A Note from 1968

In 1968, while the “bully Barrs,” teenaged William Barr, his older brother and his two younger brothers, were pugnacious young conservatives in liberal New York City, sneering at and tangling with anti-war protesters (while, of course, not themselves serving in the war they supported [1]), a landmark government study of systemic American racism came out. This is from a recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled What the Tumultuous Year 1968 Can Teach Us About Today:

In late February 1968, the REPORT OF THE NATIONAL ADVISORY COMMISSION ON CIVIL DISORDERS indicted structural racism as the underlying cause of the terrible riots that had stretched from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission, led by the Illinois governor Otto Kerner and the New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, said. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”


“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.”

This 1968 conclusion seems pretty self-evident, still sickeningly true more than fifty years later, in spite of the relentless “culture war” being fought by reactionaries who insist history is not what it may appear to be, that America’s real problem is irrationally angry protesters who need to be controlled by a strong police anti-riot response.

This society, like others around the world, was at a turning point in 1968. Several strategic assassinations did their part to silence powerful voices and hobble the movement for needed social change. Power yields nothing without a struggle, as Frederick Douglass observed during the fight to abolish slavery here. Martin Luther King, Jr. put forth the argument (fatal for him) that racism, poverty and militarism are inextricably intertwined, three faces of the same monster.

As the Barrs were confronting and menacing hippie-types, the Kerner Commission found basically the same institutional forces that King had described. The far-right push against integration and full rights of citizenship for every American was already well underway by 1968, and the forces that would become more and more dominant over the years of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, etc.– and have become ascendant in the Republican party of today — was a tireless multigenerational push. Barr among the determined underdogs pushing hard for his point of view, from his earliest years, apparently.

Donald Trump is a racist and he doesn’t care to hide it, even as he brags (in the manner of the best racists everywhere) that he’s the “least racist person” anybody’s ever met. I don’t know if William Pelham Barr is a racist. It doesn’t really matter. Barr insists there’s no institutional racism in the United States, that very few unarmed blacks are killed by police, that blacks should show respect for the police if they expect protection, that militant anti-fascists are the real threat in America, not the armed gangs of white supremacists the FBI confirms have killed numerous Americans, as well as plotting organized terroristic violence against elected officials.

For a quick peek at Barr’s continual role in the “Culture War”, here’s a snapshot of Barr at work, from 1992. During his first stint as Attorney General he authored a widely criticized report called:

The Case for More Incarceration

In 1992, Barr authored a report, The Case for More Incarceration,[42] which argued for an increase in the United States incarceration rate, the creation of a national program to construct more prisons, and the abolition of parole release.[4] Barr argued that incarceration reduced crime, pointing to crime and incarceration rates in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1990.

A 1999 criminology study criticized Barr’s analysis, saying “so complex an issue as the relationship between crime and punishment cannot be addressed through so simplistic an analysis as a negative correlation between the two very aggregated time series of crime rates and incarceration rates.”[43] 

University of Minnesota criminologist Michael Tonry said the data in Barr’s report was deceptively presented; if Barr had chosen five-year intervals, then the data would not have supported Barr’s argument, and if Barr had chosen to look at violent crime specifically (as opposed to all crimes as a category), then the data would not have supported his argument.[44]

Barr said in the report, “The benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans”.[44] In the report, Barr approvingly quoted New Mexico Attorney General Hal Stratton, “I don’t know anyone [who] goes to prison on their first crime. By the time you go to prison, you are a pretty bad guy.”[45] Barr’s report influenced the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which aimed to increase the incarceration rate.[4]


I can picture the smug satisfaction on his big, provocative, culture warrior face as he typed “the benefits of increased incarceration would be enjoyed disproportionately by black Americans.” Enjoyed, you understand, in the always fresh sense of extreme right-wing humor, illustrated by the Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Liberates”) sign over the gates of a death camp where slave laborers were worked to death by corporations who signed on for the great labor deal.

Here is a brief summary of some of Barr’s early work for Mr. Trump (from October 2019). It includes Barr’s official attempt to squash the “urgent and credible” whistleblower complaint that would eventually lead to his client’s impeachment.

Barr essentially dismissed the findings of the two-year-long Mueller investigation. Barr has supported measures that could lead to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. He has apparently approved administration officials’ refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas. And lately, according to the Washington Post, Barr has been meeting with espionage officials from foreign governments, “seeking their help in a Justice Department inquiry that President Trump hopes will discredit U.S. intelligence agencies’ examination” of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential contest—a sign that Trump and Barr may be using “executive branch powers to augment investigations aimed primarily at the president’s adversaries.”

Amid this convulsion, Barr made headlines in September when it turned out that his Justice Department had downgraded a whistle-blower’s report, initially keeping it out of the loop that would have allowed Congress to review it. The complaint accused the president of potentially impeachable offenses, including a possible threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine unless the country’s leader began an investigation that might dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponent, Joe Biden. The whistle-blower’s account, which was deemed “urgent” and “credible” by the intelligence community’s Trump-appointed inspector general, alleged that the president had urged his Ukrainian counterpart to coordinate an internal Biden probe with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General William Barr.


The lines in New York City for early voting are hours long. Sekhnet got to her polling place almost two hours before the polls opened today, and waited twenty minutes to get in. The line was many blocks longer when she left the polling place the wait hours longer. Bring a book, some things to listen to, a folding chair, water. Waiting to vote is a one time inconvenience.

These motherfuckers have to go. It is long past time.


I don’t know for certain that no other bully Barr served in Vietnam, though I highly doubt any did. For his part, William Pelham Barr told senators, during his confirmation hearing to become Trump’s replacement Attorney General, that he hadn’t registered for the draft in 1968, the year he turned 18. He later wrote to the ranking members of the committee, to correct the record, explaining, with his trademark candor and reasonableness, that he “initially told lawmakers he had not registered because he is now too old for compulsory military service.” You know, and also, there hasn’t been a draft, or compulsory military service here in the USA, in many years.


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