introduced the category of “populist extreme right” on the basis of four elements: a) radical opposition to the cultural and socio-political system, without an overt attack to the system as such; b) the refusal of individual and social equality; c) the defence of the “common man”; d) the emphasis on “common sense”; all these populist parties share racist, authoritarian, anti-women and law and order attitudes. (3) 

These are parties “which appeal to resentments, prejudices and traditional values and offer simplistic and unrealistic solutions to the socio-political problems” (4).

And, as Ignazi observes for European extreme right politicians, much of their rhetoric is directed against traditional political parties themselves (recalling Trump’s own war with the GOP establishment during the campaign).

Dissatisfaction towards institutions, parties, the way in which democracy works, the traditional channels of participation and the output of the system in relation to identity and security tend inevitably to feed opposition and/or anti-system parties and, in particular, the extreme right. In fact, only ERPs indicate, while quite vaguely, a new way of channelling of the demands based on populist style. Only ERPs distrust parties as such (even if they build up strong organizations for their own) because they divide the “people” and they pervert the “general will”. Only ERPs offer the electorate a right wing radical alternative to the establishment’s political discourse. (8)

Here again it is impossible to miss the strong parallels that exist between these currents and the rhetoric of the Trump machine.

And, of course, there is racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. Thomas Greven emphasizes the central role played in right-wing populism in Europe in his Friedrich Ebert Stiftung study (link). (Here is a summary of research on the racism underlying the European right; link.) The rise of the extreme right parties in Europe has been driven by nationalism and antagonism to minority groups and immigrants; and the rhetoric of these parties has in turn increased the volume and intensity of popular racism. Racism is normalized.

Group-focused enmity is widespread in Europe. It is weakest in the Netherlands, and strongest in Poland and Hungary. With respect to anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-Muslim attitudes and racism there are only minor differences between the countries, while differences in the extent of anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia are much more marked. (Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report; link)

These themes are all too evident in the Trump political agenda, most recently with this week’s stunning restrictions on Muslim visitors and refugees and the deliberate choice not to refer to Jewish victims in the annual White House statement commemorating the Holocaust (link).

So we might say that Trumpism is a familiar kind of political movement after all. It is right-wing populism, mobilizing its constituents around racism and bigotry combined with resentment of immigrants, with a pounding message of antagonism towards the institutions and personages of the status quo, including especially the media and government. The white nationalism of Steve Bannon and his intimate role within the Trump administration makes perfect sense.

Making of a Black Panther

images: Rahman as keynote speaker at “Black Men in Unions” Institute, UM-Dearborn, 2012; 
Rahman with Huey Newton at Detroit Metro Airport, 1970
 

In an earlier post I discussed the path through which an African-American intellectual, Phil Richards, came to have the intellectual profile he has today. Here I will reflect upon the development of another African-American man, born in the same year, who also journeyed from the inner city to a career as an academic, but through a very different route. Ahmad Rahman traveled through life from childhood in Chicago in the 1950s to becoming a Black Panther in Detroit in his teens to becoming a professor of history in adulthood. Rahman presents an interesting contrast with Richards. Ahmad Rahman too was a powerful personality and an intelligent man whose life itinerary and character were shaped by the experience of race and racism in urban America. Ahmad too became a member of the Black intelligentsia. But his itinerary was dramatically different, and his identity as a militant activist was primary.

Rahman grew up in Chicago in the 1950s, but also spent time with his extended family in rural Mississippi throughout his early years. He had ample opportunity to experience the realities of racism and white supremacy throughout his youth. He graduated from high school in Chicago and became involved in the rising mood of Black Power in the southside neighborhoods of the city. He moved to Detroit while still a teen-ager to become an early member of the Black Panther organization there. He spent twenty-one years in prison as part of a life sentence he received after being found guilty of events that occurred during a Black Panther raid on a supposed drug house in Detroit. (He eventually learned that this incident had been engineered by the FBI as part of the COINTELPRO program.) Rahman converted to Islam while in prison as part of a spiritual evolution he describes in an interview in Transformations, mentioned below.

Rahman’s life changed dramatically when his life sentence was commuted by Michigan governor John Engler. This took place because of the long-term advocacy of a group of committed liberation activists whose support for Rahman never wavered. Rahman completed an undergraduate degree at Wayne State University while in prison and completed a PhD in history at the University of Michigan in 2002 after his release from prison in 1992. He spent the rest of his life as a professor of history at the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where he had a strong influence on a generation of students. His teaching and course content always embodied the critical edge of his lifetime commitment to black progress, but his radicalism perhaps was transformed into something more patient and persistent. Like Phil Richards, Ahmad too was a friend of mine for a long time. Ahmad died prematurely in 2015 at the age of 63. (Here is a brief bio of Rahman from the Detroit Free Press; link.)

Rahman never published a full memoir, but there are several short sources where he tells some of his story. One is “A Detroit Black Panther’s Soldiering Journey with Malcolm X,” his account of his time as a Black Power activist in Chicago, a soldier of Malcolm X, and a Black Panther in Detroit in his contribution to Edozie and Stokes, Malcolm X’s Michigan Worldview: An Exemplar for Contemporary Black Studies (link). The second is an extensive interview he provided to Hajj Mustafa Ali in Transformations on his journey to Islam while in prison in Michigan (link). And a third source is his essay “Marching Blind: The Rise and Fall of the Black Panther Party in Detroit” in Yohuru Williams and Jama Lazarow’s Liberated Territory: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.

On reading these brief recollections and recalling many snippets of conversation over the years, it might almost be said that Ahmad was a Black Panther before the term even existed — as a child, as a teen-ager, as a high school student who reacted viscerally and certainly to the Birmingham bombing, and to the visible bonds of white supremacy and police brutality in Chicago and Mississippi in the early 1960s. Ahmad was of a generation of young men who did not easily accept MLK’s advocacy of Gandhian non-violence and who felt that forceful self-defense was entirely legitimate. I don’t think this was an unusual point of view among young black men of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and it seems clear that Ahmad’s older brothers had much the same feelings.

Like Richards, Rahman too eventually became an intellectual, a historian who wrote extensively on African and African-American history. His book The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora provides a careful political biography of Nkrumah in the context of pan-African liberation movements. The book used previously unreported government documents to shed new light on the actions of the United States in Africa in the 1960s, including particularly the assassination of Nkrumah. (Some of Rahman’s research skills later in life were honed during prison through his efforts to use FOIA documents from the FBI to piece together how the Black Panthers had been undone in Detroit with such efficiency.) But Rahman’s pathway to a life as a creator of new knowledge led through activism and profound engagement rather than through a primary interest in knowledge and discovery for its own sake. His scholarship was diligent and rigorous, but it was not disinterested. He almost always had a point to make about racism, power, and inequality, and his academic writing had this character as well. Most fundamentally, he wanted to expose the hidden lineaments of power and white supremacy in order to assist in the struggle for liberation and equality.

Rahman’s entire life was oriented by his activism in defense of black equality, security, and dignity. Here are a few episodes from childhood and adolescence that bear this out:

My path to prison began with Malcolm X and what I had heard he had said black people should do after the Ku Klux Klan bomb murdered the four little girls in the 16th Street baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963. (Soldiering Journey, 169) 

Ahmad was then twelve years old, and this violence against black children had a powerful impact on him.

When the Jet magazine my mother bought detailed their slaughter, I searched for strong statements from black leaders that offered something more forceful than prayer to prevent more Sunday morning bombings. As usual, Dr. King had called for us to remain nonviolent and not lose faith in the white man…. This was the first time I had ever disagreed with Dr. King. He was a living saint to everybody I knew. I remember saying that I thought that only monsters could blow up those girls and monsters deserved a stake in their hearts. My playmates, all Baptists like the four murdered girls, nodded in agreement. (170)

It was Malcolm X’s response and call to action that caught the young Rahman’s admiration.

Now I knew a leader who did not believe it either. I swore that day that whenever Malcolm X formed his army, I would march in their ranks. (171)

Later in the piece Rahman describes an episode during his regular visits to relatives in rural Mississippi in which he makes preparations to use the family’s shotgun to protect the house against the Klan. He doesn’t specify the year, but June 1964 witnessed the Klan murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, which is consistent with Ahmad’s description of the climate of KKK violence during his visit. If so, Ahmad was thirteen years old. (His great-grandmother was a step ahead of him, having found the shotgun shells and removed them from his sock drawer.)

Here is how Rahman describes the appeal of the Black Panther movement to him in the Transformations interview:

The Black Panther party was then arising as a strong influence among young people in Chicago. I was impressed by their stalwart stance for black community control of the educational, economic, and criminal justice institutions, which affected our lives. During the latter 1960’s, statistics revealed that the mainly white Chicago Police Department killed more citizens per capita than did any police department in the United States. Most of the dead were black. The Black Panther Party alone stood up and publicly stated that black people had a right to armed self-defense from racist attack. (Transformations interview)

As a teenager in Chicago Ahmad learned of Fred Hampton’s efforts to form a Black Panther branch in Chicago, and he engaged himself with the party. Soon after he went to Detroit to help in the establishment of a Detroit branch as well, and by 1970 he was fully involved in the Detroit Black Panther party. Several episodes of defiance and resistance described in the “Soldiering Journey” piece give a good sense of Rahman’s state of mind during this period.

This history demonstrates a number of personal characteristics — discipline, courage, and an unusual ability to succeed academically in spite of enormous obstacles. Rahman’s life in prison reflected the same propensity for activism and resistance to injustice, and he was deeply involved in prisoners’ rights organizations inside prison. These qualities certainly affected his development as a historian. The inner peace he learned to cultivate in prison remained with him, and he transformed his urgent desire for progress into a long and sustained commitment to tangible forms of life improvement for young people in Detroit. (I once asked Ahmad what he thought of The Wire. He replied that he had seen too much violence in his life, and he didn’t like watching it on television.)

This development seems to make several things clear. First, the boy and adolescent Ahmad had a personality that was strongly keyed to responding forcefully to perceived injustice. And these traits are equally evident in his memories of incidents of coercion against him in Detroit. These same dispositions seemed to be part of his older brother Eddie’s character as well. Second, the environments in which he lived — Chicago and Mississippi — gave very specific and deep instruction to the young man about the nature of racial injustice and white supremacy surrounding him. Third, Rahman’s exposure to ideas mattered a great deal in his development — to the ideas of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, to the Black Power messages of the early founders of the Black Panther movement, and to the primary texts of resistance and revolution to which he was exposed — Franz Fanon, Marx, Lenin, Che, Mao. (He once said to me that a smuggled copy of Mao’s Little Red Book got him through the ordeal of the first few years in prison.) Finally, none of these influences would have brought about the particular chemistry of the activist-historian-scholar that Ahmad became, without the presence of a powerful intellect, a desire to make sense of the social world that surrounded him, and an active skepticism about status-quo explanations of things. Putting these points together, Rahman’s development seems more predictable and logical than Richards’. In spite of the dramatic contingencies that arose in his life history, there seems to be a fairly direct line of development from the twelve-year-old in Chicago trying to make sense of the Birmingham bombings to the activist-scholar of the current decade.

Here is a video interview I did with Ahmad in 2008; link. Readers may also be interested in Lance Hill’s historical study of the Deacons for Defense, a predecessor to the Black Panthers in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. Here is an earlier post on this group (link).)

The Kerner Commission report

The Kerner Commission released its report in 1968, following months of intensive study of the series of major race riots and rebellions that had occurred in 1967. Here is the executive summary (link), and here is a detailed review of the context and reception of the report in Boston Review (link).

It is enormously important for us today, almost fifty years later, to reread the report with an eye to the diagnosis the commissioners arrived at — the underlying structural and experiential conditions that had set the stage for 164 riots, rebellions, and disturbances across the country during 1967 — and the recommendations they made for healing these fundamental contradictions within our American democracy. Newark and Detroit were the most destructive during 1967, but there were many others during that year, and equally destructive uprisings took place in many major American cities in the following year as well. The Commission’s “most basic conclusion” is stark, unblinking, and profoundly troubling: “This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

The Commission was careful and deliberate in its assessments of causation of individual rebellions, and they identified broad standing conditions as crucial parts of the causal pathway to the eruption of violence:

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

“Prior” incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were “final” incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.

What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.

(6)The report considers the nature of the grievances and demands that motivated participants in these uprisings, and classifies them according to urgency:

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing 

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms 

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

The Commission report is also explicit about the severity of the gap between black and white citizens with respect to crucial elements of life quality:

Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it. Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing–three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced. (7)

To this list of racial gaps we must now add the health disparities gap, including disparities by race in infant mortality, disease incidence, and longevity.

And consider these troubling observations about hopes and expectations by young African-American men and women that the Commission discovered. These lines were intended to describe conditions in the late 1960s; but they have great relevance for today’s environment in many American cities:

Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.

A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.

The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of “moving the system.” These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them, and in the reach toward racial consciousness and solidarity reflected in the slogan “Black Power.” (9)

The second point is particularly salient today in a political environment in which racial antagonisms have been encouraged by leading presidential candidates, and an encouraging nod has been offered to adherents willing to use violence against peaceful demonstrators at political rallies.

The report’s observations about failures of public school systems in segregated cities are particularly relevant to the city of Detroit, and a partial explanation of the growing sense of separation between white and black Michiganders and between Detroit and Lansing:

Education in a democratic society must equip children to develop their potential and to participate fully in American life. For the community at large, the schools have discharged this responsibility well. But for many minorities, and particularly for the children of the ghetto, the schools have failed to provide the educational experience which could overcome the effects of discrimination and deprivation.
This failure is one of the persistent sources of grievance and resentment within the Negro community. The hostility of Negro parents and students toward the school system is generating increasing conflict and causing disruption within many city school districts. But the most dramatic evidence of the relationship between educational practices and civil disorders lies in the high incidence of riot participation by ghetto youth who have not completed high school.

What have the succeeding five decades brought us? The twelve sources of grievance listed above are entirely relevant to today’s realities in Detroit, Chicago, or Cleveland. Youth unemployment, crisis conditions in public school systems, highly visible and recurring instances of excessive use of deadly force by police across the country, and ineffective political institutions are high on the list today in African-American communities in virtually all large American cities, including especially Detroit.

If we are honest about the facts of race in America, it is hard to claim that there is substantial progress in the key concerns of the Kerner Commission report. Here is one key finding in 1967: “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” And in cities throughout the United States, this devastating reality persists. Racial residential segregation continues; there are continuing racial gaps in education, health, employment, and quality of life; and there continues to be a pattern of police violence against young black men. And, predictably, there is a rising level of anger and disaffection among many millions of young people whose lives are limited by these basic facts. We need to re-read the Kerner Commission report; and we need to act on its wise recommendations.