Growing Up in the Cauldron of 1960's Detroit - Robert Johnson on Reality Asserts Itself (pt 1/8)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on June 8, 2014. Mr. Johnson, who, while working with George Soros, “broke the Bank of England,” talks about growing up in the turmoil of racial tension and the mass movement against the Vietnam War.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: … Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore, welcome to another episode of Reality Asserts Itself.

The role of finance in the world today is overpowering–overpowers politics, overpowers the media, overpowers just about everything. And that’s what this series of interviews is more or less going to be about. Is that something that’s controllable? How could that be changed?

And joining us is a man who’s been on the inside and on the outside criticizing it, is Rob Johnson, who now joins us in the studio.

Thanks for joining us, Rob.


JAY: So Rob is the president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and a senior fellow and director of the Global Finance Project for the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in New York. He recently served on the United Nations commission of experts on international monetary reform under the chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

In the past he’s done many things, but that it also–.

In the past he’s had many different careers, one of which was he served as chief economist of the U.S. Senate Banking Committee. He was also senior economist of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. Robert was also a managing director at Soros Fund Management, where he managed a global currency, bond, and equity portfolio, specializing in emerging markets. He’s also one of the men who broke the Bank of England.

Thanks for joining us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

JAY: Now, we’re going to get back to the story of one of the men who broke the Bank of England, but, as everybody knows who watches Reality Asserts Itself, we start with personal biographical story, and then we move on into some of the issues. And so that’s what we’re going to do now.

So your story, Rob, starts in Detroit [incompr.] about the household you grow up in, what was the political atmosphere and some of the early experiences that shaped the way you looked at the world and look at the world?

JOHNSON: Sure. My father was a physician from a family in Chicago of physicians who had had a role in inner-city hospitals. And he had a downtown practice, largely African-American employees and African-American patients. He was also a professor at Wayne State University and a jazz pianist who played semi-professionally and was often–at his funeral, they said he was a physician who did music on the side, and that was probably a mistake.

JAY: Now, that’s quite a choice in Detroit, to choose to have a mostly black clientele and black staff, because like Baltimore, where we are, Detroit’s a rather apartheid city.

JOHNSON: Well, in the downtown, in the city proper, the black people are the majority. And so in that respect it’s not unusual.

JAY: It’s a choice to practice there rather than–.

JOHNSON: But the choice to practice there rather than in the suburbs or up in Pontiac or Troy or one of those places was a deliberate choice on my father’s part.

JAY: Yeah. What drove that choice?

JOHNSON: I think his heritage, his father’s role during the Depression as a physician in downtown or, you know, South Side, West Side of Chicago. I think he was following in his father’s footsteps in that regard.

My mother was a choral singer who also worked with the development department of the symphony in Detroit. She’s originally from Cleveland, Ohio. And she was educated as a dietician at the University of Michigan. But she had a very what you might call philanthropic sensibility. Both my parents were Republicans with a noblesse oblige kind of sensibility about creating the space to be involved in community service.

JAY: That’s actually interesting, a Republican–now, Republicans of that day are quite different than the Republicans of this day, but even then, a Republican that chooses to work in downtown urban Detroit.

JOHNSON: Mhm. And he wouldn’t have been alone in that regard. As you said, the moderate Republicans were what I’ll call a Gerald Ford Republican, Gerald Ford also from Michigan, also a University of Michigan graduate. That was not unusual in Michigan at that time.

JAY: So what starts to shape you as you get a little older? And you’ve told me the story before of your paper route.

JOHNSON: I had a paper route that included union leaders and automotive executives, people like Douglas Fraser, people like Leonard Woodcock. And so when you’re delivering the paper in the morning, people want their paper early, they’ll give you bacon and eggs if you get the paper to them first. So I was hearing what you might call the war stories, the tales, the narratives about the world, about the city of Detroit from this labor management, independent entrepreneurs, manufacturers, representatives.

JAY: They’re all giving you bacon and eggs.

JOHNSON: Yeah, oh yeah, over time, over time.

And so I learned a great deal. I watched the turmoil in Detroit, the ’67 riots, the Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa.

JAY: How old are you during the ’67 riots?

JOHNSON: The ’67 riots I was ten years old.

JAY: What kind of impact–what did you understand about why they were taking place?

JOHNSON: I didn’t understand a great deal, other than I knew it was a black and white conflict. But I did hear gunshots at night sitting at home. I did see–and I lived in the suburbs about two blocks out of the city limit, at what they called /ˌɑːltər.ˈrʊld/–the Berlin Wall, according to The Wall Street Journal–which was the line between black and white, between the 7th Precinct of Detroit and the suburbs. They had sandbags, tanks, all lined up. You could feel political tension. As a ten-year-old boy, I could feel political tension.

JAY: Now, at ten I guess you didn’t understand it, but for people that don’t know what happened in that period, give us a bit of context.

JOHNSON: Detroit was an experience of black people coming north, particularly after the development of the cotton gin. Nicholas Lemann’s book The Promised Land is a fabulous story of the migration north of African Americans. Henry Ford believed that black people could be very substantial productive part of his vision of society. Their places of worship he helped subsidize the formation of. He brought them to the north just like Eastern Europeans and others were brought to Detroit. Detroit was a real melting pot. They said at one point there were more places of worship per square mile in Detroit than in any place in the world, ’cause all the different denominations were represented. And Ford had created this enthusiasm for everybody being part of society, and the black people were invited just like everyone else.

JAY: So what was ’67 about?

JOHNSON: Sixty-seven was about the fact that they were there, but there were lots of things, particularly in how the police treated black people, that were not, how you say, treating them with the same human regard as others. And so those tensions had boiled over.

There had been a group called the STRESS force in Detroit that the mayor had brought into the city, which were largely what you might call kind of wired-up people, many former Green Berets, many who had come out of Vietnam, acting as plainclothes vigilante policemen. And it–how would I say?–they took things out more on the black people by far than anyone else. So the notion of legitimacy and fairness of law enforcement was very much in question.

But you had the UAW there and you had the Teamsters there. You had the racial tensions there. Detroit was a real cauldron at the same time as the auto industry was at that point what you might call the engine of the American and the world economy, and centered there, too.

JAY: And it’s a city, as I said, like Baltimore, which was and still to a large extent is quite segregated.


JAY: And how much, as you’re becoming a teenager, do you become conscious of this kind of systemic racism?

JOHNSON: It started when I was very little. When I was in junior high school, I was the quarterback on our [incompr.] traveling little league football team. And, you know, our team’s all white guys, but lots of the teams in our league, like in Highland Park and other places in Detroit, are black teams. And so you kind of–you know the difference. You know that young black kids aren’t treated right at your local community pool when they come as the visitors. You know, my father had a number of black friends, other physicians and their children and so forth. When they’d be our guest, like, going out sailing with my dad, you could feel the tension, people sort of saying, why are you bringing these people out to the boat docks? The way in which, obviously, law enforcement handled the boundaries between the white suburbs and the black core if a wealthy, prosperous, say, black physician [incompr.] be a friend of my father’s wants to buy a home in Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Pointe, the more affluent suburbs, the way in which that didn’t happen [incompr.] through the brokerage community through discouragement. This was–it was profoundly there.

JAY: Now, you’re–.

JOHNSON: When I was a boy, in junior high school I played basketball, and my coach was on the high school team. And we really liked him, so I used to go to the high school games. We saw games ended because essentially fights broke out between the black and white players in some of these games and some of the fans that had to be stopped by the police. They just would stop. You know, what we were in was called the Border Cities League. There were groups from farming communities, groups from urban black communities, groups from the white suburbs, and every now and then you’d hit a flashpoint. And it–you know, these were serious fights. I mean, this was big brawls.

JAY: You also grew up at a time of the Vietnam War.


JAY: How did this–you’re growing up in a Republican household. What was the attitude of your family towards Vietnam War?

JOHNSON: I think my father, who had been in the United States Navy during the Korean War, had a certain romance about the military and service and obedience to authority, as many people did from the Second World War II, that earlier generation.

The younger generation, of course, people who were my age or just primarily a little bit older than me, guys that I would play touch football with and the like, these people did not have any faith in the government. They’d had no sense of what this mission was. And some of us experienced, you know, loss of friends, loss of older brothers. More importantly, we’d have people come back to the community after serving, and you could see the emotional traumas, what now they call post-traumatic stress disorder. And the cost of that war was felt very much in the streets and in the community, and also disproportionately by the black community.

JAY: In terms of your own belief in Americanism, you know, as you become a teenager and you’re kind of getting close to draft age, around near the end of the Vietnam War–I think you told me before that your number was called but you weren’t drafted. The draft was [crosstalk]

JOHNSON: Yeah, they had a lottery, but they didn’t invoke that year of the draft. They had ended it, ’cause by 1975 the war was over.

JAY: But just in terms of your own political development, your own outlook, is this a good war? This is a just war? Do you believe the official narrative of, you know, the support for the need to fight the encroachment of communism everywhere and all of this? I mean–.

JOHNSON: When I’m nine or ten years old, I’m really not conscious of good or bad [crosstalk]

JAY: But I’m talking more as you get into your teenage years.

JOHNSON: But as I get into my teen years, the idea that the government had done something that was illegitimate was more the tone of what the community felt–obviously in those days the music scene, you know, Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”, “something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear”; Neil Young’s “Four dead in Ohio” at the Kent State episode. We were not experiencing what you might call a lot of cultural transmission in favor of the war.

JAY: But your father was.

JOHNSON: My father was,–

JAY: Does that put you at odds with him?

JOHNSON: –in the early ’60s, loyal to the government and so forth. By the early ’70s, he thought the war was a mistake. He was not dogmatic in that respect. I think he evolved, whereas younger people were more suspicious earlier.

JAY: And, you know, most people grow up with a kind of faith in the official narrative that comes from school, often transmitted by parents and such, and then you get a little older, you start questioning the whole thing. When does that start happening for you?

JOHNSON: Oh, probably about 1970 or ’71. I got to know a man named John Sinclair, who was a leader of a kind of alternative culture in the Detroit metropolitan area, he ran a–I loved music, and he ran a blues club called the Rainbow Room. When I was underage, he’d let me come in and see some of the great blues men, you know, the Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, Lafayette Leake, and others. And his community, that vibe from that community was very much about music, very much rebellion, questioning authority, and so on. The proximity to that cultural milieu, some of the bookstores I went to, record shops, and so forth was very much in the anti-Vietnam tradition [sic].

JAY: Now, you start gravitating in your education.

So, around you, as you’re old enough at 14, 15 to be aware and there’s big protests against the Vietnam War, around the world there’s a kind of a revolutionary mood.

JOHNSON: The ROTC buildings were being bombed at Ann Arbor. The SDS was founded. You know, Tom Hayden and the like, and Ann Arbor, the Port Huron Statement, all these things are kind of percolating around you as a young person at that time. I used to go up to Ann Arbor, and largely to watch the football games when Michigan [incompr.] state. But you go to the record stores, you get the pamphlets that people are handing out, you can see the counterculture in Ann Arbor at that time. And, like I said, going down, making rounds with my dad, sitting and talking to the women that were, like, the nurses and assistants and some of the patients in his office, being around the music scene with my parents, there’s a lot of rumbling going on. And you’d have to have your ears completely closed not to hear.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to pick up this story in the next segment of our interview. So please join us for part two of our series of interviews with Rob Johnson on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

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Robert A. Johnson is the Executive Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and regularly contributes to NewDeal 2.0 with his “FinanceSeer Column.” He also formerly traded currency on Wall Street under George Soros.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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