We have been there before—well, almost. Not at this point of authoritarianism and a democracy-destroying presidency. Instead, for a brief moment, we may have been on our way to attempting a “more perfect union” for African Americans, if not for all poor people and minorities.
Where we are today relates directly to why that window closed on us, never—as of yet—to reopen. But first, what about my claim that we were almost there.
In 1967, in response to the urban rebellions that were growing more fierce, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a Presidential Commission to look into the riots and answer three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What could we do to keep it from happening again?
Dutifully, to the surprise of many of us, the Commission took its assignment seriously. This blue-ribbon Commission, chaired by the sitting Democratic Governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, and co-chaired by the sitting Republican Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, came back in seven months with a 600+ page indictment of white America and a blueprint for the future.
Martin Luther King, Jr., called the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”
To answer the first question, “what happened?” the Commission went in depth—over 200 pages—about the history of white-black race relations, especially the police and the black community, describing white oppression and black rebellions through the decades. They concluded that “To some [blacks], police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression.”
The Commission answered the second question, “why did it happen?” more clearly than has been done before or since, at least at a presidential commission level. The Kerner Commission concluded, “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
And they continued, “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.”
To answer the third question, “What can be done to keep it from happening again?” the Commission offered a carefully considered prescription. They recommended adopting a policy of ghetto enrichment combined with programs supporting the integration of substantial numbers of African Americans outside the black ghetto, including opening suburban residential areas to blacks and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers.
Under the assumption that the country would pursue such policies, the Commission laid out several policy proposals about employment, education, and housing, all based on the principle of mounting programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems.
I often think of the Kerner Commission Report when I reflect on the surprising number of organizations and agencies requesting workshops on racism in the last few weeks. This interest is sparked by the extensiveness of the Black Lives Matters protests.
In 1968 the same kind of phenomenon occurred. The Kerner Commission Report was very popular. It was headline news all over the county, selling over two million copies. Organizations and agencies held discussions about the report. IBM, a big dog on the totem pole of corporations in those days, devoted a sales meeting to the book.
And then it stopped. America changed—for the worse. The precipitating event was the assassination of Martin Luther King, barely a month after the report was released. King’s assassination provoked many urban rebellions all over the country. And the definition of these events changed. Where the Kerner Commission was beginning a discussion about pressure cooker racial oppression, the other side, the people against the Kerner Commission message, renamed these events as actions of a violent people that needed more policing.
Fortification of police departments increased along with the so-called drug war, eventually making the situation in black urban communities worse than when Johnson appointed the Commission.
To this day, we have not overcome the political and policy effects of that narrative. Consequently, the BLM protests are a welcome development. However, supporters must keep up the pressure and guard against these activities being redefined as Trump is trying to do. Trump’s “law and order” mantra was born as part of a perverse reaction to the Kerner Commission Report.