Given the state of race relations in the United States today, it is not surprising that the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—popularly known as the Kerner Report—is widely viewed as a missed opportunity. Named for the commission’s chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, and released on February 29, 1968, after the urban rebellions that had raged in more than 160 American cities the previous summer, the report sought to address the poverty, discrimination, and police violence that its authors believed were not only the rebellions’ root causes but, ultimately, a threat to American democracy. To that end, the report urged President Lyndon Johnson to couple dramatic increases in funding for job creation, housing, education, and other public services with reforms to policing, media coverage, and political power in American cities—nearly all of which was ignored by an administration facing increased pressure from both right and left.
Yet the notion that the Kerner Report was a failed effort overlooks its impact on the debates concerning race and poverty in the 1960s and the efforts to address those issues in the 1970s. The famed black psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clark had warned the report’s authors not to simply repeat the conclusions that had been reached in the past. (“I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission,” Clark noted after reading similar inquiries into unrest in American cities, “it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”) But contrary to Clark’s prediction, the Kerner Report marked a striking departure from previous investigations.
As Steven Gillon points out in his new history of the report, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, most earlier efforts blamed the unrest on criminals and “riffraff” and said little about poverty, racism, and other underlying causes. The McCone Commission, which studied the Watts uprising in 1965, relied heavily on testimony from the openly racist chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and attributed the violence to “an insensate rage of destruction” by “the criminal element in Watts.” Civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin compared its report to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s notorious The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (also known as the Moynihan Report), stating that both blamed racial inequality on black culture and behavior rather than on its actual causes: racism and discrimination in everyday political and economic life. The Kerner Report, on the other hand, placed the blame squarely on white society. While Johnson didn’t implement its recommendations, the implications of this argument were to have a tremendous impact on urban policy in the coming decade.
Throughout the 1960s, cities in the United States found themselves under tremendous strain due to rising levels of unemployment, white flight, deteriorating housing and schools, and elected officials and law-enforcement personnel who viewed their jobs as a matter of policing urban residents rather than addressing their needs and concerns. Yet the rebellions took many liberals by surprise, as they believed the country had made significant progress toward addressing the racial and economic inequalities that plagued American cities. The McCone and Moynihan reports were just two examples of a “liberal consensus” that sought solutions to racial disparity but viewed the problem as cultural rather than structural and thus sought to address it by making changes to attitudes rather than to economic or political power.