The Answer Isn’t a Free Lunch

Protesters loot a store in Manhattan after marching against the death of George Floyd, June 1, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
If progressives know what’s good for cities such as Minneapolis, why have they done such a poor job governing them?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE W hat if they don’t want anything?

An NBC producer posted a piece of video early Tuesday morning that documented some of the looting in Manhattan, with the looters piling their loot into a Rolls-Royce Cullinan SUV, which goes for about a half-million dollars. (There’s a “base” model at about $350,000, but, the last time I checked, Rolls-Royce had never sold one.) There were some other pretty nice cars being driven by looters, too.

It is possible the Cullinan was stolen, though Rolls-Royces are hard to steal. (They even have a nifty antitheft device protecting their hood ornaments, once a popular target for thieves and vandals.) It took the world about three minutes to chase down Amy Cooper and bully her employer, Franklin Templeton, into firing her after that infamous Central Park confrontation. How many Cullinans are registered in the New York area? Fifty, maybe? It should be pretty easy to discover the owner of the one the looters were driving. That might be an illuminating investigation.

In Dallas, the looters hit (among many others) a shop called Traffic, which deals in very high-end designer clothes. (Think Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto, not Armani or Gucci.) Rough justice is expensive: a thousand bucks for a pair of sunglasses, three grand for a pair of sneakers. We have a very peculiar kind of proletariat here in these United States. Les Misérables and a crust of bread it ain’t.

We desperately want this to be about poverty, housing prices, unemployment, wages — anything that would provide us the opportunity to buy off the riots. That is not a dishonorable thing to do, necessarily, or an imprudent one, necessarily. We are a very, very rich society, and the best kind of problem for us to have is a problem that we can throw money at. If you’re a tough guy, you want every problem to be a fistfight. If you’re smart, you want every problem to be a brain-teaser. If you’re a lawyer, you want every problem to be a legal problem. If you have a great deal of money, you want every problem to be a financial problem. That only makes sense.

After the Watts riots, California governor Pat Brown insisted that the fundamental problem was black unemployment. The Ten-Point Program that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale produced in 1966 for the Black Panther Party was pretty heavy on economic demands: full employment (No. 2), “an end to the robbery by the capitalists” (No. 3), housing (No. 4), etc. The non-economic demands ran from the vague (“the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community” was the first item) to the specific: exempting black men from military service (No. 6) and releasing all incarcerated black men (No. 8). Newton and Seale even appealed to the Constitution, demanding that black Americans be tried only by juries composed of other black Americans.

The current convulsions in Minneapolis are not that city’s first. After the 1967 riots, a local civil-rights leader, John S. Hampton, took the opposite of Pat Brown’s economic line. (I will have a great deal more on this in the forthcoming issue of National Review on Friday.) Hampton said: “The primary issue in Minneapolis is not the jobs, or the police or housing or anything like this. It’s simply the hostility, the fear, frustration and the feeling of powerlessness which black people feel in an alien white society. . . . People start feeling like they’re living in an occupied country.”

That kind of melancholy is not economic in origin and not limited to poor people. And, indeed, many sons and daughters of privilege are prominent in the current disturbance: New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter was arrested in Manhattan, Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison’s son made a ridiculous ISIS-style public declaration of allegiance to Antifa, actor Cole Sprouse was picked up on the mean streets of Santa Monica and declared looting “an absolutely legitimate form of protest.”

There were some reforms implemented after the race riots of the 1960s, and standards of living for African Americans have improved: Real (inflation-adjusted) income is up by about a third for African Americans since 1965, and life expectancy has increased both in absolute terms and relative to whites. For a point of comparison, The Economist reports that in 1980 a black man born in Harlem was less likely to live 65 years than a man born in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. Many milestones have been passed, including the election and reelection of a black president. There are, of course, persistent disparities.

But here is something to keep in mind: The disparity in life expectancy between black men and white men was declining before the riots of the 1960s, after which it began to increase. The current relative increase in black life expectancies dates from the mid-1990s. The riots of the 1960s may have been a protest against poor conditions in urban life, but they made urban life much worse.

The current rioting and looting risks doing the same thing: Cities such as New York are extremely dependent upon a small number of very wealthy taxpayers — hooray for that progressive tax code. Rich people have options. If they go seeking safe haven, they take their tax dollars with them, which degrades municipal services and governance, which gives the middle class an incentive to move, at least to the suburbs. That’s what happened in American cities after the riots of the 1960s, and it wasn’t just old-line WASPs moving out: Detroit’s black middle class largely left the city, as did much of Washington’s. Minneapolis’s Jewish neighborhoods were left behind by Jewish residents (the riots there in 1967 had a distinctly anti-Jewish aspect), and Philadelphia’s white-ethnic immigrant communities got over the city limit as fast as they could — which turned out to be pretty fast. The people who were left behind were largely black and mostly poor.

The progressives — Pat Brown and the rest — thought they had the answers back in the 1960s. And they have had almost exclusive political control over cities such as Minneapolis for decades. There isn’t a single Republican on the Minneapolis city council and hasn’t been for decades. It is remarkable to see Democrats strutting around saying, “See, we were right all along!” against the background of a catastrophe that happened on their watch. This is not a petty partisan point — it raises a real question: If progressives know what’s good for cities such as Minneapolis, why have they done such a poor job governing them?

If the answer is something poorly defined and amorphous — capitalism, white privilege, inequality, etc. — then the answer may as well be imps or evil spirits or the Bilderberg group. Pat Brown thought the answer was free school lunches. We have those, and breakfast, too, but the discontent endures.

 

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