U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Historical Cycle of Do-Nothingism: The Kerner Report—50 Years Later

LBJ with members of the Kerner Commission, July 1967–courtesy of the Library of Congress (found on Wikipedia)

“What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”

These are the questions that drove President Lyndon Johnson to create the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, in the summer of 1967, after a series of disturbances in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit. Those disturbances, derisively called “race riots,” called out for reflection and pragmatic action.

Members of the Commission included its leader and chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, then New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay (vice chair), Oklahoma Senator Fred R. Harris (a Democrat), Kentucky Commissioner of Commerce Katherine G. Peden, NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins, Atlanta’s Chief of Police Herbert Jenkins, and others.

The findings were published as the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” It was delivered to Johnson on February 27, 1968. It would come to be known, of course, as the “Kerner Report.”

Julian Zelizer wrote a nice summary of what happened between the Commission’s creation and the report’s completion, and aftermath. Here’s his conclusion:

The problems highlighted in the Kerner report remain hauntingly relevant today. Many parts of urban America are as unstable, if not more so, than when Kerner looked into the conditions that existed in the late 1960s. Lack of jobs, inadequate education, racial discrimination, and police brutality remain endemic. Poverty has also been spreading to the suburbs, bringing these issues into new areas, while economic inequality has become more severe and hardened. The war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy. For those who didn’t make it out, hope for change has only diminished.

Still, the Kerner report remains a powerful statement about the struggles that African Americans face in a country where racism shapes many of our key institutions. And it still has a great deal to offer policymakers and citizens as they wrestle with racial tension in the aftermath of recent unrest from St. Louis to Baltimore. The root causes of this spate of riots—from police violence to inescapable poverty—are tragically the same ones identified by the Kerner Commission nearly fifty years ago.

You can find Zelizer’s piece, published in May 2016, at the Boston Review.

It should be noted that President Johnson disliked the report. He ignored it (seemingly) and failed (definitely) to implement its recommendations. Just a few months later he would announce that he “shall not seek” and “will not accept” the Democratic Party’s nomination for another term as president. The war in Vietnam weighed on Johnson more than the war taking place in his nation’s cities, or so said his former Chief of Staff, James R. Jones. Perhaps Johnson had larger questions on his mind when the Kerner Report hit his desk.

S-USIH friend Dan Geary wrote a follow-up to Zelizer’s account, also published in the Boston Review. Geary’s piece focused on how the Kerner Report’s analysis of policing was flawed. Here’s his thesis:

Although critical of policing methods to a degree unprecedented in a government report—including what surely must be one of the earliest critiques of stop-and-frisk—the Kerner report failed to acknowledge that the most destructive and lawless force in the riots was not rioters but police. The untold story of the uprisings was of excessive force police used in the name of suppressing disorder. Police and National Guardsmen caused nearly all deaths and injuries. ..

In Newark, Detroit, and many other cities, there were really two riots: one by African Americans against white property, followed by a reprisal waged by police against the black community. …

In short, the Kerner report neglected that police were not simply careless with black lives; they deliberately sought to punish African Americans with deadly force.

I haven’t read the Kerner Report. Even so, it was published by a popular press, Bantam Books, in March of 1968. Zelizer reports: “The 708-page paperback quickly reached the bestseller list, with over 740,000 copies sold. The book was purchased in bulk by libraries, universities, civic organizations, and even police departments. It was said to be one of the fastest-selling books since Valley of the Dolls. “

I’ve only ever read excerpts from the Report’s “Summary” (available at this link, though you can find the first 75 pages of the full document here). I expect most historians–except for Zelizer, Geary, and a few others—have only viewed parts of the summary, if anything.

Even so, just the Introduction to that “Summary” is exceedingly powerful. The Commission members recount that they visited afflicted areas, met with witnesses, and consulted with experts. There fundamental conclusion was this: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal. …Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”

The solution would practical measures that moved America more fundamentally toward equality. The report, on the goal and needs (bolds mine):

It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action–compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will. The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

Money would be required from all. Redistribution. The Report was a heartfelt confession that New Deal and Great Society measures had not been enough.

But, more particularly, the nation’s white population was called to account:

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. 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.

And here are the recommendations, stated in general terms:

Our recommendations embrace three basic principles:
* To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems:
* To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance;
* To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.

These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.

At the end of the report the writers provide a section with detailed practical recommendations covering employment, education, the welfare system, and housing. They introduce that section with a call to action that is consistent with the earlier rhetoric—drawing together the threads:

No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities.
Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society.
The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources.
The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation. …

The major goal is the creation of a true union–a single society and a single American identity.

In the conclusion of the Summary, the Commission offered the following:

We have provided an honest beginning. We have learned much. But we have uncovered no startling truths, no unique insights, no simple solutions. 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. It is time now to end the destruction and the violence, not only in the streets of the ghetto but in the lives of people.

What’s striking about the Kerner Report—apart from its raw honesty, pleading, and simultaneous call for economic and racial equality—is its clear continuity with the unfinished business of post-Civil War Reconstruction. I hear Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Eric Foner, Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West, Bernie Sanders, the citizens of Ferguson (MO), Sandra Bland, and Black Lives Matter echoing through my heart and mind.

When will we, as a nation, listen to the historical voices that have called for redistribution? Until we do, the dialectics of revolt and repression—the cycle of seeming do-nothingism—will continue to characterize our political and social life. We’ll be asking the same questions that drove the Kerner Report 50 years from now. -TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. For what it is worth, I really enjoyed this piece. The content generated here is consistently excellent

    I believe that sociologists have coined the term “status quo” bias, which explains much of the phenomenon you describe. Americans notoriously suffer from historical amnesia, and people tend to use “today” as their reference point. Any change becomes perceived as a “loss.” The same process that allows the existence of racially based redlining also affects seemingly different contemporary problems such as proposing the cancellation of student debt. Instead of redistribution, it is so much easier to perpetuate cruelty.

    • Thanks Brian. To read the 50-year-old Kerner Report is to step into an all-too-relevant time machine. The voices calling for concurrent efforts at racial and economic equality appear in multiple registers, from officials, politicians, activists, intellectuals, poets, and regular workers. In spite of my internal pessimist, there exists a deep craving in this country for progress, however fraught that term and effort are.

  2. It’s striking but not surprising that the Report assumed the nation[-alist] frame and reflected the preoccupation with cultural consensus so familiar during the Cold War period, as it sought “creation of a true union – a single society and a single American identity” – while concluding that the drift was to “two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” As we know, holistic national solidarity at this time spoke in terms of national character, culture [including culture as personality writ large], civilization, consensus, the American spirit and experience, and the like, but the term identity was becoming increasingly common. As so often, whether this involved more a shift in lexical fashion, or a noteworthy conceptual innovation, isn’t clear.

    Soon, the identity politics around ethnicity, gender, and race would seem to many to threaten national fracturing, but it seems the specter of essential group-based differences was resolved for a time in favor of pluralized individual identities and civic, liberal nationalism [see David Hollinger, “National Culture and Communities of Descent,” l998], which may have helped smooth a path toward neoliberalism. And as far as I know, not until more recent times was the term identity politics used to refer to national identification, which may or may not coincide with “whiteness” as a explicit and mobilized identity.

    • Bill: Thanks for reading. What’s striking to me about the report is not identity politics, but rather that the driving idea is economic redistribution through taxation. The writers believed that move would act as a solvent, to help ameliorate the immediate dangers of an unequal society—particularly volatile in urban areas. This group of mostly white males concluded that redistribution would go some way toward fostering a peace that would enable a bridging of the racial divide. Was the group’s ultimate aspiration about social harmony through economics alone too high? Yes, absolutely. But, as they also say, “We have provided an honest beginning. ” -TL

      • Tim – Partly, I was trying to help preserve the historical distinction between national “identity” and the much later construction, “identity politics”: Kerner, not to mention Erik Erikson, Lucian Pye, Eisenstadt and others, preceded Combahee by about a decade.

        I don’t know whether this has any importance; but I think I’ve noticed that the extensional meaning of the latter is expanding to nearly match the former – perhaps a marker of extreme politicization.

        Anyway, your putting it in terms of the Report’s “aspiration [toward] social harmony through economics alone,” makes the hope for a unitary national identity even more noteworthy. Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore the range of black responses to the Report, including how many at the time thought that redistribution – even if its prospects were not vanishingly small – might overcome centuries of “white racism.”

  3. Tim,
    This is a really great reflection on a very important document–and you’re right, most of us are too unfamiliar with its actual text!

    But one thing I’m wondering is, how unambiguous was that commitment to redistribution? For instance, these lines stood out to me in the part you excerpted:

    “The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources.
    “The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

    The way I read it, this could be a compromise formulation, splitting the distance between someone committed to making the tax code *more* progressive in order to generate the needed additional revenue (sentence 2), and someone who maybe thinks that additional revenue will be generated through economic growth (sentence 1). Will taxes have to be raised, or can rates remain where they are because greater revenue will come out of economic growth?

    Of course, I don’t know, but I’d be interested to see if there might be some ambivalence within the rest of the report. There certainly was a divergence of thought on this matter at the time between liberals and the left (as there is today).

    • Andy: Of course I was only reviewing the Summary for this post, but that one line, on economic growth, was all I saw pointing to the general economic context (which we now know was a unique post-war boom that, in James T. Patterson’s words, heightened expectations for all). I’m pretty sure that Kerner Commission members were saying that the revenue was there already, and it only needed to be tapped to help foster more equal economic conditions. The urgency of the report indicated, to me, that they didn’t want to wait for general growth to take care of the problem. I think that the Commission wanted a difference-making tax now, and the future would sort itself out. There might be details in the larger report that lessen that sense of urgency and provide more revenue details/context. But the summary indicates a clear call for immediate kinds of redistribution to improve racial and economic equality. -TL

  4. In this March 1 Smithsonian piece, Alice L. George comes at the Kerner Report with a different framework than my reflection above. But she and I agree that the Kerner Report addressed a root cause of racial problems (i.e. poverty) and offered a remedy (i.e. redistribution) that has not yet been tried. – TL

  5. For 25 years I was a member of the Community Relations Service (CRS) an agency of the US Department of Justice and brought into existence by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to help local communities and institutions resolve conflicts that centered around issues of race, color and national origin. We styled ourselves as “the nation’s peacemaker” and the Kerner Report was our bible. By the way rhe current administration has proposed the total elimination of the CRS in FY 2019.

    Anyway I do not agree with the Kerner analysis of poverty as the root cause of the civil disorders. Based on my professional experience in the wake of numerous disturbances (and personal experience) it is clear that even the non-poor and even well-off members of the African-American (and Hispanic communities ) are negatively impacted by an ingrained societal belief that “blood,” more than economic standing, is what really matters in the dispensation of justice. The tensions and disorders of past and current times do not happen on solely account of poverty; but much more on account of race.

    • Miguel, welcome to this forum!

      On behalf of all historians reading your comment…have you kept any of your papers from your years of work? Have you considered sharing some of your sources / experiences with a historian? If a history of the CRS has not yet been written, it should be. And even if one has been written, there is always room for a new perspective. Would be happy to put you in touch with scholars interested in your experiences.

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