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.


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.

Youth service and America’s progress


Several hundred leaders from around the country convened this week in Washington, D.C. to participate in the 2015 City Year National Leadership Summit. City Year is a national youth service organization with a focused and ambitious mission: to harness the talents of young people in service towards the goal of solving the nation’s dropout crisis. Currently there are more than 2,800 young people serving on teams of 8-10 in some of our country’s most difficult schools, focused on helping disadvantaged students stay in school and on track.

Making use of educational research conducted by scholars like Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins Center for the Social Organization of Schools, the City Year strategy is designed around a simple concept: using near-peers to help students overcome deficiencies of attendance, behavior, and course work so they have a high probability of graduating from high school. There is good quasi-experimental data to show that the intervention works. Some results of the signature “Diplomas Now” program are provided in the graphic below.

So the challenge is scale: is it possible to expand the scope of City Year’s activities around the country so that the majority of our country’s “dropout factories” have been addressed? The scale goals City Year has adopted are challenging but attainable: 80% of students in City Year schools will reach 10th grade on track for graduation; City Year will reach 50% of at-risk students in its communities; and City Year will expand nationally to serve the cities that account for 67% of the nation’s urban dropouts.

In order to reach the scale goal it is estimated that the national City Year corps needs to increase to 10,000 young people in roughly fifty cities — an ambitious goal substantially beyond the current level of 2,800 members in 26 cities. So the number of cities served by the organization needs to grow, and the number of schools served in each city needs to expand. And the key obstacle to reaching this goal is money. The “all-in” cost of supporting one corps member is roughly $40,000 per year. So to support a corps of 100 in a city like San Antonio or Cleveland, the local organization needs to raise about $4 million per year. Ideally there are four sources of support, roughly equal in magnitude: Americorps funds, local school funds, corporate sponsorships, and private gifts. This means the local organization needs to raise about three million dollars a year in local funds (schools, corporations, and individuals), with one million dollars in support from Americorps. And to get to scale, this goes up to about nine million dollars for cities like Detroit.

Dropout prevention through programs like City Year has a large return on investment. Throughout the summit City Year leaders and Federal and local education officials estimated that the return on keeping a student in school through graduation is roughly four times the cost of the programs that do it. So dropout prevention is a fantastic investment for society. But it requires public and private will to allocate the dollars necessary to achieve the goal.
This is a movement and a national organization that is making serious, meaningful progress towards solving one of America’s most pressing problems, the failure of high-poverty schools. This situation creates one of the most enduring forms of inequality of opportunity our country faces, and it disproportionately impacts low income young people of color. 
The City Year organization continues to expand the impact and scope of its program of national service for young people. City Year announced the startup of its 27th city in the United States, Dallas. Corps members in Dallas will begin having the impact on children in poverty in Dallas that their counterparts have in cities around the country.

What is genuinely appealing about the City Year effort over the past twenty-six years is its pragmatic idealism. This is the best example I know of where a grassroots organization has transformed itself into a powerful force for progress nation-wide. And the values that hold the organization together, from the national staff in Boston to the site leaders to the 2,800 corps members, are positive, democratic, and inclusive. This is the foundation for a better America.


Or as City Year says to the young people of America, “Give a year, change the world!”

Here are a couple of thoughtful books on national service and Americorps as vectors of social progress:

(Policy Studies Association is a research and consulting organization that has done a good deal of program assessment for City Year; link.)


Hip hop, the boardroom, and the street

What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn’t simply mirror the street — it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.

Byron Hurt’s very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. “Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay” (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.

Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.

This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.

And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation — political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X ClanKRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn’t often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don’t make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)

Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:

That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)

And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: “The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence…. The music became less and less conscious” (43:30).

Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:

The combination of democracy (“speak your piece”) and meritocracy (“be the best MC”) that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)

This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.

(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)

Guest post by Elizabeth Anderson on race in American politics

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author most recently of The Imperative of Integration. This contribution extends a question posed in a recent post on the conservative war on poor people (link). Thanks for contributing, Liz!

American Conservative Politics and the Long Shadow of Slavery

Elizabeth Anderson

An “outright Marxist!”  That’s what Rafael Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz’s father, declared of President Obama on the campaign trail in April 2013.  His accusation is common on the right.  Google “Obama Marxist” and you will get about 4.95 million results.  “Obama communist” yields 40 million.  It’s a strange charge against a man who vigorously supported the bail-out of Wall Street banks as a Senator, and expanded it to other major firms as President.  Yet the charge is nothing new.  Conservatives have long accused anyone to their left of communism or fellow-traveling.  Rick Perlstein traces this practice back to the 1950s.

In fact, it goes back a century before.  George Fitzhugh, author of the famous proslavery tract Cannibals All! wrote a letter to William Lloyd Garrison in 1856 declaring that “every theoretical abolitionist at the North is a Socialist or Communist.”  J. H. Thornwell, one of the most distinguished ministers of the antebellum South, delivered a sermon in 1850 on “The Rights and Duties of Masters,” in which he characterized the conflict over slavery as one in which slaveholders, Christians, and the “friends of order and regulated freedom” stood together against “abolitionists, atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, [and] jacobins” who were united on the other side.

This fact about the origins of one aspect of conservative rhetoric opens a window to the larger structure of American conservative thought.  Consider Romney’s notorious 47% speech:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president . . . who are dependent upon government . . . who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing . . . . These are people who pay no income tax . . . . I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This was spoken by a presidential candidate who supported the Wall Street bailouts, who did not complain about massive state subsidies to wealthy farmers or the oil and coal industries, and who paid 14.1% of his income in federal taxes—less than the 15.3% effective payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare that falls on wage workers, over and above the income tax.  Counting state and local taxes, which are highly regressive, we have good reason to believe that the 47% he resents pay substantially higher total tax rates than the top 1%.

Romney, however, knew his audience. Tax breaks and subsidies for better-off whites are not what most conservatives oppose.  Their core objection is “free stuff” thought to disproportionately benefit blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and other traditionally subordinated groups.  As Lee Atwater explained, the Republican party’s “Southern Strategy” for winning white voters is all about opposing policies that disproportionately help blacks and promoting policies that disproportionately hurt them:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-ger, n-ger, n-ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-ger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

While conservatives, even those belonging to or sympathetic to the Tea Party, support Social Security and Medicare, they condemn programs such as means-tested welfare, which are perceived as disproportionately benefiting blacks and Latinos, whom they see as undeserving.  A key driver of public opinion on domestic policy in the U.S. is racial resentment: in particular, the idea that blacks are too lazy to take responsibility for their lives but want to live off the hard-earned wealth of whites, either through crime or the public dole.

My current research on abolitionism and the struggle for free labor finds that this idea has been a deep theme of American conservative opinion since before the Civil War.  Although in the antebellum era, racists typically supposed that blacks were incapable of taking care of themselves, while today they are thought to be willfully refusing to do so, the complaints about black behavior are remarkably similar.  In response to an emancipation petition submitted to the Virginia legislature, hundreds of citizens submitted proslavery petitions in 1795.  Echoing other petitions, this one from the free whites of Lunenberg County worried that emancipation would bring

Want, Poverty, Distress and ruin to the free Citizen; the Horrors of all the rapes, Robberies, Murders, and Outrages, which an innumerable Host of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive and remorseless Banditte are capable of perpetrating; Neglect, famine and Death to the abandoned black Infant, and superannuated Parent; inevitable Bankruptcy to the revenue; Desperation and revolt to the disappointed, oppressed Citizen; and sure and final ruin to this once happy, free, and flourishing Country . . . .

Thomas Dew, in his 1832 article “Abolition of Negro Slavery,” predicted that abolition would lead blacks to idleness, drunkenness, destitution, and thence to crime.  William Harper predicted in Cotton is King, an 1860 compendium of proslavery thought, that emancipation would reduce blacks to paupers and lead them “from petty to greater crimes, until all life and property would be rendered insecure,” and that if they got the vote, they “would be used by unprincipled politicians” to advance dangerous schemes.

White conservatives saw their fears confirmed during Reconstruction.  This cartoon reveals their view of the Freedman’s Bureau, described as “an agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man:


Then it was the Freedman’s Bureau.  Today it is food stamps, Medicaid, and Obamacare.

Not only the content, but the style and emotional register of conservative politics have been constant.  The hysteria, apocalyptic sensibility, and intransigence of Tea Party conservatives on full display in the recent government shutdown crisis (complete with a confederate flag) mirrors that of the South in the run-up to the Civil War through the Reconstruction Era.  American conservatism continues to operate under the long shadow of slavery and its legacy.

How to probe public attitudes?

We are almost always interested in knowing how the public thinks and feels about various issues — global warming, race relations, the fairness of rising income inequalities, and the acceptability of same-sex marriage, for example. The public is composed of millions of individuals, and the population can be segmented in a variety of relevant ways — gender, age, race, region, political affiliation, and many other cleavages. So we might want to know how teenagers think about alcohol, and how these attitudes have changed over time, or how attitudes towards the equality of women have evolved since 1960.

What research tools are available to us to investigate public opinion? And how reliable are these tools?

The most immediate answer to this question is survey research. We can formulate a set of survey questions, select a population of respondents, and tabulate the distribution of responses. And if we do this on several occasions over time, we can make some inferences about changes in attitudes over time. There are innumerable examples of these kinds of studies, from the GSS to the euro barometer to the Pugh organization’s frequent polling data. And we seem to learn some important things from studies like these concerning the distribution of attitudes across time and space. Spaniards are less concerned about fair trade produce than Swedes, young people have become more accepting of single-sex marriage, people over 65 are more sympathetic to Tea Party values than people in their thirties.

Another research approach takes a more qualitative approach. Researchers sometimes use open-ended interviews and focus groups to learn more directly how various groups and individuals think about certain topics. We may learn more from such studies than we can learn from a mass survey — for example, the interviewer may gain a better understanding of the reasoning that individuals use to reach their beliefs. A survey question may ask whether a consumer is willing to pay 10% more for fair trade bananas, whereas a series of interviews may determine that the “no’s” break into a group who don’t have the discretionary money and another group who oppose fair trade pricing on ideological grounds.

There are more indirect methods for studying public opinion as well. We might examine the comments that are submitted to newspapers on topics of interest and try to quantify over time the “temperature” of those comments — more intolerant, more angry, more reflective. Likewise, we might attempt to quantify the streams of social media — Twitter, Facebook, tumblr — with an eye towards testing the attitudes and emotions of various segments of the public. The vitriol that exploded on twitter following the selection of Miss New York as Miss America a few weeks ago says something about contemporary racism.

Attitudes towards race in America are especially interesting to me. How have Americans changed in the ways they think about race? Have Americans become less racially intolerant since the civil rights movement decade? Survey data seems to give a qualified “yes” to this question. Answers to survey questions that explicitly probe the individual’s level of racial antagonism seem to support the notion that on average, antagonism has declined. But scholars in race studies such as Tyrone Forman and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argue that the survey results are misleading (link). They use a methodology of extended interviews, along with a rigorous way of interpreting the results, which suggests that there is a widening divergence between the responses American college students give to surveys probing their racial attitudes and the values and beliefs that are revealed through extensive open-ended interviews.

In consonance with this new structure, various analysts have pointed out that a new racial ideology has emerged that, in contrast to the Jim Crow racism or the ideology of the color line (Johnson, 1943, 1946; Myrdal, 1944), avoids direct racial discourse but effectively safeguards racial privilege (Bobo et al., 1997; Bonilla-Silva and Lewis, 1999; Essed, 1996; Jackman, 1994; Kovel, 1984). That ideology also shapes the very nature and style of contemporary racial dis-cussions. In fact, in the post civil rights era, overt discussions of racial issues have become so taboo that it has become extremely difficult to assess racial attitudes and behavior using conventional research strategies (Myers, 1993; Van Dijk, 1984, 1987, 1997). Although we agree with those who suggest that there has been a normative change in terms of what is appropriate racial discourse and even racial etiquette (Schuman et al., 1988), we disagree with their interpret-ation of its meaning. Whereas they suggest that there is a ‘mixture of progress and resistance, certainty and ambivalence, striking movement and mere surface change’ (p. 212), we believe (1) that there has been a rearticulation of the domi-nant racial themes (less overt expression of racial resentment about issues anchored in the Jim Crow era such as strict racial segregation in schools, neigh-borhoods, and social life in general, and more resentment on new issues such as affirmative action, government intervention, and welfare) and (2) that a new way of talking about racial issues in public venues – a new racetalk – has emerged. Nonetheless, the new racial ideology continues to help in the reproduction of White supremacy. (52)

They argue that a new “racetalk” has emerged that makes explicitly racist utterances socially unacceptable; but that the underlying attitudes have not changed as much. And this implies that survey research is likely to misrepresent the degree of change in attitudes that has occurred.

Here is a good example of the kind of analysis Forman and Bonilla-Silva provide for transcripts from the open-ended interviews:

The final case is Eric, a student at a large midwestern university , an example of the students who openly expressed serious reservations about interracial mar-riages (category 6). It is significant to point out that even the three students who stated that they would not enter into these relationships, claimed that there was nothing wrong with interracial relationships per se. Below is the exchange between Eric and our interviewer on this matter.

Eric: Uh . . . (sighs) I would say that I agree with that, I guess. I mean . . . I would say that I really don’t have much of a problem with it but when you, ya know, If I were to ask if I had a daughter or something like that, or even one of my sisters, um . . . were to going to get married to a minority or a Black, I . . . I would probably . . . it would probably bother me a little bit just because of what you said . . . Like the children and how it would . . . might do to our family as it is. Um . . . so I mean, just being honest, I guess that’s the way I feel about that. Int.: What would, specifically , if you can, is it . . . would it be the children? And, if it’s the children, what would be the problem with, um . . . uh . . . adjustment, or Eric: For the children, yeah, I think it would just be . . . I guess, through my experience when I was younger and growing up and just . . . ya know, those kids were different. Ya know, they were, as a kid, I guess you don’t think much about why kids are dif-ferent or anything, you just kind of see that they are different and treat them differ-ently . Ya know, because you’re not smart enough to think about it, I guess. And the, the other thing is . . . I don’t know how it might cause problems within our family if it happened within our family, ya know, just . . . from people’s different opinions on some-thing like that. I just don’t think it would be a healthy thing for my family. I really can’t talk about other people. Int.: But would you feel comfortable with it pretty much? Eric: Yeah. Yeah, that’s the way I think, especially , um . . . ya know, grandparents of things like that. Um, right or wrong, I think that’s what would happen. (Interview # 248: 10)

Eric used the apparent admission semantic move (“I would say that I agree with that”) in his reply but could not camouflage very well his true feelings (“If I were to ask if I had a daughter or something like that, or even one of my sisters, um . . . were [sic] to going to get married to a minority or a Black, I . . . I would probably . . . it would probably bother me a little bit”). Interestingly , Eric claimed in the interview that he had been romantically interested in an Asian-Indian woman his first year in college. However, that interest “never turned out to be a real big [deal]” (Interview # 248: 9). Despite Eric’s fleeting attraction to a person of color, his life was racially segregated: no minority friends and no meaningful interaction with any Black person.

This is an important argument within race studies. But it also serves as an important caution about uncritical reliance on survey research as an indicator of public attitudes and thinking.

The March on Washington, August, 1963

African-American citizens and a host of supporters made some of this country’s most important history fifty years ago in the mobilization that resulted in the March on Washington in August, 1963.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his most famous speech on the occasion, and many of us are remembering Dr. King’s legacy today on the fiftieth anniversary of this occasion.

The civil rights movement created deep and permanent changes in our country, and they were hard won. And what is clear today is the depth of change that was needed — not at the margin, not gradually, but at the core and rapidly. The attitudes and structures that constituted racial inequality and racism in this country in the 1950s and 1960s were a profound, coercive social reality. Only a concerted, courageous, and sustained social movement involving millions of people could have broken the roots of that system of thought and power. (Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer and Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 provide vivid narratives of the depth of these challenges and responses.)

It is hard to think of many historical social movements that had as much impact and success as the U.S. civil rights movement.  Its objective was not to change a temporary situation — a war, a military occupation, an egregious dictatorship, or a famine — but to create a thorough change in attitudes, ideas, and institutions; and to do that in a nation in which racism was organic.  Laws, public schools, housing, jobs, universities, hospitals, and transportation — all were racialized, all demanded change.  And then to create a movement that deliberately worked through nonviolent change — this was exceptional.

A rich tradition of leadership within the black community is one part of the story of success of this struggle for equality.  Of course many of the leaders and agents of change of that movement are now household names — Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy. But many other key figures are not so well remembered. One man in particular deserves recognition, Bayard Rustin.  Rustin was a civil rights activist throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  He was one of the earliest organizers of what became known as the Freedom Rides, and he served 22 days on a chain gang in North Carolina for violation of segregation laws in transportation in 1947.  (He also was sentenced in 1944 to two years in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary for violations of the Selective Service Act as a Quaker pacifist and war resister.)

Rustin was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and he was an invaluable strategist for Dr. King.  But because of his open homosexuality he kept his visible role in the mobilization of the March on Washington to a minimum.  Numerous participants credit his organizational abilities and acute perception of what the moment required as crucial to the success of the March and what followed from it.  He went on to become an outspoken advocate for gay and lesbian rights in the 1980s. Rustin is a great example of the persistence and courage shown by so many civil rights activists and leaders throughout America’s struggles.  (Here is some basic information about Rustin’s biography.  Here is a film based on Rustin’s life.)

Rustin stands out as a particularly vivid example of a kind of leader who was common throughout the early decades of the modern civil rights movement: articulate, smart, passionate, committed, and courageous in the face of prejudice and threat.  And there were hundreds of such men and women.  For example, Doug McAdam provides an appendix in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 listing well over 150 leaders from churches, NAACP local chapter, independents, and students who were important protest leaders during the late 1950s.  And the networks and organizational capabilities of these men and women translated into successful mobilizations throughout the South.

McAdam’s account of the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s also gives particular emphasis to the organizations that existed within African-American society, and the millions of people who supported those organizations.  Particularly important were the churches, the local NAACP chapters, and the universities.  “Perhaps the most important resource supplied by these institutions was a potentially mobilizable body of participants.  By virtue of their integration into the most organized segments of the black community, the students, church members, and NAACP personnel were readily available for recruitment into the movement” (128).  The movement was successful in the face of often violent opposition, because hundreds of thousands of African-American people supported its efforts with courage and tenacity.

As we reflect on the legacy of the March on Washington, it is crucial to remember how steep the challenges were and how much we all owe to the activists and followers who joined with King and brought us closer to a society embodying racial justice and equality.  And as an observation about history, we can marvel at the magnitude of change that these men and women brought about.

Friedman on racial discrimination

It is interesting to re-read Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom some fifty years after its original publication. There are many aspects of the book that are likely to catch a contemporary reader’s attention, but mine was drawn to Friedman’s analysis of racial discrimination. In general, Friedman believes that capitalism is fundamentally good for promoting categorical equality.

It is a striking historical fact that the development of capitalism has been accompanied by a major reduction in the extent to which particular religious, racial, or social groups have operated under special handicaps in respect of their economic activities; have, as the saying goes, been discriminated against. (108)

More specifically, Friedman argues that racial discrimination in employment (and housing as well, it would seem) is essentially impossible within a market economy.

We have already seen how a free market separates economic efficiency from irrelevant characteristics. As noted in chapter i, the purchaser of bread does not know whether it was made from wheat grown by a white man or a Negro, by a Christian or a Jew. In consequence, the producer of wheat is in a position to use resources as effectively as he can, regardless of what the attitudes of the community may be toward the color, the religion, or other characteristics of the people he hires. (109)

So self interest on the part of employers will induce them to make hiring decisions that are category-blind: the most productive and least costly worker will be hired. A rational business or corporation has powerful incentives not to discriminate.

In fact, Friedman expresses skepticism about whether the concept of “discrimination” even makes sense within a market economy.

The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, “buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” — or at least not in the same invidious sense — if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other we do not. (110)

It is hard to square these observations with the rigid segregation and discrimination that was taking place at the same time in the Jim Crow South. For that matter, the facts of racial discrimination in housing and employment that have characterized American society since emancipation were perfectly visible in Friedman’s own city of Chicago in 1962. So all Friedman needed to do was to look around him on Chicago’s South Side.

Friedman draws a logical conclusion from his set of assumptions about markets and discrimination: fair employment practices legislation is wrong. “Such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another…. Thus it is directly an interference with freedom of the kind that we would object to in most other contexts” (111).

So taking steps through legislation to reduce the harmful effects of racial discrimination in hiring (and presumably in housing) is an illegitimate use of the force of government, according to Friedman. In fact, he compares efforts to do so to the Hitler Nuremberg laws (111).

These are stunning conclusions, now that we have lived through the Civil Rights movement and have seen the coercive practices that provided the architecture of the American racial system. What it suggests is that Friedman saw the social reality around him through the spectacles of an idealized form of pure market society, in which transactions occur between purely rational individuals and lead collectively to beneficent outcomes. But that was not the reality of the United States, then or now.
We don’t need to assume that this particular economist was racist; one doesn’t know. In fact, Friedman asserts the opposite:

I believe strongly that the color of a man’s skin or the religion of his parents is, by itself, no reason to treat him differently; that a man should be judged by what he is and what he does and not by these external characteristics. I deplore what seem to me the prejudice and narrowness of outlook of those whose tastes differ from mine in this respect and I think the less of them for it. But in a society based on free discussion, the appropriate recourse is for me to seek to persuade them that their tastes are bad and that they should change their views and their behavior, not to use coercive power to enforce my tastes and my attitudes on others. (111)

(Is anti-racism just a “taste”?)

In fact, Friedman’s views throughout this chapter illustrate a different deficiency.  His analysis of racial discrimination is a striking example of the ways in which adherence to a theory can blind a person to the patent social realities around him or her. And once we see the realities of how racial discrimination and coercion worked in America, it is incumbent upon us as a society to put aside our stylized theories and attack the problem.

Here are a few earlier posts on the Jim Crow system (link, link).

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