WHISNANT: A long time coming

The unrest in Ferguson is the culmination of decades of anti-Liberal policy in the United States

With racially charged episodes of violence at home and an unraveling of American imperial power abroad, it’s become almost cliché to compare today’s crises to the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. We still have a long way to go to reach that era’s apocalyptic fever, but retrospection dispels many of today’s myths about why so much is falling apart. Studying the immediate postwar period is essential to understanding the nightmarish scenes unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. Rather than being an isolated incident of poor policing or just a side-effect of giving cops ever more dangerous weapons, Michael Brown’s shooting can be traced to systemic changes in American life beginning half a century ago.

As Mike Konczal writes for the Roosevelt Institute, today’s hyper-aggressive policing strategies can be directly traced to a movement of neoconservative intellectuals in the late 1960s. Rather than viewing the apparent chaos of those times as resulting from “a crisis of race relations, police violence, poverty, or anything else,” he notes “rioting and the broader urban crisis were framed by the neoconservative movement as a crisis of values and culture precipitated by liberalism.” Given that liberalism was the cause of supposed societal breakdown, police began to develop decidedly illiberal tactics in response, like incarceration for minor infractions, constant intrusive surveillance and more leeway for officers to use violent tactics. Not surprisingly, violence on the part of law enforcement often begets more violence in the communities they are supposed to protect and serve — as with the riots we see now in Missouri. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” and that is precisely what were are now painfully hearing in Ferguson.

The increasing violence of the police force is also a symptom of America’s increasing economic insecurity since the 1960s. Beginning roughly with the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and fully ratified in the Clinton years, markets were unleashed and many of the advancements of the New Deal and Great Society were ratcheted away. Public goods were privatized, welfare as an entitlement was eliminated, collective bargaining was reined in, full employment as official government policy was abandoned and personal responsibility was stressed over community problem solving. The result of this trend has been skyrocketing inequality and more indirectly an expansive prison state often fueled by the same profit-driven logic of the broader economic system. Crime rates have declined since the 1980s, but this is only because the violence in our society has become implicit and hidden rather than explicit and on our television screens every night. Since the 1970s, the corrections population has gone from roughly 150 to over 700 per 100,000 people. Americans didn’t suddenly get more violent over the past decades; poverty itself became almost quasi-criminalized through policing tactics that target vulnerable groups and the need of the prison corporations and guard unions for new “customers” to fuel growth. Whether it’s being made to pass a drug test to get social insurance, being asked to present a photo ID to exercise basic citizenship or getting more frequently targeted in the War on Drugs, America’s poor and racial minorities are constantly psychologically bombarded with the message that they shoulder the burden for being marginalized by their society.

To explain away the alienation and powerlessness people feel in towns like Ferguson, the right (and to some extent the center-left) has developed several useful narratives since the Nixon years, the most prominent being a racially loaded “inner city culture of government dependency.” To quote House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Actual statistics easily prove this thinking a myth. Researcher Matt Bruenig at the Demos think tank found that only 3.7 percent of all poor people are able-bodied, non-working black or Latino men, which means that 26 out of 27 impoverished people in the United States do not fit Ryan’s stereotype. Even conservative writer Charles Murray has found that what the right used to call “pathologies” of the black poor are now manifesting themselves in the white working class as well with increased drug use and other signs of social breakdown. With the fiction of the “culture” narrative largely debunked, we are then forced to confront the disturbing realities of our politics and economics.

While there is a host of other indirect culprits of Michael Brown’s death to point to, ranging from a War on Terror without expiration date, sensationalist depiction of black male youths in the media and racist housing policy, they all stem from a profound loss of community and shared social commitment in the way our economy operates since the 1960s. That era was far from a utopia of progress, but at least then shared social progress was on the national agenda in a way that seems unfathomable now. When leaders of a country choose to put the pursuit of profit above all other social goods, we shouldn’t be surprised when we get just that.

Gray Whisnant’s columns usually run Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

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