Monday, June 1, 2020

A Nation in Flames

I am old enough to remember the urban riots of the late 1960s, which devastated Detroit and Newark, among other once great American cities. As so often happens with intractable problems, the 1967 riots led to a Presidential Commission, the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Commonly called the "Kerner Report"  (photo), the Commission's findings, released early in 1968 famously said: "This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

At the time the only aspect of that formulation that seemed questionable was its use of the present progressive tense, whereas the present perfect indicative might have been more accurate: Our nation has been two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. One need not agree with the ideological extremism, for example, of the NY Times' "1619 Project," to appreciate that the U.S, has always been a racially divided and unequal society. And, while one can affirm that considerable progress may have been made to overcome this history, the reality of division and inequality along racial lines remains - reflected right now in the disproportionate deaths of African-Americans in this pandemic and in the murders of African-Americans like the one that has triggered the current disorders in Minneapolis. These serious symptoms of a profound social sickness have periodically produced inflammations in the familiar form of the social disorders the Kerner Commission tried to respond to more than 50 years ago and the social disorders on display in our country this past week thanks to our evident failure to respond justly and wisely in these intervening 50 years.

The race-related conflicts of the 1960s were a belated coming to terms with the unfinished mission of the American Civil War. Having won decisively on the battlefield, the U.S. had then failed to follow through on its victory, had failed to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments, and had thus allowed the detestable ideology it had ostensibly defeated to reassert itself victoriously for yet another century. The race-related conflicts we are witnessing today represent the continuance of that thus-far inconclusive struggle to defeat that still pervasive ideology, an ideology still deeply entrenched in American social structures and institutions and in one of our political parties.

Like the forest fires fed by the curse of climate change, the flames currently devouring American cities will burn out. But, like climate change, their underlying cause continues to pose an apocalyptic challenge to a morally leaderless society careening carelessly from one self-induced calamity to another.

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