In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission, and asked its members to identify and analyze the social forces and dysfunctions that had triggered a national epidemic of inner-city riots in the 1960s.
Unhappy with the findings and the flaws they revealed in his “Great Society” agenda, Johnson ultimately distanced himself from the Kerner Report, even refusing to sign thank you cards to the commissioners.
The most famous paragraph, of course, was the one that warned “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The report was an indictment of white America:
What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.
As an article from the Smithsonian recently put it, the Commission’s inquiry identified those “white institutions”: bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other “culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination” that had converged and triggered violent upheavals, primarily in African-American neighborhoods of American cities.
And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.
Rereading the report, it is stunning to realize how much hasn’t changed, especially the escalation of violence caused by policing practices.
Far too many of the “institutions” the Kerner Report identified still persist, half a century later. Thanks to cell phone cameras, America has almost daily evidence of bad policing. A robust academic criminal justice literature documents the flaws in our justice system. Redlining and other discriminatory banking practices continue, although somewhat abated. Housing issues persist. And vote suppression has become more sophisticated and–if anything–more widespread.
That said, there are some striking and hopeful differences in the eruptions we are currently experiencing. For one thing, the crowds on the streets are multi-cultural and largely peaceful. For another, polling reflects widespread public support for Black Lives Matter and for measures to (finally) address the issues first identified by the Kerner Commission.
Also hopeful (yes, I know–hope “springs eternal”) is growing recognition of the structural nature of racism. The Kerner Report was prescient in its use of the term “institutions.”
Racism isn’t just Neo-Nazi rioters chanting “they shall not replace us,” or the KKK burning a cross, or the refusal of a business to hire or serve “those people.” It isn’t confined to overt bad behaviors or bigoted personal attitudes.
Racism is implicated in our acceptance of mass incarceration, our failure to notice, let alone protest, social stereotypes, the widespread trust in– and easy acceptance of– official versions of police interactions that turned violent or deadly. It’s reflected in acceptance of the way we finance public education–methods that ensure that affluent areas will have well-resourced schools while schools in poorer areas will struggle. It’s the reason for the persistent animus and political pushback against efforts to strengthen the social safety net–the reason Americans sneer at poor people, especially poor people of color, who accept “welfare,” while applauding the real recipients of welfare– the “captains of industry” who lobby for and profit from obscenely large subsidies.
In a particularly pertinent observation, the Kerner Report deplored the practice of arming police officers with more deadly weapons. Instead, it recommended “a policy which combines ghetto enrichment with programs designed to encourage integration of substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto.”
It wasn’t just President Johnson who rejected the findings. Overall white response to the Kerner Report was hostile. According to the Smithsonian article,
White response to the Kerner Commission helped to lay the foundation for the law-and-order campaign that elected Richard Nixon to the presidency later that year. Instead of considering the full weight of white prejudice, Americans endorsed rhetoric that called for arming police officers like soldiers and cracking down on crime in inner cities.
Fifty years later, white America cannot afford to make the same mistake.