Kerner Commission

Separate and unequal

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 26

On 28 July 1967, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate the cause of the infamous ‘Summer of 1967’.

The commission set out to answer three key questions:

  • What happened?

  • Why did it happen?

  • What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

In this article, we will have a look at the 'why' discussed in the Kerner Report.

The Kerner Commission sought to understand what was behind the summer of 1967, which saw rioting erupt in over 160 American cities and towns, the most destructive of which led to 43 deaths in Detroit and 26 in Newark.

The commission was tasked with exploring the roots of the unrest and, in doing so, concluded:

“Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.”

In addressing the multiple elements responsible for creating such a nation, the commission explained that although ‘these factors are complex and interacting… certain fundamental matters are clear.’

The commission went on to say:

“... the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behaviour of white Americans toward black Americans… white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities...”

The commission also warned:

“Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively in the past; it now threatens to do so again.”

According to the Kerner Commission, white racial attitudes manifested in two distinct forms:

  • Pervasive discrimination and segregation: which led to the continued exclusion of black Americans from the benefits of economic progress through discrimination in employment and education and their enforced confinement in substandard housing and schools.

  • Black ghettos: overpopulated racial ghettos in which segregation and poverty have intersected to destroy opportunity and hope and to enforce failure.

On racial ghettos, in particular, the commission explained:

“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 commission proposed that it was as a result of the pervasive discrimination and racial ghettos that three powerful forces had risen up in the black American community:

  • Frustrated hopes: stemming from the expectations aroused by the judicial and legislative victories of the civil rights movement, giving rise to frustration, hostility, and cynicism in the face of the persistent gap between what has been promised and what has been delivered.

  • Legitimation of violence: the approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest, including the regular instances of violence against, and the murder of, civil rights workers.

  • Powerlessness: many black Americans have come to realise that they are being exploited politically and economically by the white power structure. This realisation is magnified by the lack of channels for communication and influence that are readily available to white Americans.

The result, the Commission concluded, is alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them.

In response to these ills, there has been an increase in racial consciousness and solidarity within the black American community and the wider African diaspora, reflected then in the slogan ‘Black Power’ and today in the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’.

However, the escalation of violence in the Summer of 1967 was not an overnight phenomenon, the commission admitted:

“The events of the summer of 1967 are in large part the culmination of 300 years of racial prejudice. Most Americans know little of the origins of the racial schism separating our white and Negro citizens. Few appreciate how central the problem of the Negro has been to our social policy. Fewer still understand that today’s problems can be solved only if white Americans comprehend the rigid social, economic and educational barriers that have prevented Negros from participating in the mainstream of American life.”

Despite its overwhelmingly honest and progressive views and recommendations, the Kerner Commission was largely ignored by the United States government. President Johnson avoided public commentary on the document and refused to sign customary letters recognising the commissioners for their service.

Over fifty years have passed since the release of the Kerner Report, but regrettably, some aspects of the report resonate even more loudly today than they did in the late 1960s.