ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, our Friday political conversation with columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both here.
E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to see you.
SIEGEL: Since we're hearing about Baltimore, let's stay there. And I want to start with this - these are the three most intense, deeply held grievances that an investigation found were causes of disorders in the black neighborhoods of several American cities. Number one - police practices. Number two - unemployment and underemployment. Number three - inadequate housing. The investigation was that of the the Kerner Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson formed to look into the race riots of 1967. The question is how much have things changed in almost 50 years? David, let's start with you.
BROOKS: Well, they certainly are right about the police brutality. To read about what these cops allegedly did to Gray, it's a bit nauseating. They essentially cuffed him and let him bounce around in the back of the car. Nobody would do that to anybody. So that's still there. The unemployment is still there. And the - I forget what the third...
SIEGEL: Housing, housing.
BROOKS: My Rick Perry moment.
SIEGEL: But inadequate education was the next and poor recreation facilities came after that.
BROOKS: And so I would say all those things are still true, but other things - and the problems were deeper and worse than even the Kerner Commission knew. And so the Kerner Commission didn't properly anticipate the incredible explosion in crime that afflicted urban America in the ensuing years. They had - they didn't anticipate - though Daniel Patrick Moynihan did - the breakdown of the family. And so, a lot of the policies that were put in place after the Kerner Commission, a lot of the anti-poverty programs, including some really intensive ones in Sandtown, where gray lived, had disappointing results because the problems were even worse or have gotten worse than the Kerner Commission anticipated.
SIEGEL: E J, your reaction?
DIONNE: Well, I think the big thing that got worse since the Kerner Commission is what's happened to old, industrial towns like Baltimore, which used to have large numbers of well-paying, blue-collar jobs. Bethlehem Steel was there. GM was there. The old Martin Marietta had a big firm there. And what's happened in the inner city, as William J. Wilson, one of the great scholars of poverty and racial injustice in our country - what's happened in the inner city is a disappearance of ladders of opportunity that actually existed at the time of the Kerner Commission. Wilson is very attentive to the problems of family breakdown that David mentioned, but he also argues that when work disappears - the title of one of his books - you have a whole series of other problems. And so I think Baltimore illustrates this and, obviously, the continuing problems in relations between the police and African-Americans.
BROOKS: Well, let's see if E J and I can bridge the divide. The classic debate on this subject is the conservative - that is me - I talk about the breakdown of the family. I talk about culture, drugs, crime and the weakening of social fabric. And the liberal talks about the jobs. Let's see if we can agree that they're both true (laughter).
BROOKS: And I think they both are true. It's a complex mixture of cultural and economic things that have had the feedback loop. But I would say, stepping forward, how you got into the problem is different than getting out of the problem. Getting out of the problem, I would say, we probably do need a bunch of infrastructure jobs and a bunch of jobs from government or somewhere else that will give people the economic opportunity to make men marry-able, basically. But when half - in Gray's neighborhood, half the kids are not showing up to high school on a given day. And that's a much deeper problem that requires probably a piece of cultural fixing.
DIONNE: And I just want to say, I am very happy that David put it that way because the problem with simply focusing on the culture is that it overlooks the huge economic problems that create the cultural problems. If we could actually get serious about both, we might get somewhere. My worry is, as President Obama said, we go back to business as usual about two weeks from now when this story fades.
SIEGEL: One more Kerner Commission reference. They observed frustrated hopes - this is back in 1967 - frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the civil rights movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South. In other words, a kind of revolution of rising expectations. Do you think the Obama election might be a similar factor these days that, perhaps, people had unfulfilled expectations of how great things would be after an African-American president was elected?
DIONNE: I think African-Americans are very realistic about the problems confronting the country and their own neighborhoods in their own parts of the country. But I do think there were very high expectations after President Obama. But what you have are episodes that we are finally noticing that are touching these events off. And you can't separate this from what happened to Freddie Gray.
BROOKS: Yeah. That doesn't quite feel right to me. I think the problems with areas of concentrated poverty, whether African-American, white, Latino or whatever, is complete detachment from the rest of society. And so people feel very alienated from the power structures. They feel detached from the jobs. And so it doesn't feel like it was rising expectations, but just a complete absence of seeing a way out for a lot of people.
SIEGEL: OK. One other item in politics this week, the announcement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, a self-described socialist who will challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination from the left - the perfect sparring partner for Hillary Clinton, E J?
DIONNE: Well, I actually think that, unless he gets so many votes that Hilary's in trouble, Bernie Sanders could be good for Hillary Clinton by focusing the campaign more on economic issues. Let's list two names who we don't get to talk about, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. This is the most serious socialist candidacy for president since they ran. But Bernie Sanders has a long list of particulars that he wants to put on the table. And I think by shifting the campaigns to economics, he will generally help Democrats.
SIEGEL: David Brooks?
BROOKS: Yeah. And if she's going to have an opponent on the left, it might as well be a guy who's unelectable.
BROOKS: So that helps. And he'll be a cult figure though. If you look at cult figures though, like Ron Paul, Eugene McCarthy, they're sort of crusty, older guys. For some reason, that attracts the youth.
DIONNE: God bless the young people, I say.
SIEGEL: OK. Well, thanks to both of you, David Brooks of The New York Times, E J Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution.
DIONNE: Thank you.
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