Saturday, November 21, 2015

Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter, and the Failures of American Urban Policy

            Minneapolis is a microcosm for urban America.  Especially so when it comes to failed urban policy.   The confrontation and controversy between its police and people of color  provide a case study for much of what is wrong in how America responded to the race riots of the 1960s, opting instead to adopt a militaristic approach to urban poverty and racism as opposed to seeing the roots in a lack of economic opportunity and inequality.
            Urban American burned with racism and poverty in the summer of 1967.  Across the country from Newark to Watts race riots gripped America as African-Americans protested discrimination.  Minneapolis was no exception.  In response, President Johnson convened a study of the causes of these riots, asking too for policy recommendations.  The  National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, declared that along with frustrated hopes surrounding the unfulfilled promises of the civil rights laws:

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been
accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:
* Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.
* Black in-migration and white exodus, .which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.
* The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy
opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and
bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.

The Kerner Commission called for the enactment of comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing laws, placing low and moderate income housing outside of ghetto areas, and building six million new and existing units of decent housing. Instead of taking this approach that treated urban unrest as one rooted in racism and poverty, the response instead was twofold.  First, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 defined the riots as a problem of law and order, ushering in the gradual militarization of policing in urban areas, especially as a result of the Nixon-Reagan war on drugs and then with Bill Clinton treating the crime spike of the 1990s with the placing of 100,000 more police of the streets and increasing prison sentences for many offenders, most of whom happened to be African-American males living in segregated concentrated poverty neighborhoods.
            Second, in 1969 while serving as Nixon’s urban affairs adviser, Daniel Patrick Moynihan sent the President a memo suggesting: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.”  Effectively with this memo the second civil rights revolution was coming to an end in America.  The Great Society programs meant to address poverty were scaled back, culminating with Clinton signing a 1996 law reforming welfare.  Race in general came to be ignored as an issue to be addressed with anything more than laws declaring America to be a color-blind society.
            Fifty years later, the failures to responded adequately to the problems the Kerner Commission originally described, and the path that instead was taken, is where America is now, including Minneapolis.  Since 1967 Minneapolis has failed to desegregate is schools and neighborhoods, it has persistent problems of poverty and concentrated poverty, and mayors have repeatedly put downtown  development ahead of promoting economic opportunity in the neighborhoods.  And now one can see how the militarized approach to crime and disorder pits the police against communities of color, precipitating the confrontations in Minneapolis and across the country.

            Black Lives Matters’ demands seek to reset the clock, placing America back in a place similar to where the country was in 1967.   Instead of responding to racism and poverty with bullets and neglect, BLM calls for both demilitarization of policing and social justice.  Whether this time Minneapolis, Minnesota, or the United States will respond correctly is yet to be seen.  And whether the tactics of BLM, which too seem to mimic those  used fifty years ago and which failed to make racism and social justice the core policy issues, will work this time, too are yet to be seen. 

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