“The essential report of the Kerner Commission” connects the past and the present, but reduces the committee process

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James Thornton Harris is editor-in-chief of History News Network. For more information see www.JamesThorntonHarris.com.

President Lyndon Johnson with members of the Kerner Commission, 1967.

“Not everything that is faced cannot be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.” –James Baldwin, 1962.

In February 1968, with the release of the landmark Kerner Commission report, white America had the opportunity to recognize the fact of four centuries of systemic racism. He turned away.

Officially titled The National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, but popularly known for its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the group’s report was released on March 1, 1968. The report concluded that a series of riots downtown areas (eg Watts, Newark, Detroit) were the result of pervasive discrimination in employment and housing caused by “white racism”, shocked the country.

The report blinded President Lyndon Johnson, who appointed the committee in July 1967. He hoped the committee would recognize his administration’s civil rights programs, call for new federal programs, and blame “outside agitators,” perhaps led by communists, for urban violence. .

Instead, the report warned that our nation “is heading towards two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”

He then attributed the problem of pervasive discrimination against black citizens to “white racism,” one of the first times the term had appeared in an official document.

He concluded, “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what blacks can never forget – is that white society is deeply involved in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions nurture it, and white society approves of it.

This startling conclusion – that the so-called “Negro problem” was in fact a problem of white racism – instantly made headlines on TV news, newspapers and magazines. Bantam Books printed the full 680-page report in paperback form and sold 700,000 copies in a matter of weeks.

Sadly, the report was quickly forgotten as the nation fell into chaos during the turbulent year of 1968. The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King on April 4 sparked a new round of riots in dozens of cities. . On June 6, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was killed after winning the California primary. All the while, the Vietnam War was raging, with 17,000 American troops dead in that year alone. In November, Richard Nixon was elected president; his administration quietly began to dismantle many social programs of the Johnson era.

A new version of the report

Now, 53 years later, the 1968 report has been republished in an abridged version titled The essential report of the Kerner Commission. The 2021 edition comes with an 18-page introduction by Jelani Cobb, a black editor at The New Yorker and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism.

Cobb, together with Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst, summarized the original long report into a more accessible 250-page version. In the introduction to the new book and in a six-page frequently asked questions appendix, they linked the findings of the original report to recent events, particularly the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the rise of Black Lives Matter, George’s death in 2020 Floyd.

Cobb notes that the Kerner Report the findings “exist alongside those of the Warren and 9/11 commissions among the handful of government reports whose historic significance has survived the time they were published.”

While the new book’s introductory and FAQ sections do a good job of framing Kerner’s conclusions for the contemporary reader, their brevity leaves out much of the reason Johnson chose the 11-member commission and how they deliberated before reaching their astonishing conclusions. .

Readers interested in learning more about these issues can turn to Separate and unequal: the Kerner Commission and the crumbling of American liberalism (2018) by Steven M. Gillon, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.

Like the Gillon document, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the commission in July 1967, just days after the Detroit riots ended. Announcing his training, Johnson said he was looking for a “genuine long-term solution” to end the problems black Americans face, including “discrimination, slums, poverty and not enough jobs.” Secretly, he hoped the commission would also find out that the series of urban riots that broke out in half a dozen northern towns were caused by “outside agitators” and that a new set of government programs could be a panacea.

The commission, headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, was made up of eight white men, one white woman, and two black leaders: US Senator Edward Brooke (R-Massachusetts) and Roy Wilkins, director of the NAACP. White political leaders included Kerner, US Senator Fred Harris (D-OK) and New York Mayor John Lindsay.

When the commission finally released its report 10 months later, it blinded Johnson. Instead of praising the administration for its civil rights work, he foresightedly warned that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mix in cities across the country.”

The Kerner report criticized the city’s police services, denouncing “police brutality and harassment”. He called for the hiring of more black officers and the creation of community police review boards.

The report also blamed the country’s media, which he said were essentially an all-male, all-white fraternity. As a result, almost all media coverage of the black community “reflects the prejudices, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”

On March 1, 1968, the day the report was officially released, President Johnson made a last-minute trip to Texas. For weeks, he said nothing publicly about it, while privately unleashed that commission politicians stabbed him in the back.

In the short term, the report contributed to a “white backlash” against the demands of the black community. Opinion polls found that 53% of whites condemned the conclusion that racism was the root of the problem of black poverty and discontent; 58% of blacks supported the findings.

Today, the report seems prescient in its conclusions about the causes of black frustration and the role of systemic racism in the nation’s economic and social policies.

During the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leans toward justice.”

The Kerner Report did a little push on the arc. Had it not been overshadowed by political assassinations, a bloody war, and the election of Richard Nixon, it might have garnered more attention and led to earlier recognition among the white population of the problem of systemic racism. .


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