Ineffective and dishonest politicians have used racism as a shield from criticism for half a century.
To make sense of President Trump’s dust-up with Rep. Elijah Cummings, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Party, you have to go back to Baltimore in April 1968, when the city was overwhelmed by a riot in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The National Guard and city police proved unable to contain the situation. Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro III, Mrs. Pelosi’s elder brother, pleaded with President Lyndon B. Johnson to send in federal troops.
In 1968 Maryland hadn’t yet been absorbed by the wealth of Washington. It was still a semi-Southern state, lying below the Mason-Dixon Line. Republican Spiro Agnew—later Richard Nixon’s vice president—had been elected governor in 1966 over a segregationist Democratic nominee. In the black areas of West and East Baltimore, the King assassination triggered four days of rioting and looting.
The conflict was so fierce that the Baltimore police, 500 state troopers and 6,000 National Guardsmen were unable to quell it. Finally the “insurrection” was halted when Johnson deployed nearly 5,000 Army troops at Agnew’s request. By the time it was over, six people were dead. Mr. D’Alesandro, who had considered running for governor, was so humiliated by the rioting in a city where his father has been mayor before him that he decided to withdraw from elective politics.
Earlier that year, the Johnson administration reluctantly released the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission. The report wasn’t to LBJ’s liking because it implied that his Great Society was an insignificant down payment on racial redress. The presidential panel—assembled to explain the 1967 race riots in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Newark, N.J.—should have been called the Lindsay Commission, after its vice chairman, New York Mayor John Lindsay. America’s racial problems, the report claimed, could be singularly attributed to white racism: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Over time, the Kerner Commission’s view of racism became gospel in the media, academia and the Democratic Party. An intellectual Iron Curtain descended to protect black politicians—including ineffective ones like Mr. Cummings and even con men like the Rev. Al Sharpton —by denouncing their critics as racist.
President Trump’s boorish manner tends to obscure a hard-to-swallow reality: He often has a point. The failures of LBJ’s War on Poverty are increasingly visible to anyone who cares to look. To paraphrase the philosopher Ernest Gellner, some failed practices can’t be reconsidered, because they already shape the way we think.
Mr. Trump follows the example of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who provoked an avalanche of media hostility in 1995 when he mocked Rep. Charles Rangel for seeming indifference to the decline of his Harlem district. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani was disparaged as a racist. But he wasn’t wrong, and his efforts helped inspire the revival of Harlem’s main shopping stretch on 125th Street.
Mr. Cummings served in the Maryland House of Delegates for 13 years and has been in Congress since 1996, to little local benefit. Mr. Trump was condemned for a tweet describing Mr. Cummings’s district as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Critics focused especially on the word “infested.” But in a 1999 congressional hearing, Mr. Cummings said: “This morning, I left my community of Baltimore, a drug-infested area.”
Washington’s efforts to revive Baltimore have enriched local politicians but left the city in far worse shape than Mr. Rangel’s Harlem. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—the Obama stimulus—poured $1.8 billion into Baltimore with no discernible effect. The 2015 antipolice riots made matters worse.
The author Ta-Nehesi Coates, who is celebrated by the left, grew up not far from West Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, where the 2015 riots began. Although Mr. Coates has written that he lived in fear of street toughs as a teen, he has a largely positive view of the “crews” that act as if they own West Baltimore. His aim, in part, is to free gang-ridden areas from the malign grip of white standards and the “brutal acts of the city’s police department” that are the necessary and logical expression, as Mr. Coates sees it, of those values. In a “keep off our turf” version of belligerent multiculturalism, the police are assumed to be both the source of black criminality and an expression of white values. This is so even when the police department and city government are led by African-Americans, as they are in Baltimore.
Hostility to the police has “Charm City” near collapse. Baltimore has the highest murder rate of any big city in America. It has gone through four police commissioners and three mayors since 2016.
Lindsay’s insistence that white racism is the source of America’s urban problems has mutated in the half-century since the Kerner Report. Among its grotesque modern variations are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ’s relentless apologies for her “white privilege,” the media-enforced prohibition on criticism of Mr. Cummings, and the lionization of Mr. Sharpton as “a champion in the fight for civil rights” (in the words of Joe Biden ) who “has dedicated his life to the fight for justice for all” ( Elizabeth Warren ) and “has spent his life fighting for what’s right and working to improve our nation” ( Kamala Harris ).
Meanwhile, West Baltimore continues to spiral downward. Neither billions of federal dollars nor attacks on Donald Trump will do anything to stem its decline.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Fred Siegel is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images