That’s the general question addressed by our latest round of reader emails on the subject, who are taking a step back from the more specific areas we’ve tackled so far, such as mismatch theory, the discrimination against high-achieving Asian-Americans, and the stigma felt by some recipients or perceived recipients of affirmative action. This reader criticizes the policy:
Any time one chooses on the basis of politics rather than qualifications, you are reducing efficiency as well as angering the losers. If we reward people based on ability, it both motivates ability and reduces the value of being a victim. So long as we allow people to declare themselves victim and benefit from it, we will face an increasingly fragmented society as people try to place themselves in a politically benefited group to gain advantages.
This reader has a more measured take:
I worked at UCLA in 1996 when Californians were debating, and ultimately passed, Proposition 209. The law banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity from being considered in public employment, contracting, or education. It has since been upheld after numerous court challenges.
Prop 209 debates dominated campus at the time. I will never forget being at a university “town hall” where the director of the affirmative action program was attempting to explain what AA was and why it should remain.
I raised my hand and asked, “How does the federal government measure compliance with affirmative action?” After having just ended a long explanation of how it was not a “quota system,” he dodged. “Well, I’ll tell you what, when an institution is not in compliance, they sure get into a heck of a lot of trouble, as we’ve recently seen” (referring to a recent citation of UC San Diego for non-compliance).
His dodge really explained the unspoken reality of AA: It is about getting minorities placed in employment and education by hook or crook. It is not, as it theoretically goes, only about choosing the minority when up against an equally-qualified white person.
However well-intentioned and even perhaps necessary, it is in fact about counting by race, something which should give us pause even if we see its numerous benefits.
This reader, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is:
To be honest, I’ve never particularly understood why affirmative action is so controversial. I think there are meaningful arguments about whether it should be based on race or socio-economic class, especially if many of the benefits are accruing to middle and upper-class African Americans, but that’s a matter of implementation more than existence.
First off, to deny that African Americans have been systematically and uniquely disadvantaged throughout history is silly. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t until 1964, and society doesn’t suddenly transform the minute a law is enacted. But, even if you go back further, black families were systematically split up and slaves were purposefully denied an education during slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the books with a rightful claim to “Great American Novel” status, centers on Jim running away from his “Master” because she broke her promise not to split up his family. He runs away and joins Huck to escape to the North with the primary goal of making enough money to buy back his family (Django Unchained is a more contemporary story with the same theme).
In addition, central to most slave narratives is some trickery or happenstance that allowed them unlikely access to education. Frederick Douglass bribed poor neighborhood white kids with bread in exchange for lessons on reading, which was highly frowned upon. He wrote, “I am strongly tempted to give the names of two or three of those little boys, as a testimonial of the gratitude and affection I bear them; but prudence forbids—not that it would injure me, but it might embarrass them; for it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian country.”
But, honestly, even if that weren’t the case, I’m not certain that I see much difference between affirmative action and any other need-based scholarship, many of which are awarded by race, gender, or socio-economic status. Sure, if I found out I was the theoretical “person whose spot was given to someone less qualified based on affirmative action,” I might be personally miffed, but the odds of that are highly unlikely.
This reader wants a more nuanced approach when implementing AA:
Rather than argue about whether it’s permissible or useful to use race in admission criteria, it would be a good idea to go directly to indicators of social disadvantage. Students who do well in challenging situations deserve credit for that. Rather than “race” (whatever that is), look directly at household income, parents’ educational level, various indicators of school quality, crime rates for the student’s home neighborhood.
The result would, of course, include a lot more students of color, and also a lot more disadvantaged white students. The biggest problem is that it would reduce the advantage of privileged students. The well-off would howl. A student who attended a good school, wasn’t (involuntarily) hungry, got tutoring and other help as needed, and did well in school wouldn’t get the benefit of pretending that all students had those advantages.
Using direct measures of social disadvantage is so obvious that it's hard to believe admissions officials haven’t thought of it. It’s also hard to believe that the reason for not even trying it is the expected opposition of the privileged. It’s easier to argue about race than to confront entrenched privilege.
One more reader for now:
Everyone watching these issues from the sidelines gets up in arms and takes one side or the other. As a result, we naturally frame the issue as underprivileged groups against colleges when we should actually frame it as one unified team against entrenched, systemic disadvantage.
All of those discussing here are basically looking for the same thing: We want everyone to get a fair shot. So how do we reduce the rate of mismatch? Better high schools for the disadvantaged? Perhaps, but we’ve struggled with issue since well before Brown vs Board of Education. Free tutoring during the year? Maybe, but considering the isolating effects of effectively singling out students for remedial education combined with the likely burden of working to pay their way through college, I doubt the merits of this option.
Why not take advantage of secondary educational systems already in place around the country? Nearly every major university has community colleges in close vicinity. Why not work to allocate money to these oft-ignored and neglected environments and create “equality pipelines” that could bring intelligent and hardworking individuals up to speed? It’s a ready-made vehicle for advancement that just needs to be tweaked to run effectively.
The reality of the situation is that in order to reduce mismatch, a significant time commitment is needed. Creating a place designed specifically for this purpose is an active step against entrenched advantage while accepting the realities required in order to receive a high-level education. On average, you can’t bring everyone up to speed without a significant time and energy commitment. Acknowledging this undeniable reality is the first step to developing realistic solutions to universal problems regarding equality, disadvantage, and academic accomplishment. Ignoring the facts of obtaining a quality education does everyone a disservice.
P.S. The Atlantic is my favorite venue for online intellectual thought. I appreciate the forum you guys provide for discussion. If you guys post this can you make sure my name is not attached? I work in an environment where I need to remain apolitical.
Yep, all emails are posted anonymously in Notes unless a reader gives us permission otherwise. And thanks to everyone taking the time and effort to write in over this controversial, ongoing issue. Still more of your emails to come. Update with another one right now, from a long-time reader:
Here are the assumptions that I see in the emails you posted that shouldn't go without examination:
1) That the objective of a university’s admissions process is to reward 18 year olds who have worked hard and deserve a spot on their campus, rather than to assemble a student body that fits its own needs, or, in the case of public institutions, fulfill its obligation to produce benefits (economic or societal) for the taxpayers of the state that supports it.
2) That the selectivity of an institution relates to the difficulty of its classes. (Community college courses are not primarily remedial versions of “real” college. They’re often the same material provided without the big ticket opportunities or the whole-life support system of a prestigious residential college and classmates who are all already high achievers. Students who do well enough to transfer probably would have done well if they had been admitted in the first place.)
I’m a female black professional who, by any objective measure, earned spots in honors programs and a well-regarded university for graduate school. While I would not say I have been “shamed” by affirmative action, as one reader suggests, the practice has at various points intensified my experience of impostor syndrome.
For instance, I recall having secured an internship with a prestigious institution and sneaking a peek at the resumes of others who had applied. I was surprised by the amount of relief I felt in seeing that my resume was, in fact, stronger than the others. The institution also had an internship program reserved for minorities and I had begun to be bothered by the possibility that perhaps I couldn’t with confidence say that I was just as capable as others who had been hired.
Aside from any fleeting doubts I might have about my own accomplishments, I do tend to think that the focus on preserving affirmative action in college admissions distracts from the more fundamental problem, which is that the majority of failing public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. are composed of minority (black and Hispanic) students.
I grew up in a school district that was very weak, and so my mother insisted that I attend the local parochial school. The school district continued to decline until many years later it was officially stripped of its accreditation. (In fact, it was the subject of This American Life’s Ep. 562: “The Problem We All Live With” [embedded above]).
I have sometimes wondered what my own prospects would have been had my parents not been able to afford even the modest tuition we paid, and had I not commuted to a high school that boasts of a 100 percent college admissions rate, instead of going to a school in the worst district in the state. Even if I would have made it through anyway, I know that I would have been significantly less prepared to compete for college admission and to do well once admitted.
So to a large extent, we as a society seem to be attempting to make up for our failure to provide minorities a better education at the primary and secondary school levels with affirmative action in college admissions, leading to many of the problems mismatch theory addresses.
Another reader hits on similar themes:
The inequities begin in elementary school (or before), and I am not referring to home training. The dividing line today is no longer black or white; the true dividing line is between the haves and the have nots. The existence of a technological divide is not merely a convenient catch phrase; it is real. The quality of work produced by a student with limited access to research materials and to the internet compared to a student who has received the advantage of top line equipment and 24/7 online access may be in some cases equivalent, but you can be sure that the student with limited access worked a lot harder to attain their standing.
The auxiliary services in schools in economically depressed areas and high density minority areas also suffer in comparison, in that an unfortunately large percentage of guidance counselors are more concerned with merely graduating students to protect their jobs rather than encouraging them to pursue higher education, and for those few who do, they are pushed to attend those schools which have lower academic standards. Why? Because they are aware that their students, who may have been straight-A students, have in many cases never been offered the required courses they need to survive in a top-line school.
That is the inequity that needs to be addressed: because if that student, by some miracle, gets into a top line school, he or she has to learn not only their current subjects but also those topics which they never received in school. Imagine having to learn two or three years extra work in addition to your freshman year coursework. This is why so many students drop out.
I am not talking about conditions of my generation; I am talking about today’s generation. Yesterday, I heard a young man (11th grader) complaining about the math courses at his school: he said that he is still receiving that same level of math that he had in 8th grade. “It never changes.” We are still not being properly equipped to compete on a level playing field.
Back in December, when the Supreme Court held oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, we started a robust reader debate on affirmative action in Notes. (You can peruse it from the beginning here.) In a 4-3 decision this morning, the court upheld UT-Austin’s program for increasing student diversity partly based on race. The ruling is a “substantial defeat” for opponents of affirmative action, says Garrett Epps. On the deciding swing vote:
For the first time in his judicial career, Kennedy gave his approval to a race-based affirmative-action program. And he did so in an opinion that clearly reaffirmed the constitutional rationale for such programs first enunciated by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the 1978 case of Regents of University of California v. Bakke and reaffirmed by the court majority in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger.
Yet: “Kennedy was careful to clothe his opinion in narrow language that appeared to leave larger questions open. Thus, a nine-justice court (if such a unicorn is ever found in the wild) might one day reconsider the issue.” That would be just fine with this reader:
We still need affirmative action right now. BUT if we ever want to gain true equality, benefits based on race will have to go, just the same as racial degradation needs to go. Nobody can deny that someday soon affirmative action will be gone.
When would that be—by what metric? If you’re a backer of affirmative action and want to tackle that question, please drop us a note. This reader suspects the policy will never be phased out:
AA used to be justified as a tool to achieve equality, or to redress past wrongs. Now the justification has shifted: It is now a tool used to make sure that classes are diverse, regardless of whether all the applicants are on a level playing field. This ruling ensures that affirmative action is now a permanent fixture of American colleges.
But this next reader points to where AA is not a fixture at all:
I’m so glad I live in a state like California where we understand that race should not matter in college admissions [due to Proposition 209, approved by votes in 1996]. And with a colorblind system, we have a majority non-white state college system. The California experience pretty much shows that affirmative action is unnecessary in getting non-white minorities into college.
Here’s a statistical chronology of that “majority non-white state college system”:
In California, the state’s flagship, nine-school University of California system announced an eye-opening milestone: that it has admitted more Latino students (29 percent) than whites (27 percent) for the 2014 academic year.
Update from another reader in California:
On the surface, Kennedy’s opinion seems to make sense, as each school can best decide the makeup of the institution and can include race as a factor to address diversity at their particular school. But this decision also brings up some troubling questions. What about diversity of religion? Or age? Females have surpassed males in most undergrad programs. [From that 2014 US News piece: “Women now making up about 57 percent of all college students, an exponential gain compared to around 40 percent in the 1970s, according to the NCES.”] Should being a man be of benefit to the admissions process? Political bent? Sexual orientation?
I don’t know that there’s a slippery slope, but it seems to me that there certainly could be.
Last week, in the wake of the SCOTUS decision upholding the use of racial preferences at UT-Austin, I posed a question to readers who back affirmative action: When, under what standards or metric, should the policy be phased out in the future, if ever?
For her part, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in her pro-AA opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), famously stated that “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.” See below for a 2006 policy paper that estimated whether that 25-year standard is attainable.
I think when affirmative action should end, we’ll all know it should end.
Only a generation ago for many of us, the idea of someone being a doctor or lawyer wasn’t realistic; it was an almost completely alien idea for our parents and an almost a complete uncertainty for our grandparents. Diversity is codeword now for affirmative action, but it’s more than that. It’s often mocked, but it’s an ideal that a truly free country, the people at the top will match the people in society. If that discrepancy isn’t fixed, it’s a clear stain on the idea that all men are created equal. [CB: That idea was stained from the beginning, of course, in a very different way.] How can we as a people proclaim that America is free land of equal opportunity if people of darker skin are continually worse economically and socially?
Update from a reader, who snarks: “I agree that Korean college students should atone for the sins of the South,” suggesting that Asian American students are disadvantaged by AA policies. (For more on that aspect of the debate, see Alia’s newest piece, “Asian Americans and the Future of Affirmative Action.”)
Another reader points to the existence of private racial jokes as the reason to continue AA in perpetuity:
Perhaps if all Southern land owners had their property confiscated and redistributed to slaves after the Civil War, then we would not have had segregation and the generational problems of racism we do today. However, that’s not what happened, and affirmative action should continue until, for instance, folks like Meg Whitman’s racist son calling people ni**ers in public is no longer a common occurrence. [CB: This claim apparently stems from anonymous rumors posted by Gawker in 2009.] As long as the public face of white people is to smile while cracking racist jokes in private, there should be affirmative action.
Update from a reader on that excerpt: “No. You are demanding perfection from all people at all times in all places.” This next reader makes “a key distinction”:
Affirmative action is NOT about equality but rather about equity. Equality is about treating everyone the same, whereas equity is about meeting folks where they are at.
And face it: Today in America your race and class (and gender) intersect in troublesome ways that dictate your ability to earn in a lifetime and what type of education you will achieve. Off the top of my head, HBCUs are 70 percent women. [CB: Actually the best number I could find was 63 percent, in 2013, up from 53 percent in 1976.] Black men just aren’t in higher education. There are a lot of social issues preventing this, but there are strongly inequitable patterns that persist among racial and ethnic groups today. We are a long way off from parity.
I think the rush to judgement on affirmative action is that the piece of the pie feels a teensy bit smaller for white, cis-men. And frankly, without diversity and equity, we are a long way off from excellence in a civil society that holds itself to be the best in the world. Democracy and its engagement thereof cannot exist to its fullest extent without diversity and equity.
So I guess affirmative action should end when there is equity, but I also don’t believe our system allows us to be equitable. But that’s another post for another day.
Update from a pro-AA reader who bristles at the image seen above:
That image illustrates the worst possible misunderstanding of AA—that it’s about giving unqualified people a leg up into institutions they are not qualified for. AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.
I’m for AA. I just think that it should be tweaked and updated to some degree. Exactly how I don’t know, but I’d like it to lean more towards seeing the socio-economic identities of those we’re trying to help, rather than just race/gender—which, due to the successes of AA, has become a bit of an anachronism.
I also think we need to be honest about what the controversy is about: It sacrifices individuals of a certain Group to benefit other individuals of another Group, because we are concerned about larger lack of representation of the latter Group. But it does choose winners and losers based on race and sex. It may be for high-minded purposes, but it does just that.
Update from a reader who takes issue with that one:
“AA is about letting fully qualified people into an institution whose only block to entry is some prejudice towards them.” That is just empirically not true. At least in college admissions, the preferences given are enormous—so large that colleges fight to the last to avoid disclosing just how large they are. According to the LA Times, citing a Princeton Study, “African Americans received a ‘bonus’ of 230 [SAT] points… Hispanics received a bonus of 185 points… Asian Americans, [college prep entrepreneur Ann Lee] says, are penalized by 50 points.”
230 SAT points on the 1600 point scale is a staggering bonus—not just a finger on the scale, but an anvil. To claim two candidates whose SAT scores differ by 230 or 185 points are equally qualified is extraordinarily disingenuous.
From Dave, a reader in Texas:
To put it simplistically, of course affirmative action should end, but not until the conditions that cause it to be necessary are gone. In other words, not for a long damned time.
Update from a reader who replies to Dave:
Unfortunately, those “conditions” keep getting redefined. Apparently, everyone is a racist now, even if we don’t know it.
This next reader would probably agree with that sentiment, and overall he thinks AA has become too institutionalized and incentivized to ever go away:
I suspect that affirmative action—at least the philosophy behind it—is so firmly embedded in our society that we’ll never be rid of it. Apparently we’re all ok with the idea of a permanent subclass within society that simply can’t succeed on their own without assistance. Now there is an entire industry based on affirmative action including specialists in AA law, AA HR compliance, support groups, housing specialists, finance, and even politicians. When you make your living working with affirmative action, the entire country looks like a klan rally.
If you want to jump into this debate, please email hello@.
We conclude that under reasonable assumptions, African American students will continue to be substantially underrepresented among the most qualified college applicants for the foreseeable future. The magnitude of the underrepresentation is likely to shrink—in our most optimistic simulation, somewhat over half of the gap that would be opened by the elimination of race preferences will be closed by the projected improvement in black achievement.
Still, it seems unlikely that today’s level of racial diversity will be achievable without some form of continuing affirmative action. If the Supreme Court follows through with O’Connor’s stated intention to ban affirmative action in 25 years, and if colleges do not adjust in other ways (such as reducing the importance of numerical qualifications to admissions), we project substantial declines in the representation of African Americans among admitted students at selective institutions.
Why have Republican leaders abandoned their principles in support of an immoral and dangerous president?
On a cold March afternoon in 1949, Wolfgang Leonhard slipped out of the East German Communist Party Secretariat, hurried home, packed what few warm clothes he could fit into a small briefcase, and then walked to a telephone box to call his mother. “My article will be finished this evening,” he told her. That was the code they had agreed on in advance. It meant that he was escaping the country, at great risk to his life.
Though only 28 years old at the time, Leonhard stood at the pinnacle of the new East German elite. The son of German Communists, he had been educated in the Soviet Union, trained in special schools during the war, and brought back to Berlin from Moscow in May 1945, on the same airplane that carried Walter Ulbricht, the leader of what would soon become the East German Communist Party.
The best way to grasp the magnitude of what we’re seeing is to look for precedents abroad.
Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump has indulged his authoritarian instincts—and now he’s meeting the common fate of autocrats whose people turn against them. What the United States is witnessing is less like the chaos of 1968, which further divided a nation, and more like the nonviolent movements that earned broad societal support in places such as Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia, and swept away the dictatorial likes of Milošević, Yanukovych, and Ben Ali.
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
In an extraordinary condemnation, the former defense secretary backs protesters and says the president is trying to turn Americans against one another.
James Mattis, the esteemed Marine general who resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018 to protest Donald Trump’s Syria policy, has, ever since, kept studiously silent about Trump’s performance as president. But he has now broken his silence, writing an extraordinary broadside in which he denounces the president for dividing the nation, and accuses him of ordering the U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis writes. “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.” He goes on, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
As China comes into greater conflict with the West, now is a good time to consider the long arc of the relationship.
As China comes into greater conflict with the West, and the United States in particular, now is a good time to consider the long arc of this relationship. In the West, Chinese history is commonly framed as having begun with the first Opium War, giving the impression that European powers always had the upper hand. But from the first direct contact between East and West—the arrival of the Portuguese in south China in the early 16th century—the Chinese were dominant.
In 1517, they appeared near the famed trading haven of Guangzhou, strange and unruly barbarians in wooden sailing ships. The language they spoke was an unintelligible mystery, their eight vessels puny by the standards of Zheng He’s treasure junks, and their ultimate origins a bit hazy. But like all other seaborne ruffians, they wanted to trade for the rich silks and the other wonders of China. The Chinese came to call them folangji, a generic term used at the time to refer to Europeans. More specifically, they were the Portuguese, and they were the first Europeans to sail all the way to China.
Police departments have enormous budgets. Are we getting what we pay for?
City and state balance sheets are in serious trouble after the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. As local governments are making decisions about budget cuts, some protesters have a suggestion: defund the police.
The sociologist Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, joins Atlantic staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells to explain the research and nuance behind the idea, on the podcast Social Distance.
Listen to the episode here:
Subscribe to Social Distance on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or another podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they’re published.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: I’m just going to lay the groundwork for our conversation: About half of state revenues come from sales tax. And we know that, because of the pandemic and all of these closures, state revenues are way down. State and city governments typically have to have balanced budgets. They’re going to have to find a lot of stuff to cut. The thing that almost never gets cut in moments like these is police budgets. Police budgets are massive. A lot of these are proposed budgets, so just keep that in mind: The Oakland Police Department receives nearly half of the city’s discretionary spending. That is more than human services, parks and recreation, and transportation combined. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, passed its budget in December, and it increased its budget for police by $10 million to a total of $193 million. Here’s what they’re spending on other things: $31 million for affordable housing; $250,000 for community organizations working with at-risk youth; $400,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Clyde Ross was born in 1923, the seventh of 13 children, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the blues. Ross’s parents owned and farmed a 40-acre tract of land, flush with cows, hogs, and mules. Ross’s mother would drive to Clarksdale to do her shopping in a horse and buggy, in which she invested all the pride one might place in a Cadillac. The family owned another horse, with a red coat, which they gave to Clyde. The Ross family wanted for little, save that which all black families in the Deep South then desperately desired—the protection of the law.
In the 1920s, Jim Crow Mississippi was, in all facets of society, a kleptocracy. The majority of the people in the state were perpetually robbed of the vote—a hijacking engineered through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob. Between 1882 and 1968, more black people were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
Demonstrators are hammering on a hollowed-out structure, and it very well may collapse.
The urban unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s was more intense than the days and nights of protest since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman. More people died then, more buildings were gutted, more businesses were ransacked. But those years had one advantage over the present. America was coming apart at the seams, but it still had seams. The streets were filled with demonstrators raging against the “system,” but there was still a system to tear down. Its institutions were basically intact. A few leaders, in and outside government, even exercised some moral authority.
In July 1967, immediately after the riots in Newark and Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a commission to study the causes and prevention of urban unrest. The Kerner Commission—named for its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois—was an emblem of its moment. It didn’t look the way it would today. Just two of the 11 members were black (Roy Wilkins, the leader of the NAACP, and Edward Brooke, a Republican senator from Massachusetts); only one was a woman. The commission was also bipartisan, including a couple of liberal Republicans, a conservative congressman from Ohio with a strong commitment to civil rights, and representatives from business and labor. It reflected a society that was deeply unjust but still in possession of the tools of self-correction.
America needs to rethink its priorities for the whole criminal-justice system.
What are the police for? Why are we paying for this?
The death of George Floyd and the egregious, unprovoked acts of police violence at the peaceful protests following his death have raised these urgent questions. Police forces across America need root-to-stem changes—to their internal cultures, training and hiring practices, insurance, and governing regulations. Now a longtime demand from social-justice campaigners has become a rallying cry: Defund the police. This is in one sense a last-resort policy: If cops cannot stop killing people, and black people in particular, society needs fewer of them. But it is also and more urgently a statement of first principles: The country needs to shift financing away from surveillance and punishment, and toward fostering equitable, healthy, and safe communities.
To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.
Ibram X. Kendi and Yoni Appelbaum will discuss policing, protests, and this moment in history, live at 2 p.m. ET on June 4. Register for The Big Story EventCast here.
It happened three months before the lynching of Isadora Moreley in Selma, Alabama, and two months before the lynching of Sidney Randolph near Rockville, Maryland.
On May 19, 1896, TheNew York Times allocated a single sentence on page three to reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Constitutionalizing Jim Crow hardly made news in 1896. There was no there there. Americans already knew that equal rights had been lynched; Plessy was just the silently staged funeral.