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The Kerner Commission: 50 years later, what has — and has not — changed?

Is there a brighter future ahead? Social change does not happen easily. Ingrained attitudes that produce institutional racism are hard for people to overcome.

Roy Wilkins, Otto Kerner and President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.

— Kerner Commission 1968

Judge Kevin S. Burke

By midsummer 1967 there were riots in many cities, including Minneapolis. Nationwide, 83  people died. Media reports claimed $500 million in property damages were attributable to the unrest. There was military occupation in many cities. On July 28, while rioting was still occurring in Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, known as the Kerner Commission. Johnson asked the commission for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?” He told the commission, “Let your search be free. … As best you can, find the truth and express it in your report.”

Most people do not remember the Kerner Commission. Fifty years is a long time. The commission chair was Otto Kerner, the Democratic governor of Illinois. The vice chair was John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York City. The 11-person commission was composed of politically moderate people. There was no reason to predict these people would issue a report as pointed as they did.

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King, Hoover testified

The commission did a lot of work. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover were among those who testified. There was research and numerous public hearings. By November 1967 the commission staff produced a draft report, “The America of Racism.” The incendiary draft did not just recount the racial divisions of the country; it sharply criticized the Great Society programs, claiming they were only a meager response while leaving the “white power structure” in place. Kerner not only rejected the draft, but all 120 social scientists who worked on it were fired.

So, when the final Kerner Commission Report was issued on Feb. 29, 1968, there was reason to anticipate that the report would ruffle a few feathers. But the report focused on institutional racism in language that was blunt and with compelling data. It said:

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.

No part of society was left unchallenged. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all with white men’s eyes and perspectives.” The report said of police: “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly through Negro neighborhoods.”

Based on data, the report used eloquent language.

Racial prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. … This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution.

No single ‘triggering’ incident

The riots, the report said, “did not erupt as a result of a single ‘triggering’ or ‘precipitating’ incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances.”

The report cited 12 deeply held grievances and ranked them in three levels of intensity. Fifty years later, that list of grievances can give us insight into where our nation is today.

First Level of Intensity

1. Police practices

2. Unemployment and underemployment

3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity

4. Inadequate education

5. Poor recreation facilities and programs

6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.

Third Level of Intensity

7. Disrespectful white attitudes

8. Discriminatory administration of justice

9. Inadequacy of federal programs

10. Inadequacy of municipal services

11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices

12. Inadequate welfare programs

The Report concluded:

Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement.

Johnson’s negative reaction

The reaction from President Johnson was not positive. Johnson told his aide, Joseph Califano Jr., to tell the commission director the report was “destroying the president’s interest in things like this.” Califano would later say Johnson felt let down by the commission for not recognizing what he had already done and for failing to point out that Congress would not let him do more.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s response was predictable: “The people know the way to stop a riot is to hit someone over the head.” Years later, President Richard Nixon and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell would be taped criticizing not just the report, but also Kerner.

Bantam Books published a paperback version of the report and it quickly reached the best-seller list with sales that far exceeded the sales of the Warren Commission Report, which had focused on the assassination of President John Kennedy. But there were critics of the report.

Kerner, responding to critics, said, “Our critics have called us stupid for singling out racism, for making it the essential point of our report. I know we were not stupid. It would have been intellectually dishonest to back away. We looked into this deeply and said it the same way we saw it.” Kerner believed that many of the members of the commission started with the idea that poverty was the cause of the civil disorders. Kerner said, “It is not poverty. Actually, there are more whites than blacks in poverty areas.”

So, how divided was the nation in 1968? 61 percent of blacks indicated a high regard for “white people,” rating them from nine to 10 on a scale where 10 means they are liked “very much,” but just 19 percent of whites rated “Negroes” this highly.

In relative terms, blacks have fallen behind

There has been change in the last 50 years. No one refers to Negroes. Blacks have experienced great improvement in infant mortality rates. Yet, in relative terms, blacks have fallen behind. In 1968, black infants were about 1.9 times as likely to die as white infants. Today the rate is 2.3 times higher for black infants.

Blacks are much better educated. More than 90 percent of younger blacks have graduated from high school compared with just over half in 1968. Blacks are twice as likely to go to college. But with respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, blacks have either failed to improve relative to whites or the situation has worsened. The black unemployment rate is 7.7 percent (it was 6.7 percent in 1968), but the white unemployment rate is about half that. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate. U.S. Census data released in September showed households earnings on the rise for all racial and ethnic groups, but blacks still earn about half what whites do.

In 1968, blacks were about 5.4 times as likely as whites to be in prison or jail. Today, blacks are 6.4 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. When the report was issued, Kerner would cite as an example of the racism in the country the story of a young man raised in a Negro ghetto. Kerner said he probably will have been arrested five or six times by age 20 for no specific reason. People in the ghetto are arrested on suspicion. When the young Negro applies for a job and the personnel director sees the arrest record, they will probably never check to see if the young man was ever convicted or what the arrests were for.

Police practices were first in the Kerner Commission list of grievances. Today blacks are stopped by the police in disproportionate numbers even though they are no more likely to be violating traffic laws and are searched more often even though they are no more likely to be carrying illegal drugs or other contraband. These practices contribute to the erosion of trust by communities of color in the police force and the courts. While many critics of these practices have focused their ire on the police, it is the courts that have enabled these practices.

Still divided

We are a nation still divided. Blacks tend to see racial discrimination a lot more than whites do. 87 percent of black Americans say black people face a lot of discrimination in the United States, but only 49 percent of whites say the same thing, according to a February poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. Sadly, Democrats and Republicans see race with starkly different lenses. Hyper-partisanship makes solutions to racial division even more elusive.

Is there a brighter future ahead? Social change does not happen easily. Ingrained attitudes that produce institutional racism are hard for people to overcome. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said apathy is as bad as the actual enemy. And perhaps that is the lesson we did not learn from the Kerner Commission Report: Unless our nation confronts apathy, we are doomed to moving toward a nation of two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.

Kevin S. Burke is a trial judge on the Hennepin County District Court and past president of the American Judges Association


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