While I was visiting with a group of fellow progressive activists, a man shared a story from his youth about his earliest memory of injustice. He told of the reaction in his small town after the first black family moved into the neighborhood. Shortly after they arrived, while all family members were at work and school, someone slipped the nozzle of a garden hose into a window of their home, then turned on the water full force. After a long day at work and school, the family returned home to find a flooded house, significant property damage, and a big clean-up job ahead of them—not to mention the shock and psychological toll it took.
I'd known of a similar incident during my teens, but I thought it was a one-off. After hearing this story, I did a little checking and was surprised to find that this is a “thing.” There's is even a legal term for it. In legal parlance, in many jurisdictions it falls under the misdemeanor category known as “malicious mischief.” While this may sound somewhat benign, these acts in fact wreck havoc in the lives of the victims—extending well beyond the damage to their property and possessions.
Why, even after achieving major civil rights victories, do progressives continue to find that injustices simply reconstitute themselves—returning not long after the “victory” is achieved?
The man who shared this story ended it by telling us that the family never got justice, but he didn't give any details. So my imagination filled in the details and came up with what I see as a metaphor for how progressives have been dealing with issues of injustice, particularly as they relate to black and brown people. My metaphor has been particularly useful when trying to understand why, even after achieving major civil rights victories, progressives continue to find that injustices simply reconstitute themselves—returning not long after the “victory” is achieved.
For example, in 1954, in a clear rejection of the “separate but equal” doctrine, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, the justices found that the act of separating the races actually led to greater inequality. But after that ruling effectively ended state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, socially sanctioned segregation replaced it—creating the same results: unequal education systems. Today in 2018, public schools are as segregated and in some communities more segregated than they were in 1954, and the quality of a public school education received in any one of America's urban communities is at its worst.
Richard Eskow, a contributor to the LA Progressive, recently published a piece entitled, “The Kerner Report at 50: Still Separate, More Unequal.” In it, he argues that President Lyndon Johnson commissioned the Kerner Investigation after the 1967 riots largely intending to create the illusion that something was being done just to appease his opposition on the right and the left. Eskow notes that Johnson expected that whatever the commission recommended would be bland enough to provide cover for whatever he intended to do in the first place. But this time, the commissioners took their work seriously. The Kerner Commission came up with a report that contained a scathing indictment of this country's institutional racism, pointing fingers at the media and calling for a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American, report’s recommendations required new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.
The resulting Kerner Report found that the driving forces of the civil unrest were instrumentalities of oppression—instrumentalities that went unaddressed then and that are still with us today.
So what's the connection between the malicious mischief story, the Brown v. Board decision, and the Kerner Report? Let's take a look. . .
Let's go back to the African American family whose house was flooded. In my version, immediately after the shock of discovering the flood, they would have been justifiably preoccupied dealing with the crisis at hand, first shutting off the water, then devoting all of their time and resources to mopping, sponging, and replacing as much of their damaged property as possible. It’s not unlikely that a few empathetic souls within the community would pitch in to help the family, offering a hand, lending towels, water vacuums, buckets—perhaps even starting a fundraising campaign to help the family recover financially. Together, the Black family and a few community members tackling the issue seems like a winnable solution, at first. But as they continue to work to the point of exhaustion, they begin to see that no matter what they do they don’t seem to make any real progress.
Why no progress? Because nothing was done to attack the source of the problem. In my version of the story, the family turned off the water but neither they nor their helpers did anything to stop it from happening again. So again, in my version, the culprits return and turn the water back on—this time allowing it to flow at a trickle instead of full force. All the while, the family and the few good-hearted supporters don’t realize that their hard work is all for naught.
And this is where the malicious mischief story, the Brown v. Board decision, and the response to the Kerner Report come together, as in each case the source of the problem remains unchecked and continues to wreck havoc unabated.
Most of our not for profit organizations that are engaged in social justice work and the people who support them are doing what was done in the metaphor: They are effectively cleaning up the water. Not that sopping up the water is a bad thing. It certainly needs to be done. But that’s only part of the remedy.
Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission observed that if this nation did not adopt bold initiatives but instead continued to pursue its current course, we’d ultimately destroy our democratic values—the commissioners’ point being that if this nation does not create common opportunities for all within our society, in the end, we will all suffer.
Years after the Kerner Report was published, famed civil rights attorney Lani Guinier along with co-writer Gerald Torres wrote The Miner's Canary, Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. The authors’ main objective in writing this book was to convey that issues of race point to underlying problems in society that ultimately affect everyone, not just minorities. Guinier and Torres maintain that creating a truly participatory democratic society requires that we remedy racial injustices.
America's persistent system of racial injustice, of hardcoded racial inequality, is the garden hose that keeps flooding our house, no matter how much we try to deal with the effects of the flooding.
In August, the LA Progressive will be partnering again with the Left Forum to host another Left Coast Forum. This will be our second year. This year, we’ll place more emphasis on the centrality of race in the search for social justice and true participatory democracy.
We hope you’ll join us.
Publisher, LA Progressive