The Experts and Their Work
The Kerner Commission's assistant deputy director for research, whose job it was to coordinate the commission's massive and hurried research program, was Robert Shellow, a social psychologist previously on the staff of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). He came to the commission highly recommended by American Psychological Association Executive Officer Arthur Brayfield, who wasted no time in making staff suggestions to Fred Harris and expressing the view that the commission "must take a hard look at the psychological aspects of the problems." Because of the pressure to issue an authoritative statement at the earliest possible moment, not all of the commission's research was completed in time to be included in the 1 March 1968 final report. A volume of supplemental research studies was published later on that year.
The commission's data gathering and analyzing effort was vast. The in-house social science staff, although important, consisted of only a
handful of researchers outside of Shellow himself, and not all of them worked full-time for the commission. David Boesel of Cornell and Louis Goldberg of Johns Hopkins were both Ph.D. candidates at the time, in political science and sociology, respectively; Gary Marx, a sociologist on the faculty of Harvard's Department of Social Relations, came to Washington three days a week; Elliot Liebow, an NIMH administrator and anthropologist, scraped together one day each week to work for the commission. Regular consultants included sociologists Ralph Turner (of the University of California, Los Angeles) and Neil Smelser (of the University of California, Berkeley).
The in-house staff was tiny in part for political reasons. By 1967 many prominent social and behavioral scientists had become critics of Johnson's foreign policy, and experts with antiwar records were simply eliminated from consideration for spots on the commission staff. Administrators assumed that such individuals would be security risks. There were practical reasons for the small size of the research staff as well. Lining up academic experts on very short notice proved to be a formidable logistical challenge. Few were willing to alter their immediate plans, take on a huge research project, and work at a hectic pace. A combination of politics and convenience thus determined that the number of experts engaged in contract research for the commission would far outstrip the numbers of in-house researchers. No background checks were required for contract work and it could be managed far more flexibly, without, for example, requiring that experts move to Washington, D.C. Although the vast majority of the commission's experts were not submitted to any official litmus test, the Vietnam War, a very sore spot with the administration, was not discussed anywhere in the report. Considering the war's rapid depletion of Great Society funds, this astonishing gap is difficult to explain except as a result of executive pressure.
The work done by the small in-house research team was supplemented by field teams of six, who were sent out to gather information in twenty-three cities in an effort to compile accurate chronologies of urban disorders. In all, team members interviewed twelve hundred people—from mayors to rioters—pored over official documents like police and fire department logs, took scores of witness depositions, and lined up confidential testimonials for the commission. Robert Shellow estimated that the final city-by-city analyses were based on 15,200 pages of raw data, excluding the teams' own voluminous research reports.
Contract research that was paid for directly by the commission involved hundreds of thousands of dollars and the kinds of quasi-independent research organizations that proliferated after World War II in the rush to meet the government's new demand for expert help. For example, the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, a branch of the Institute for Social Research, which had been a stepchild of World War II-era military expertise, handled one of the commission's supplementary studies on racial attitudes, which involved more than five thousand written surveys and personal interviews in fifteen cities. Other significant pieces of research of immediate use to the Kerner Commission fell under the funding auspices of more permanent, and generously endowed, federal bureaucracies. The NIMH, for instance, cooperated fully with the Kerner Commission. It was already sponsoring more than fifty studies (at a price tag of $4 million) on "mass violence." These included efforts to design accurate riot predictors by the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University and a large-scale psychiatric study in which forty NIMH staffers investigated the salience of masculinity in differences between rioters and nonrioters in Detroit.
In addition to research done for, or in cooperation with, the Kerner Commission, Robert Shellow made it his business to collect and review the most recent behavioral and clinical theories. His meetings with consultants and advisors reviewed work being done by a range of academic experts on social conflict, racial attitudes, and rioting. The commission considered the feasibility of predicting individual dissatisfaction and developing phase models of revolutionary upheaval, efforts remarkably reminiscent of Project Camelot and of World War II work before that. Among the consultants to the Kerner Commission were Neil Smelser (who had also been one of Project Camelot's advisors) and Ralph Turner, both important figures in the translation of crowd psychology into the sociological literature on "collective behavior." Along more clinical lines, the commission's psychiatric consultants (including Robert Coles and Charles Pinderhughes) set out to translate social problems directly into the language of psychiatry. They argued that "pathogenic" social structure should be subject to medical treatment, analyzed riots as an element in group identity, and wrote reports on various aspects of adolescent male psychology.
The major accomplishment of the in-house research staff was a lengthy and controversial document, titled "The Harvest of American Racism." It concluded, in no uncertain terms, that the desperate state of U.S. cities was the fault of white racist institutions and that white—
not black—Americans were destroying the American dream. Greatly increased taxes and a multibillion-dollar assault on urban slums, far beyond anything envisioned by the Great Society, were the only possible means of preventing further riots. A shocked David Ginsburg reacted to this radical criticism of the Johnson record by firing Shellow and his immediate colleagues en masse in December 1967, along with 120 other staff members. A funding shortfall, caused by the Vietnam War, was the official reason offered for this dramatic move.
In the short run, the housecleaning confirmed some experts' suspicions that they were useful only as "social science input," obediently serving a process that had been politically determined by others from the start. Robert Shellow, for example, reported the following brief conversation with one of his staff superiors as evidence that the commission appreciated expertise more for its appearance than its substance.
My statement: You realize that it's going to be awfully difficult to mount a study of riots using social science methodology and compress it into four or five months.
And the reply: That's not important . . . what's important is that you've got that Ph.D.
Even some experts deeply invested in the Great Society bureaucracies that "Harvest" had criticized as Band-Aid approaches reacted sharply to Ginsburg's purge of the commission staff. Research psychologist Thomas Tomlinson, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, for example, accused the commission of abandoning any and all approaches that were likely to provoke presidential wrath (either because they cost too much or pointed the finger at Vietnam), even if they were the only way to prevent future rioting. Not surprisingly, Ginsburg lambasted such charges as "irresponsible and totally inaccurate." Whatever the truth in this particular case, the roller-coaster relationship between expertise and public policy, which made experts feel giddy with power one moment and weak and expendable the next, was not new. It was a significant pattern in the history of policy-oriented psychological experts since 1940, as we have already seen.
Masculine Self-Esteem Revisited
All of the psychological experts affiliated with Kerner Commission research were steeped in the postwar literature on prejudice and personality damage, and their explorations of riot causation were marked by the characteristic themes of psychological work on race
since 1945: social pathology, wounded masculinity, matriarchal families, and problematic self-esteem. Also very conspicuous in their work was the language of clinical practice. The conceptual basis of medicine and psychiatry—health, sickness, and therapeutic treatment—infused policy debates about the status of U.S. cities and the motivations of rioters, corresponding to the increased status and visibility of postwar clinical work, as well as to the innovative trends of community psychology and psychiatry. What follows is a discussion of the significance of these particular patterns, unmistakable and influential, in the testimony that was offered and the research that was done by and for the Kerner Commission.
John Gardner, the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), was one of the very first witnesses to appear before the commission. A member of the cabinet, Gardner was the highest-ranking psychologist in the federal government. He brought to his job a perspective that had been shaped by the kinds of wartime experiences described in earlier chapters. During World War II, Gardner worked for the FCC's Foreign Broadcast Monitoring (later Intelligence) Service and the OSS. After the war, he became president of the Carnegie Corporation and consultant to government officials in the Department of Defense, the Agency for International Development, and the White House. In 1965 he brought to his job as HEW secretary a particular commitment to organizational psychology and a strong desire to champion individual potential and development in the face of mass institutions.
On 1 August 1967 Gardner explained to the Kerner Commission that rioting was caused by poverty and discrimination, but he also lamented "the social evils of the ghetto," including crime, disease, and family breakdown. Clearly, social pathology and gender nonconformity were on the minds of policy-makers—even cabinet secretaries—as reasons why black ghetto residents remained poor and trapped in inner cities.
Social psychologist Kenneth Clark also spoke to the commission early in its deliberations, on 13 September 1967. His pessimistic testimony made such a deep impression that a ninety-three-word excerpt was prominently featured in the conclusion of the commission's final report, a statement longer than the text of the conclusion itself. Calling himself a "social diagnostician," Clark warned the commission that "the patient is suffering from a very severe and viral disease," not necessarily terminal, but with "symptoms which suggest a grave diagnosis, a serious disorder." His testimony continued, full of analogies between
riots and infectious disease, and he railed against the government for its unwillingness to take action beyond convening official investigating bodies. He even expressed something like regret over his own appearance before the commission. There was, he emphasized, little more to learn about rioting and human hopelessness. Psychological experts and policy-makers alike understood exactly what sort of "treatment" was needed to cure cities and turn them into environments conducive to human development rather than violence. There was, however, simply not the political will to do so; allegiance to the "American Creed" had been exposed as a myth. He even compared urban ghettos to German concentration camps and white Americans to World War II Germans who had done nothing to stop, or even acknowledge, the Holocaust while it was occurring. Finally and sadly, he pointed out that too much anxiety swirled around damage done to property. Rioting's logic was psychological, and the price to be paid for it was similarly psychological. In comparison, material destruction was trivial.
Elliot Lie bow, an NIMH administrator who worked on the in-house research staff of the commission one day a week, also offered testimonial advice to the commissioners. Trained as an anthropologist, Liebow, was the author of Tally's Corner (1967), a widely read and discussed ethnography centering on a small group of ghetto residents in Washington, D.C., who, not coincidentally, fit the accepted profile of rioters: black, male, adolescent or relatively young, under- or unemployed. Liebow's fieldwork started as part of an NIMH study of childrearing among low-income families in the early 1960s, but it soon evolved into a sympathetic portrait of the men's "streetcorner society." His analysis of their emotionally impoverished lives emphasized the family; the bulk of the book described hostility between men and women and the estrangement of fathers from their children. Liebow traced the men's numerous disappointments to the gap between what the dominant culture expected them to be—reliable providers and loyal husbands—and what the men actually were—members of a "streetcorner society," an inferior friendship network in which a system of games and "public fictions" eased the pain of their failures with women and children.
In Tally's Corner, Liebow reiterated the view, prevalent in the postwar literature, that poor black communities were not independent sub-cultures, and therefore not exhibits for cultural pluralism. They were pathological variations on the white norm. The men's inability to find decent jobs and live up to the role of patriarchal breadwinner sentenced them to lifetimes of low self-esteem and dependence on an all-male version of sociability that was both shallow and pitiful. "The street-
corner," Liebow concluded, "is, among other things, a sanctuary for those who can no longer endure the experience or prospect of failure." The policy implications of this point of view directly recalled the earlier work of Frazier, Myrdal, and Clark in suggesting that male wages were the key to assisting black families and communities. For Liebow, public policy had gone too far in the direction of making women and children the subjects of government social programs. Men deserved more attention.
Liebow's testimony before the commission, on 9 November 1967, began with just such a plea for the repair of masculine self-esteem. "At the heart of our family system is this husband-wife relationship and the husband is also the father. In our society we define a man as someone who is the breadwinner of the family, who supports the family and he is the head of it, and that is what it is to be a man in American society. . . . There are a lot of lower class Negro males who are not men in this sense, and why aren't they men? Why aren't they heads of families and supporters of these families? And I think that one of the things—one of the reasons that he is not, quite apart now from opportunity and quite apart from the very real conditions that he faces, is how he sees himself." Liebow suggested that rioting was not the logical endpoint in a downward spiral of self-esteem but rather the behavioral response of men who were attempting to assert some form of power and control, who rejected a sense of self as lazy, incompetent, and irresponsible. This trend toward interpreting rioting in quasi-sympathetic terms—as a bid to recoup emotional or political self-esteem—was new in the late 1960s. Eventually, it helped to transform psychological and social theories of collective behavior dramatically. Beginning in the late 1960s, social movements of all sorts became far more sympathetic objects of social-scientific analysis. Theorists began turning away from the fundamentals of the crowd psychology tradition (collective action as a sort of group temper tantrum or psychotic episode), considering instead the possibility that social collectivities might act purposefully and rationally, on the basis of rising expectations and increasing material resources.
The City as Patient
Matthew Dumont was another NIMH administrator who offered the commission his advice in the form of a report on the positive, community-building roles of ghetto gangs, and he suggested
that policy-makers would be wise to consider their potential to act as counterrioting forces. His semioptimistic interpretation of civil disturbance was similar to Liebow's: "One may have to conclude that the rioter is a more mentally healthy person than the non-rioter. He is a person who still believes that action means something, that things can improve." Dumont, however, did not make his special concern with black men, or masculinity, explicit. He did not really have to. Rioters, or most of them anyway, were male; therefore, his subjects were male. That rioting was a gender-specific behavior was an assumption made by most, if not all, of the Kerner Commission experts. Rarely was it considered necessary in reports or recommendations to point out that rioters were male. In this sense, Dumont was not at all exceptional.
As an advocate of community psychiatry, Dumont represented one of the most innovative and significant developments in the postwar clinical professions (see chapter 9). By the late 1960s, popular perception no longer tied clinicians to their historic charges: the institutionalized insane. Perfectly normal (if painfully maladjusted) individuals had become appropriate participants in clinical exchanges, and healing complex social environments had been gathered under the mantle of clinicians' ever-expanding list of therapeutic chores. Even the names of their respective movements made it evident that psychiatrists and psychologists were prepared and eager to bring diagnosis and treatment to communities at large. The working definition of community psychiatry typically covered all aspects of life, supplementing the profession's conventional commitment to clinical work with hefty chunks of research, education, urban planning, government administration, community organization, and political activism. Community psychiatry and psychology implied sweeping social interventions in the name of mental health because "everything a patient does and says, including what he does and says as a participant in a social system, falls within the therapists' purview."
In the case of rioting, Dumont thought it sensible to consider violence a symptom in need of immediate treatment. He was not alone. To consider "the city as patient" was to acknowledge a truly remarkable expansion in the subject of psychological authority, founded on the World War II preoccupation with "prevention," expressed through massive campaigns to instill mental health in the U.S. public during the period after 1945, and finally enacted on the level of state policy through federal legislation. In 1963 the Mental Retardation and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act institutionalized
psychology's progress in the form of an ambitious federal program: two thousand community centers would be built to replace the outmoded system of segregated asylums. They would be accessible to all U.S. citizens on the assumption that combating the scourge of mental disease in the community would prevent most, if not all, of the negative social consequences associated with severe psychological illness.
By the time the Kerner Commission was established, their community focus made the purposes of psychiatry and psychology virtually indistinguishable at times from those of the welfare state, and advocates were quick to notice similarities between their goals and assumptions and those of the Great Society; both envisioned community participation and the enfranchisement of the poor and oppressed through deliberate improvement of damaging environments. The mission of community psychology, Robert Reiff announced in September 1967, was to "place the psychologist in the position of social interventionist, whose primary. task was to intervene at the social system level to modify human behavior."
Matthew Dumont stated the alliance between psychology and liberal politics even more simply: "Mental health is freedom." He showed how useful a justification mental health had become for social welfare programs and how intertwined it was with language of 1960s activist politics. And he brought this perspective to the attention of the Kerner Commission, some of whose members embraced this advantageous, new way of expressing policy concerns. Like Kenneth Clark's testimony, Dumont's rhetoric relied on extensive disease metaphors and called for the prompt diagnosis and treatment of social disorder. He referred frequently to "urban organisms," "painful tissue destruction," and the "sensory deprivation psychosis" experienced by ghettos. The spread of rioting convinced him that entire communities, not just individuals, were suffering the pain of poor self-esteem. "This, then, is the diagnosis. A riot is a symptomatic expression of deficits of stimulation, self esteem, a sense of community, and environmental mastery. The treatment of the condition is no secret and in inadequate dosages it has already been administered."
While the parallels between socially sensitive mental health approaches and an expanded welfare state seemed obvious to Dumont, Clark, and many others by the late 1960s, some dissenting voices persisted, reminders that the application of psychological expertise to urban rioting (and social problems in general) need not result in liberal public policies. A widely discussed letter to the Journal of the American
Medical Association in September 1967 suggested that "brain disease" was being overlooked in the rush to stem the tide of urban violence with better jobs, housing, and education. According to two of the authors, Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin, who later expanded their controversial thesis in Violence and the Brain (1970), "The real lesson of the urban rioting is that, besides the need to study the social fabric that creates the riot atmosphere, we need intensive research and clinical studies of the individuals committing the violence. The goal of such studies would be to pinpoint, diagnose, and treat those people with low violence thresholds before they contribute to further tragedies."
Complaints about the workability of expanded social programs were not limited to experts determined to unlock the biological mysteries of assaultive behavior, however. The June 1968 issue of Psychiatric Opinion featured a series of short pieces by psychiatrists involved in riot studies, including John Spiegel and Elliot Luby, whose work was duly considered by the Kerner Commission. All of the contributors shared a fundamental commitment to exporting psychiatric insights to the policy-making process, but Robert McMurry forcefully disagreed that extending social welfare programs was either a necessary outcome of this process or a viable solution to the ills of the city. In his view, greater permissiveness in society at large was to blame for lessening the burden of guilt for antisocial activities. This development deeply affected "riot-prone" individuals who had "no internal policing agencies in their egos."
The crucial point is that many of these participants in riots are people who have little or no control over their aggressions, are largely or wholly lacking in conventional moral standards, and many are to some degree out of touch with reality. In consequence, almost none are reasonable people. Logic, kindness and a regard for consequences have little or no influence on their behavior. They are chronically and, in many instances, irredeemably incorrigible. They are not only misfits in society; they are threats to its integrity. . . . Like a forest fire, once ignited, this mass madness is not only contagious but is very difficult to extinguish and can lead to astronomical costs in human life, injuries and property losses.
Equally determined to see urban violence addressed in a psychological fashion, McMurry nevertheless believed that aggressive surveillance, probation, and protective custody—and not employment opportunities or decent housing—would help to eliminate the problem. His argument should serve as a reminder of the political flexibility of the psychological worldview. For Dumont, the philosophy of community psychia-
try implied freedom from material and spiritual impoverishment. Yet for McMurry, psychiatry held a different lesson: "Just as the criminal and the insane must be denied their freedom, so must the sociopaths, psychopathic personalities, and the emotionally immature delinquents be subjected to control. The alternative is a form of anarchy, the letting loose upon the population of a pack of potential mad dogs . . . with the capability of limitless harm."