This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate but unequal.”
It’s the most famous line—and likely the only line you’ve heard—from the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders report about the riots that wracked U.S. cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, and Newark in the 1960s.
Popularly known as the Kerner Commission (after its chair and then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner), the group of law enforcement professionals, elected officials, and leaders of national organizations were appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to examine the root causes and possible remedies for the unrest that plagued Detroit even as the commission began its research.
We’re still asking the Kerner Commission’s questions, but this time about Ferguson, Missouri, and the August 9 police killing of the unarmed, college-bound 18-year-old Michael Brown: “What happened?” “Why did it happen?” “What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”
More than 40 years later, the report is an essential but troubling read. It was prescient in its observations about unchecked police power, problematic in its embrace of notions of Black pathology, and simultaneously hard and soft on white racism.
As each day’s headlines seem to bring new reports of police violence against African Americans, the 1968 Kerner Report makes clear just how dangerous police intervention can be in communities of color.
The report didn’t mince words about how police actions inflamed tense situations. Many of the report’s recommendations concerned changing the police-community dynamics in the nation’s cities—establishing more and better channels for community grievances about police misconduct, the recruitment and promotion of more Black officers, increased patrols to increase resident security, and even a junior “Community Service Officer” corps to attract Black males 17 to 21 years old to police work.
But the report’s authors knew that an expanded police presence on the streets could mean more surveillance, more violence, and less trust.
And that, in the end, may be the most important lesson of the Kerner Report, which included one insight that rings eerily true post-Ferguson:
The Commission believes there is a grave danger that some communities may resortto the indiscriminate and excessive use of force. The harmful effects of overreaction are incalculable. The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.
Even amid riots and the increasing realization that equality could not be accomplished by legislative fiat, 1968 seems a more much innocent time—and a time in which a presidential commission could talk about racism in America.
The Kerner Report did something that our current president and most Americans can’t do now without backlash: talk about structural racism.
In a short summary of its conclusions, the 11-member body (which included Black senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins) explained that the “ghetto” did not develop in isolation from American culture but was an undeniable and integral part of 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. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” the report said.
The Kerner Report challenged the questionable narratives about white immigrants’ supposedly quick and seamless ascendance into the racial and economic mainstream. “Today,” the report continued, “whites tend to exaggerate how well and quickly they escaped poverty. The fact is that [white] immigrants who came from rural backgrounds, as many Negroes do, are only now, after three generations, finally beginning to move into the middle class.”
And those newcomers did so not only because of toil, intact families, and sheer moxie, but because they were able to take advantage of political machines and labor markets overwhelmingly closed to Blacks. While today’s politicians often traffic in the Reagan-era tropes of “welfare queens”—even if they avoid naming those controversial stock characters of politicized racethink—the Kerner Commission gestured to the generations of handups that are perquisites of whiteness in the United States.
The commission’s straight talk seared some readers with its indictment of white racism. Vice President Hubert Humphrey publicly disagreed with the finding that white racism was largely responsible for inner-city malaise and underdevelopment. In a replay of Ferguson, other critics complained that the commission didn’t go far enough to condemn the looters.
Indeed, the Kerner Report carefully steered away from seeing all inner-city Blacks, protesters, or arrestees as looters. In its review of riots nationwide, the report underscored that multiple factions within Black communities had been in negotiation with each other and local government about what should be done either about events that precipitated riots or the long, festering tension between Black residents and local authorities.
The Kerner Report pushes us to remember there weren’t just peaceful protesters and looters, but an array of Black actors who have a stake and a say in their cities.
That’s not to say that the Kerner Report didn’t have its faults.
Its language occasionally betrayed the very racism it decried: In one instance, the report’s summary referred to inner cities as “environmental jungles,” albeit with justifiably angry, brown people whose geographic and social alienation robbed them of equal access to jobs, health care, adequate housing, “First World” education, and well-being. After Ferguson, we’ve heard echoes of the “Black people are animals” school of thought in the comments of former Hercules star Kevin Sorbo and others.
Even while calling for vast economic redevelopment of urban centers, the Kerner Report failed to fully acknowledge that government at all levels played active roles in urban disorder and anger by allowing restrictive residential covenants that blocked racial minorities’ mobility, segregating public housing, and fostering red-lining practices that limited investment and social services in U.S. cities.
We’re now hearing updated versions of these critiques. Already the Justice Department has launched an investigation into Michael Brown’s death, and the president has ordered a review of programs that funnel combat-style weapons into the nation’s police departments. And, just as the Kerner Commission called for more Black police officers, Missouri’s attorney general recently announced that he would convene a two-day gathering to discuss how to make the state’s police departments more diverse.
Change a few words here and there, and we could re-issue the Kerner Report today; inequality is a fixture of American life, and history doesn’t repeat itself gently or always arc toward justice. Sometimes, history boomerangs with a vengeance.