Faced with general unrest in the streets, will America’s political, corporate and media leaders panic? Will they acquiesce to bad policies that the nation will regret for decades? You can count on it, because that’s what happened the last time America was convulsed by racially charged riots.
Some 700 riots shook America between 1965 and 1971, leaving devastation in their wake. Between 1965 and 1968, more than 300 riots left 250 people dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, according to historian Hugh Davis Graham. The establishment lost its nerve and capitulated. Militants intimidated politicians, college administrators and midlevel bureaucrats into laying the foundation for the identity politics that rankle our lives today.
In response to the activists’ demands, the policy makers of the past blessed the federal bureaucracy’s creation of racial and ethnic categories and the related use of racial preferences for university admissions, employment and government contracting. The formalizing of groups, the addition of incentives to adhere to them, and the culture of victimhood that the whole scheme instilled, betrayed the colorblind promise of the civil-rights movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was intended to cure problems like segregation. Instead, by creating an incentive system based on grievances, the architects of identity politics all but ensured victimhood would never end.
That didn’t matter to men like La Raza executive director Raul Yzaguirre, who urged the Census Bureau in 1974 to abandon national origin questions and instead create groups. “There is a difference between a minority group and a national origin group—a difference recognized in terms of national economic and social policies,” he wrote.
The racial activists of the late 1960s and early ’70s insisted they were acting on behalf of the grass roots. Not so. The real images of the period, writes John D. Skrentny in “The Minority Rights Revolution” (2002), weren’t angry raised fists: “The images of the minority rights revolution are mostly of mainstream Euro-American males and minority advocates, wearing suits, sitting at desks, firing off memos, and meeting in government buildings.”
As for the leaders of the establishment, many believed that racial preferences and the balkanization of identity politics would be temporary. Forty years later, we know how wrong they were.
McGeorge Bundy was President Kennedy’s national security adviser. No Boston brahmin was more representative of the elite set. By the time he left Camelot and took the helm of the Ford Foundation in 1966, the era’s riots were fully underway. Bundy and the other foundation executives “had little idea about how to stop the rebellions or their negative impact on ‘the American body politic,’ ” according to historian Karen Ferguson. “Fear of the destabilizing impact and revolutionary possibility of a sustained black revolt drove virtually all American social policy, public and private, during this crisis.”
Bundy and his team believed in a staggering stratagem that Ms. Ferguson calls “developmental separatism.” The theory held that only after a period of ethnic separation could assimilation take place at some time in the future. One could say that they invented modern identity politics.
Already in 1969, the Ford Foundation was making “grant proposals directed at increasing the group identity and power of minorities.” Via large grants, the foundation created the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
They also midwifed racial preferences. Key passages of Justice Harry Blackmun’s frequently quoted concurring opinion in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 Supreme Court case that cemented racial preferences in college admissions, were lifted almost verbatim from a 1977 essay Bundy wrote for the Atlantic. It was Bundy who wrote: “To get past racism, we must here take account of race. There is no other present way.”
Bundy wasn’t alone. Following the Detroit riots, Michigan Gov. George Romney co-founded an organization called New Detroit, which funded black nationalists who had little actual support among African-Americans. According to Jake Klein of the Capital Research Center, New Detroit produced a school curriculum that contained the first mention of the notion that racism had to include both prejudice and power. Such identity-based schemes failed to close the gap because, as Ms. Ferguson notes, they reduced the problems of the black community to a “psycho-cultural and therapeutic issue of black identity without having to deal with the structural and material issues.”
Today we see the same problems. Take the effort to “defund” or “dismantle” police departments. The rich will always be able to buy their own private protection. But how will leaving entire urban areas without the protection of the law help our most impoverished citizens?
Or consider the call for reparations, backed by the New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the “1619 Project.” Talk of reparations distracts us from addressing the cultural dysfunctions that ail Americans of all kinds, such as family breakdown. Payments for race-based suffering will further enshrine resentments as the basis for attention, assistance and sense of self-worth.
The unseemly rush by corporations to outwoke each other has already filled the coffers of radical organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, whose stated goals include the destruction of the nuclear family—the very institution that needs shoring up. Meantime, the push by newspapers and other media companies to silence voices that dissent from these “remedies” will only ensure that the country walks into more problems without a real debate.
We have been here before. Our leaders panicked and let ideologues dictate terms. Let history be our guide this time.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on 7/9/20