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The Kerner Commission


50 years ago today, the Kerner Commission released its report on the causes of civil unrest in America.  President Johnson had formed the commission the previous summer, while the Detroit riots were still ongoing, and in the wake of the Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark riots, to name only the most prominent.

The commission was hardly a hotbed of radicalism.  Of the six elected officials on it, three were Democrats and three were Republicans.  Nine of the twelve members were white men, and the two black members — Edward Brooke and Roy Wilkins — were political moderates by any definition.  (The commission featured one woman, Katherine Peden).

Despite its impeccable establishment bona fides, the commission produced a report that caused a political sensation. The commission concluded that the main cause of  profound racial inequality and related  civil disorders in America was  . . . . wait for it . . . racism.

Some quotes:

This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward [!] two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

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, and white society condones it.

The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.

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.

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.

The report sold more than two million copies.

A few notes:

(1) The standard history of the report emphasizes that LBJ ignored and rejected the report and its recommendations, and it’s true that he refused to comment on it, and even refused to sign the form letters his staff had drawn up, thanking the commission’s members. Still, it’s unclear to me at least what he actually could have done with the report that would have been of any lasting political significance.

The report was released on February 29, 1968.  The following things happened almost immediately: Johnson announced he wasn’t running for re-election (was there a connection between the report and his decision?), Martin Luther King was assassinated, massive protests over among other things the Vietnam War engulfed both Europe and America, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, protests at the Democratic convention were met with massive violence from the Chicago police, while the nation watched on television, the Soviets crushed a reformist movement by invading Czechoslovakia, and Richard Nixon got elected president.

What the lame duck president in the months before a national election was supposed to do to help effectuate the commission’s appropriately ambitious recommendations is less than obvious.

I understand that Johnson was appalled, at least as a political matter, by the report’s candor, which certainly didn’t do the Democratic party or himself any favors under the circumstances.  Still he deserves credit for creating the conditions to allow it to be authored and published in the first place.

(2) Fred Harris, the commission’s lone surviving member, is the co-author of an article in today’s NYT, which is packed with statistics illustrating the extent to which — that is, almost totally — the commission’s hopes for a less racially and economically unjust America have been thwarted. (I made a similar point in the same place last summer, but it can’t be made often enough).

(3) The commission’s rhetoric would today be considered far too “extreme” for any Democratic presidential candidate.  This is because the Republican party has spent the last 50 years hammering home with remarkable success the remarkable thesis that calling cultures or institutions or individuals racist is a far worse thing than the fact that they actually are racist.

Indeed, to a great extent the political history of America over the last half century can be thought of as constant battle on the part of movement conservatism to deny the central claims of the commission’s report: claims that, from the perspective of social science, ought to be about as controversial as claiming the sky is blue.

But there are always fresh battalions of conservative intellectuals to argue about the sky’s color.  Witness this analysis from Harvard history professor Stephen Thernstrom, on the 30th anniversary of the report:

Because the commission took for granted that the riots were the fault of white racism, it would have been awkward to have had to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not. Likewise, if the problem was white racism, why didn’t the riots occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s?

That’s a real puzzler.  In a similar vein, I’ve often wondered why, if opposition to the oppressive nature of the communist Eastern Bloc regimes was the cause of the revolutions of 1989, no such revolution took place in Moscow in 1950, when conditions for political dissidents were infinitely worse.  (Can I haz tenure at Harvard now plz?).

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