‘An Honest Beginning’ With a Tragic End: The Legacy of the Kerner Report

In 1968, a commission identified white racism as the main cause of civil unrest. More than 50 years later, we're still wrestling with this finding.

May 25 2021, 4:00am
On May 25th a reckoning with systemic racism was reignited. It's still here — and so are we.

The first page of the 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—better known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—is one of the most important ever written in American political history. It doesn't espouse the lofty ideals of, say, the opening of the Declaration of Independence, nor is it as frequently referenced as the preamble to the Constitution. No high school student has ever been required to memorize it. There's a good chance you've never even heard of it. 

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That's because the Kerner Report, as it came to be known, was an accident, and no person with any influence over American affairs has wanted to remind you it exists. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the bipartisan commission of nine white people and two Black people—one of whom, Edward Brooke, was a moderate Republican senator from Massachusetts—to examine the causes of the 1967 unrest that left 83 people dead, mostly Black civilians in Newark and Detroit, in Black urban neighborhoods that had been ravaged by indiscriminate shooting from panicky National Guardsmen and police after widespread rioting. The commission was directed to answer three basic questions: What happened, why did it happen, and what could be done to prevent it from happening again?

Everybody, from President Johnson to Kerner to the stalwarts of the Democratic and Republican establishments, expected the report to tell them what they already knew. That is, after all, precisely why presidents, governors, and mayors appoint commissions and task forces: To tell them what they already know, long after anyone cares to do anything about it. 

The Kerner Commission was supposed to hit familiar beats. It was supposed to conclude that Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty programs were working, and that despite the blip—perhaps instigated by outside agitators and even communist sympathizers—the United States was still on the path of racial equality that began with the Civil War, continued through the Civil Rights movement, and culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was supposed to come to a comfortable conclusion familiar to anyone who paid attention in high school history class: That the United States is a moral country making linear progress towards a more equal, just, and prosperous society, and a few bad apples were disrupting an otherwise great country's undeniable progress.

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The report did no such thing.

Instead, the report came to what it called a basic conclusion: "Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." These words were carefully chosen, 14 years after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the "separate but equal" doctrine was unconstitutional. 

It went even further by doing the almost unthinkable. It blamed white society for the conditions in the mostly Black urban ghettos. Its most famous line, front and center in that first page, was as follows: "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."

The importance of these words was not just in what was being said, but in who was saying it. This wasn't coming from Malcolm X or a speaker at a Black Panther rally. An official, bipartisan government commission consisting of moderates from both sides of every divide—Republicans and Democrats, Black people and white people, men and one woman, southerners and northerners, and even one police chief—was saying it. 

Otto Kerner chaired the Kerner Commission, a landmark moment in American race relations. Credit: Getty

Even when read today, the Kerner Report is a thorough and damning documentation of institutional racism. For more than 400 pages, the report backed up its conclusions with meticulous research and extensive interviews from the cities the commission was instructed to study and leaned heavily on social science research, clearly explaining the institutional forces that prevented Black people, as a race, from raising their stations in the same way white ethnic groups had. 

In explaining why the riots happened, the report began in 1619, with the first slaves arriving on the continent. It discussed broken policial systems, abusive policing practices, failed court systems that distributed punishments but not justice, punitive welfare systems that attempted to be both thrifty and helpful and accomplished neither, the news media's role in failing to adequately cover conditions in the ghetto or Black life in general, the "white flight" of middle class families to the government-subsidized suburbs with whites-only policies aggressively enforced by racist mobs, and many more factors that resulted in two separate and unequal societies. And then it sketched out a program to fix it.

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"There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the Nation's conscience," the report said, than to address these problems. "It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this Nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group."

If the Kerner Report has taught us anything, it's that meticulous, logically flawless work accomplishes nothing if it tells a story people don't want to hear.

"I think on all levels, the commission is tragic," said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, who wrote an introduction to a re-released version of the Kerner Report in 2016, "not just because what it reports wasn't really addressed, but the problems are so much worse today than they were then."

Another historian, Sarah Steinbock-Pratt of the University of Alabama, used the same word. "This is a tragic story, right?" she told Motherboard. "This is a moment where the United States could really have a genuine reckoning with its past and plan an alternate future, and it fails to do that."

The commissioners knew they weren't saying anything new. 

"We have uncovered no startling truths, no unique insights, no simple solutions," the report said. "The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country." 

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Likewise, Dr. Kenneth Clark testified before the commission:

I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.

There is a bitter irony to Dr. Clark's remarks, because in some respects race relations in the U.S. have not stayed the same, as bad as that would have been, but have actually gotten worse. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of policing.

To be sure, the report does not lay all the blame on the police. In no uncertain terms, the report blames white racism as the root cause. Policing practices are merely the most visible result. 

Through the 1950s and 1960s, the American economy boomed and white America enjoyed widespread prosperity. As a result, the postwar era was defined by two major trends: white people moved to federally subsidized and racially segregated suburbs while Black people moved primarily from the South into northern and western cities where available housing was severely limited and building new homes was nearly impossible, because no bank would underwrite the costs in "high risk" neighborhoods, because the federal government wouldn't back the loans. 

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Once there, employment opportunities for Black Americans were typically limited through informal but commonly understood segregationist practices that reserved the best and highest paid work for white men. Unions were only just opening their doors to non-white members, and still implemented many informal racist heirarchies. As a result of these trends, cities got a lot less money in taxes, even as demand on services increased. While this was an impossible balance even under the best city management, many politicians focused their energies and resources on keeping the dwindling number of white people from leaving rather than improving the lot of the Black residents who couldn't.

Meanwhile, Black Americans could see suburban prosperity through their TV sets and  felt they were not invited to partake in that American dream. (The report describes this affluence as "flaunted before the eyes of the Negro poor and the jobless ghetto youth.") After years of looking through those TV sets and seeing white sheriffs, suburban housewives, and white teens beat and provoke non-violent protesters advocating a change in this system, the report was forced to conclude that "a new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly among the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to 'the system.'" 

A crowd gathers in front of National Guardsmen in Newark. Credit: Neal Boenzi, New York Times Co. via Getty

Still, the Kerner Report spent more time on policing than any of these other issues for two main reasons. First, most of the rioting was sparked by "police incidents," including both of the two deadliest riots. "In all the instances of civil unrest that had happened," Zelizer said, "it almost always came back to policing."

In Newark, a cab driver named John Smith was arrested for allegedly tailgating a Newark police car. Word spread that Smith had been beaten by the police as he was dragged into the station. A crowd gathered. Someone threw Molotov cocktails. One thing led to another and, for several days, Newark policemen and national guardsmen roamed the streets, shooting indiscriminately at housing projects, and killing 51-year-old Helen Hal, who opened the drapes by her window to receive a hail of gunfire, and 11-year-old Michael Pugh, while he was taking out the garbage, among others. No one was ever charged for their deaths.

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In Detroit, police raided a private social club, a common form of harassment the authorities used against Black social spaces. Typically, the police would find and arrest a dozen or two people inside. But on this occasion, on a steamy July night, the club was hosting a welcome home party for several Vietnam veterans. By the time the police rounded up all 82 patrons, a crowd of a few hundred people gathered, an empty bottle was thrown at a police car, and the Detroit police flooded the zone, sparking further tensions that ultimately resulted in a riot and police, National Guard, and Army response that left 43 people dead, 33 of whom were Black. Police killed 20 of them, the National Guard seven more, and the Army one. 

The second reason policing was such a focal point of the Kerner Report is that it kept coming up as a key source of grievance during the course of the commission's reporting. To residents of the Black neighborhoods, the police were not protectors but an enforcement arm of the white establishment. The police had "come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes."

The neighborhoods the report focused on complained of both too much and too little policing: Too much harassment of generally law-abiding citizens, and too little investigation and punishment of serious, violent offenders.

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The Kerner Commission understood that not only was this going on, it was getting worse. What had formerly been informal harassment and brutality by unsupervised and cruel patrolmen, bad as that was, was being replaced by official policies that granted such harassment institutional legitimacy. It became part of the job. 

"Although police administrators may take steps to eliminate misconduct by individual police officers, many departments have adopted patrol practices which in the words of one commentator, have '...replaced harassment by individual patrolmen with harassment by entire departments," the report said. Here, the commission was referring to policing tactics familiar to many 21st-century minority Americans. Roving task forces with open licenses to stop and search anyone who looked suspicious had been loosed on the public, and mandated to hit arrest quotas. There ceased to be any such thing as a law-abiding citizen in these neighborhoods. Everyone was a potential criminal.

An officer of the law stands in front a burning neighborhood in Detroit, 1967. Credit: AFP via Getty Images

One of the biggest surprises, at least for me, was that the Kerner Report uses the exact phrase "stop-and-frisk" twice, including:

The beat patrolman himself is expected to participate and to file a minimum number of "stop-and-frisk" or field interrogation reports for each tour of duty. This pressure to produce, or a lack of familiarity with the neighborhood and its people, may lead to widespread use of these techniques without adequate differentiation between genuinely suspicious behavior and behavior which is suspicious to a particular officer merely because it is unfamiliar.

In other words, departments were already adopting official policies that gave officers pretext to stop, search, and harass anyone they deemed suspicious. With the benefit of hindsight, the commission was too kind, attributing abuse of this power to mere cultural misunderstanding. It was the beginning of a formal institutionalization, giving police official license to harass and arrest virtually anyone they wanted, a relationship between the police and the public that would deteriorate even further over the next half century.

The Kerner Report may have come to some radical conclusions, but it was still very much a product of its time. This can be seen in many of its recommendations, which advocated beefing up existing institutions rather than dismantling them for better ones. Among its many ideas, the report called for two million new jobs over three years, working with trade unions to expand Black recruitment, "sharply increased efforts" to eliminate de facto school segregation mostly by providing financial incentives for desegregation, modify the welfare system, and more federal funding for various housing programs.

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Both at the time and in the decades since, progressive critics of the report have pointed out that, in calling out white racism as the fundamental issue facing American society, the Kerner Report faced a paradox: How do you correct for white racism by using the very institutions white racism has created? Nowhere was this more evident than in the area of policing. In fact, the commission argued not for a reduced police presence in Black neighborhoods, but an even greater role. 

"The Commission believes that police cannot, and should not, resist becoming involved in community service matters," it said, before explicitly recommending the police become the ghetto's primary liaison with government (and be given the resources to do so). Ironically, this is perhaps the only element of the report that was taken seriously by policy makers, and it is the exact dynamic that many reformers now believe was a huge mistake.

However, there was one area of policing the commission got spot on: the use of military weapons by the police. The commission condemned "moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks," the latter of which had been deployed in the Detroit riots. "Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities," the report read. What the report failed to anticipate was how such weapons would take hold not only among police departments, but in American society writ large.

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Over the ensuing 50 years—and particularly in the last few decades—the federal government has, under the 1033 program, provided 10,000 law enforcement agencies with $7.4 billion worth of “excess property” including weapons which have since been deployed in American cities. The War on Drugs, which didn't begin until years after the Kerner Report, and continued emphasis on "law and order" policies for generations afterwards gave police an even greater mandate to do more of virtually everything the Kerner Report called for them to do less of. Not only did the U.S. ignore the Kerner Report's dire and accurate warnings about the militarization of the police, we did the exact opposite.

A police officer holds an assault rifle up to protesters in Ferguson, MO, 2014. Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images

Zelizer said that the report's policing section is the one that sticks with him the most, because it attests to how traditional "reforms" like more diverse police forces, better policies around use of force, oversight boards, and leadership changes are just tinkering around the edges. Instead, Zelizer said there is only one possible path left to fix this broken system: "You're talking about the institution. It's the only logical answer to that."

We, as a nation, have spent the last half-century doing everything we possibly can to ignore this conclusion. That legacy began with the very person who appointed the commission, President Johnson himself.

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Johnson hated the report, according to Zelizer and other historians who have studied the Kerner Report, for two main reasons. First, it didn't credit his anti-poverty programs for doing much good. Second, it laid out hard truths and prescribed a set of aggressive, wide-reaching, and expensive policies Johnson could not and would not be able to support.

It didn't make much difference what Johnson thought by then. He was a beaten man without a constituency who had lost most of his once-monumental power to cajole politicians into passing laws. The furor over Vietnam was in full swing, bitterly dividing not just the Democratic party but the country as a whole. About a month after the report was published, Johnson announced he would not be running for re-election.

Still, Johnson did his best to pretend the report never existed. He never acknowledged it, nor did he write official letters of thanks to the commission members, a standard practice under normal circumstances to give the commission members some nice words on presidential letterhead. 

But his efforts to bury the report were in vain, for someone—probably executive director David Gisburg—leaked it to the press. By the end of February, headlines appeared in the major papers: "Johnson Unit Assails Whites in Negro Riots" (New York Times), "Chief Blame for Riots Put on White Racism" (Washington Post). The paperback copy reached the bestseller list, selling more than 740,000 copies in the first two weeks. On April 25, Marlon Brando read portions of it aloud on an ABC late night show. 

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Not surprisingly, the report was deeply divisive among the American public. A mid-April 1968 poll found 53 percent of white Americans "rejected the commission's claims that white racism was to blame for the riots," as Zelizer wrote, while 58 percent of Blacks agreed with it. Sixty-three percent of white Americans rejected the idea of raising taxes to help rebuild cities. (One cannot help but wonder about the 10 percent of white Americans who accepted the commission's conclusions but declined to have their taxes raised to do anything about it.) And, in a reminder that conspiracy theories and fake news are nothing new, by a similar two-to-one margin, white people rejected the commission's findings and maintained organized outside agitators were responsible for the riots.

But the news cycle of the spring and summer of 1968 moved fast. Two weeks after the Kerner Report was released, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking another round of urban riots. Students at Columbia University took over the administration building in the latest in a series of nationwide university protests; in this one, Students for a Democratic Society chairman Mark Rudd sent an open letter to the university president that concluded, "Up against the wall, motherfucker, this is a stick up." With Johnson out of the picture, the Democratic primary became a free-for-all. After much speculation, Robert Kennedy finally declared himself a candidate, upending the race, and then was assassinated in June. In August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was one of the great clusterfucks in American political history, including footage of police savagely beating mostly white antiwar protesters being broadcast to the entire nation, actions that were entirely excused by Chicago's Democratic mayor Richard Daley. And all the while more bad news and dead American boys trickled home from Vietnam. Neither the press nor the American public had time to focus on any one story for very long, much less a prolonged discussion of how best to achieve the commission's lofty aims. Nor did anyone on either side of the aisle seem particularly eager to raise the divisive issue in an election year.

Vietnam? No, Detroit. A tank patrols the streets, July 1967. Credit: Lee Balterman via Getty Images

Any lingering hope that the country would reckon with the Kerner Report's warnings was extinguished that November. Richard Nixon won the presidency running on a law and order campaign, thanks in no small part to courting disaffected white ethnic groups who rejected the Kerner Report's condemnation of white racism as a major source of urban unrest. That trend would only continue into the Reagan years, dominated by the War on Drugs and tough on crime rhetoric. American cities continued to deteriorate well into the 1990s as the federal government, under the bipartisan agreement of both Democrats and Republicans, took a smaller and smaller role in urban affairs—except when it came to policing, which assumed a larger and larger role in the everyday lives of minority Americans. In 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson and the ensuing protests were violently put down by militarized police, the most significant change from the conditions documented in the Kerner Report is that it occurred in Ferugson, Missouri, a majority Black suburb of St. Louis, rather than in the city itself. 

In recent years, the Kerner Report has experienced a resurgence among the more intellectual liberal set. The combination of widespread protests after police killings of Black Americans and the report's 50th anniversary in 2018 provided fertile ground for looking back on how things became—and remain—so bad. The New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Atlantic (no fewer than three times), to name just a few, have revisited the report in recent years. 

There's not much intellectual diversity among the conclusions. In short, we've failed. Fred Harris, a former Oklahoma senator and the last surviving member of the commission, told NPR in 2018, "I was 37 when I served on the (Kerner) Commission...Whoever thought that 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things? That's kinda sad." 

Rarely has the Kerner Report been mentioned in these retrospectives without quoting a portion of Martin Luther King Jr's reaction to it: "a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." 

But that is just a portion of what King said. As with so many of King's most famous quotes, the more complete version is both more truthful and, to continue the metaphor, a bitter medicine to swallow: 

We have a national emergency. The prospect of cities aflame is very real indeed, but I would also remind America of the continuing violence perpetrated daily by racism in our society. The ghetto is looted by outside usurious profit-makers. Poor people are victimized by a riotous Congress and welfare bureaucracy. Lawlessness against persons exercising civil rights continues. The insult of closed housing statutes is preserved and sanctified by white society. Flame-throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities. Children are condemned to attend schools which are institutions of disorder and neglect. The lives, the incomes, the well-being of poor people everywhere in America are plundered by our economic system. No wonder that men who see their communities raped by this society sometimes turn to violence.

All of these observations still retain far too much truth. Low-income neighborhoods have higher prices. The welfare bureaucracy is still a powerful American force (except for during the pandemic, when states waived much of the requirements for access to it). The last major tax reform overwhelmingly benefited the rich. We're still fighting expensive foreign wars halfway across the globe while arguing about how to pay for basic social and infrastructure programs at home. Schools are still horrifically segregated with minority schools still subject to "disorder and neglect." 

But King had even more prescient, incisive remarks, probably the most accurate words about the Kerner Report ever spoken. In short, he predicted people would say nice things about the report and then do nothing, "because for many people simply to acknowledge evil ends their responsibility."

Iraq? No, Missouri. Police with full military garb patrol a teargassed Ferguson street, 2014. Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images.

For all of the Kerner Report's flaws—the lack of acknowledgement of the federal government's role in housing discrimination, its trust in institutions to reform themselves, a failure to link the disinvestment in American cities with the wasted billions sent to fight a war in Vietnam, to name a few—it would be naive to suggest a better report would have yielded a better future. The Kerner Report was about as truthful and admirable as one could reasonably have hoped it to be. The problems that came afterwards and remain with us today are not the report's fault. However, they are emblematic of one of its greatest flaws. It thought too much of Americans. It presumed we wanted to fix these problems. After more than 50 years and too many elections in which wealthy white men espousing the exact opposite of this report's conclusions have triumphed over ones who took them to heart, there is only one conclusion: Americans didn't listen to the Kerner Report for the most basic reason. We didn't want to.

"We have provided an honest beginning," the report intoned. And that was all it ever was.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that all of the 1033 program’s $7.4 billion in property transferred from the Department of Defense to local police departments has been militarized weapons. The article has been updated to clarify that only a portion of that property has been weapons.

Tagged:

cities, Lyndon Johnson, race riots, Kerner Commission, The 8:46 Project, Still Here x 8:46

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