The Commission's Conclusions
In retrospect, it appears that the Kerner Commission turned the expert investigation of rioting into an unprecedented executive priority. But it was hardly the first such official investigation during the 1960s. During the Johnson presidency alone, thirteen commissions
were appointed at municipal and state levels. Since early in the century, commissions had been among the government's favorite answers to the questions raised by riots. Between 1917 and 1943, twenty-one were established to investigate riots in East St. Louis (1917), Chicago and Washington, D.C. (1919), Detroit (1925 and 1943), Harlem (1935 and 1943), and elsewhere. According to critics, commissions offered a convenient way of "processing racial crisis" symbolically, purchasing urban stability and, at the same time, ensuring "the continuation of long-term social conflict by other means." According to supporters, commissions were clear evidence of government making good on its responsibilities to maintain social order while still addressing intergroup conflict with speed and seriousness.
Following the Watts riots in the summer of 1965, California Governor Edmund G. Brown had put a state-level commission together, determined to pinpoint the causes of violence in the Los Angeles ghetto. The McCone Commission was named after its chairman, John A. McCone, a businessman who had served as CIA director. Hundreds of other riots occurred and investigating bodies formed during the two years between Watts and the Kerner Commission's formation—164 during the first nine months of 1967 alone—but the McCone Commission's work was especially important in influencing the direction that Kerner Commission experts took. Because Watts had been among the largest of the riots, the McCone Commission had received wide publicity, as had its conclusions about the nature of urban disorder: that riots were "spasms" and rioters "marauding bands" who "seemed to be caught up in an insensate rage of destruction." In the months and years that followed, the McCone Commission findings were used to support theories that urban riots were the handiwork of criminal "riffraff," conspiracies concocted by black nationalists, attacks of mass hysteria, or a combination of all three.
The Kerner Commission experts deliberately set out to counter these conclusions, as the final report makes clear. Months of research and analysis resulted in a final report that emphasized the responsibility of white institutions and attitudes for urban rioting. "What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget," the report concluded, "is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." On the one hand, this forceful statement (which appeared in the final report's introductory summary) illustrated that the merits of the ill-fated internal document, "The Har-
vest of American Racism," had not been entirely lost on the commissioners. On the other hand, the final report contained evidence that led some critics to dismiss it angrily as "a white document written by white writers and aimed at a white audience—about black people." It enumerated a long list of social pathologies and incorporated lengthy descriptions of the "culture of poverty" from which black Americans suffered, for instance. A chapter on "Unemployment, Family Structure, and Social Disorganization" reiterated all the standard themes, from the poor self-esteem of black men who could not achieve the status of patriarchal breadwinners and hence were forced to become demoralized members of a "streetcorner society" to the damaging consequences of an unnaturally high labor force participation rate among black women.
The net result could be confusing. The report called "the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans" the most fundamental cause of rioting, but pronounced increased black self-esteem a crucial step in the right direction. And while many of the commission's "Recommendations for National Action" were for new or reinvigorated federal programs (in the areas of jobs, education, welfare, and housing), they were sprinkled with references to the need for a new black psychology, as if to imply that institutional reforms were attractive mainly for their psychological consequences—lower levels of frustration, heightened self-esteem, and more "normal" families. One month after the Kerner Commission finished its work, a parade of social experts testified before the Senate that programs geared to improving the socioeconomic status of poor black Americans were important not because they redistributed money or power, but for their psychological consequences. "We know that looting is as bad for the looter as the looted. The burning store is a statement of frustration about self as well as a criticism of a society that permitted cynicism and prejudice to grow in place of community and love."
Perhaps the final report's inability to decide which came first—the unequal division of material and political power or the unequal division of psychological resources—simply mirrored the experts' ambivalence about their own position and goals. Robert Fogelson (coauthor of the commission's supplementary study "Who Riots?") was disappointed in the report's equivocation, and less than happy that his own work had been used to support what he considered muddy analysis and feeble recommendations. Because he believed that profound institutional reorganization was necessary in order to solve the problems of cities, he
criticized the commission's emphasis on attitudes. He also admitted, however, that a document more to his radical taste would surely have been rejected, or even used by people in power to undermine the Great Society by blaming reformers for the problems they were trying to reform. "Its [the commission's] casual dismissal of community control and black power, not to speak of more radical proposals for social change, is particularly disappointing. But, in view of the public opinion polls, the Kerner Commission did a better job than the country deserves. . . . And had the commission abandoned its liberal perspective and submitted a more original interpretation and more radical recommendations, it would probably have been rejected outright by most Americans." As if to confirm the truth of this ironic double bind, Georgia governor Lester Maddox sent the following telegram to Lyndon Johnson upon the final report's publication.
I ADVISED YOU ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS STARTING IN EARLY 1964 THAT NATIONAL LEGISLATION OR GUIDELINES AND DIRECTIVES THAT WERE DIRECTED AT AND CONTINUED TO INSPIRE, ENCOURAGE AND OFTEN TIMES PROTECT AND FINANCE THE MISFITS, MISTAKEN, BUMS, CRIMINALS, COMMUNISTS AND OTHER LAWLESS AGITATORS WOULD BRING WAVES OF VIOLENCE, BURNING, LOOTING, INJURY AND VIOLENT DEATH TO AMERICAN CITIES SUCH AS NEVER BEFORE TO TAKE PLACE IN OUR NATION. . . I URGE YOU . . . TO NOT ASK FOR MORE OF THE PROGRAMS THAT HAVE BROUGHT TRAGEDY TO AMERICA. PLEASE DENOUNCE THE SOCIALISTS AND FRAUDULENT RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE RIOT PROBE COMMISSION, THAT EVEN NOW ENCOURAGE INCREASED VIOLENCE.
Opponents of the "socialists" on the Kerner Commission were not limited to southern Democratic power brokers like Maddox. The majority of ordinary white Americans, as the experts themselves had shown, would not change their minds under the constructive pressure of the "American Creed"; they barely recognized the prevalence of racism, let alone considered themselves a part of the rioting problem and solution. Experts' work might illustrate that radical changes were needed, but it also led to the conclusion that such changes were unlikely to be tolerated. In such a circumstance, what could experts do except complain about the uses to which their efforts had been put? Many did exactly that.
Not everyone, of course, shared such a dim view of the Kerner Commission's accomplishments. Arthur Brayfield, executive officer of the
APA, was delighted with the final report. He praised it as comprehensive and deserving of support, especially for "its clear recognition of the psychological factors—the crucial role of attitudes, of feelings, and indeed of the total functioning of human personality in its social and physical environment." For Brayfield, the commission had offered a positive model for government use of psychological experts because it illustrated how far government had moved in the direction of defining its responsibilities and programs in terms of their psychological consequences.
I believe that any inquiry into the development of human resources must focus on the black revolution. For the black revolution poses in its starkest form an overwhelming question: Can we design and develop a society—a set of social arrangements—a human environment—that will foster the sense of personal worth and self-esteem required to sustain the human spirit, give meaning to our lives, and provide the energizing force to forge our personal destinies and to insure the emergence and survival of a humane society?
This chapter has demonstrated that the benefits of war were both flexible and far-reaching. Many of the patterns characterizing the history of psychological experts during World War II, and in Cold War military policy, were also evident in the evolution of domestic social policy. In fact, the development of the U.S. welfare and warfare states was intimately linked and mutually reinforcing, as the Kerner Commission case shows. In investigating riots at home, no less than revolutions far away, psychological experts were engaged in an ambitious, interdisciplinary project to tease apart the knotted strands of personal motivation, social context, and history, all without losing sight of political principles and realities. They came up with few, if any, new ideas that passed scientific muster, but they were remarkably successful in ways neither intended nor anticipated. In particular, psychological experts' work on the domestic policy issues tackled by the Kerner Commission made the precise relationship of psychological and social change a focal point of the policy-making process. It made individual subjectivity an ever more significant factor in policy calculations and a new and undisputed subject of government.
In the course of this process, experts and policy-makers sometimes found themselves at odds or in direct conflict. The experts typically presented the relationship between psychology and society as complex, dynamic, and confusing, a state of affairs that frustrated policy-makers' desires for unambiguous guidance and prestigious legitimation of expe-
dient solutions. For their part, experts became increasingly conscious of the contradictions embedded in their rising status in government, a development fueled by 1960s social movements that captured their sympathy and, at the same time, pointed out how much damage uncritical intellectuals could do. Experts like Robert Shellow and his staff had tried to walk a fine line between the risks of associating with power and the risks of failing to act at all. Shellow's final thoughts about his experience with the Kerner Commission made clear just how difficult and significant a challenge that was.
It is not only possible but desirable and perhaps essential that the social scientist become more deeply involved in trying to bring about social change in a direct manner. . . . It is time . . . to get on with the job of correcting injustices rather than simply despairing of their pervasiveness or beating our breasts on the sidelines. No doubt it is best that some of us keep our distance from the unpleasantness of the arena, stick to our research craft, and content ourselves with enriching the minds of the young. But if that is all we do, the product of our efforts will be valued only among our colleagues, our theories will remain untested or untestable, and our talented and impatient youth will look elsewhere for preparation to cope with the world as they find it.
During the Kerner Commission's short history, the experts and the policy-makers argued continuously about how psychological insights into rioting could best be operationalized and whether or not their consequences, in policy forms, were liberating, repressive, ineffective, or entirely irrelevant. Neither group was monolithic and neither acted on needs that were unified and clear at all times. The interests of professions were significant factors in the self-promotion campaigns of experts, but they sometimes conflicted with the political requirements of government bureaucracies. Even so, there was rarely much disagreement about psychology's fundamental relevance to matters regarding race and racial conflict, a fact that must certainly be considered a mark of great progress in the public history of psychology.
Psychology's postwar career on the level of state policy—both in the case of Cold War counterinsurgency and in the case of racial conflict at home—leaves little doubt that psychological expertise had tremendous repressive potential. It could and did, for example, assist police forces at home and in the Third World to quell legitimate protest without resort to obvious, old-fashioned mechanisms of coercion and control. On the other hand, psychology's career also illustrates that experts were increasingly aware of this negative potential as they navigated the sea change that occurred with the Vietnam War and as the old equations
between psychology, democracy, and patriotism began to unravel. Experts cannot therefore be understood simply as political pawns (although they were at times), and the research and theories they developed in government service were not simply vehicles through which Washington adapted its methods according to the dictates of sophisticated, scientific obfuscation (although at times, this occurred too).
Further, psychology's politically liberating potential remained utterly convincing. For every domestic policy-maker who emerged from the 1960s convinced that black Americans needed nothing beyond vigorous self-improvement routines, there were thousands of citizens and activists who believed that the keys to mass persuasion and radical change rested within the U.S. psyche at large. For the many civil rights activists and supporters who believed their own antiracist politics had changed them psychologically and permanently, a color-blind vision of equality and opportunity could hardly be realized without a plan of truly thoroughgoing change in the psychological, as well as the material and political, spheres of social life.
This remarkable chameleonlike capacity—to serve a variety of political purposes in unpredictable ways—is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from those facets of psychology's public history reviewed thus far. If government tended toward using psychological experts to dress up repressive public policies in enlightened disguises, it was the particular purposes that shaped the consequences, rather than anything intrinsic to psychology itself. Government, in theory at least, could as easily seek to promote as to impede social change.
The point is not to choose whether psychological experts continuously served a master of democratic progress or antidemocratic social control, but to see how they extended the reach of government and the purposes of public policy to include the subjective and emotional realities of power. During the postwar decades, they altered the tone of public life in a variety of ways, not by any means limited to policy-making or contained within the formal apparatus of the state. Their impact on public culture in general—on the very definition of "the political" and on the direction and style of civic participation—offers further evidence of the complexity of psychology's political history. It is to aspects of this history that we turn next.