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.