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.
Johnson designed the Kerner Commission to sustain this consensus. Hoping to outflank conservatives who blamed the urban unrest of 1967 on the White House, the president stacked the commission with loyal moderates and kept tight control over its budget and staffing. Co-chaired by John Lindsay, the Republican mayor of New York, Kerner’s bipartisan team included four members of Congress, a corporate CEO and a state commissioner of commerce, a police chief, and leaders of the steelworkers’ union and the NAACP. “Johnson assumed that his mainstream commission would produce a mainstream report,” Gillon writes. He hoped it “would endorse the broad outlines of his existing domestic agenda and insulate him from attacks both from the right and from the left.” What he got was something else altogether.
Despite poor funding, the commission moved quickly to conduct hearings in Washington; to meet with residents, activists, and officials in the affected cities; and to sponsor studies of the history and current conditions of African-American communities across the country. To Johnson’s dismay, those activities had a profound impact on the commission’s members, who previously “had only a vague intellectual understanding of the deplorable conditions in poor urban areas.”
As a result—and in stark contrast to those previous studies—the Kerner Report assigned the blame for the violence not on the rebellions’ participants and their communities, but on the broader economic and political order. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” stated the radical lines of the report’s introduction. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Critics on the left and right alike mocked this opening statement for invoking a vague conception of “white racism” as the cause of massive urban rebellions, but they overlooked a far more complex analysis contained in the body of the report. Echoing the 1963 March on Washington’s demand for “jobs and freedom,” the commission argued that future unrest could only be prevented through a combination of economic and political reforms aimed at “improving the quality of life in the ghetto” in order to achieve “freedom for every citizen to live and work according to his capacities and desires, not his color.”
Defying a tendency among liberals to, in the words of historian Touré F. Reed, “divorce racial disparities from economic inequality,” the Kerner Commission insisted repeatedly that the two needed to be addressed simultaneously. This meant coupling massive new investments in job creation, housing, education, and welfare with strengthened antidiscrimination and desegregation policies. The commission’s more moderate members feared that support for a federal law banning discrimination in housing would provoke an unnecessary backlash, but they backed down when NAACP director Roy Wilkins threatened to resign from the commission if they attempted to “gloss over” the issue.
The Kerner Commission also zoomed in on another issue: The conflicts between police and local residents, it noted, had “been a major source of grievance, tension and, ultimately, disorder.” Those clashes did not come from nowhere; they were often sparked by instances of police brutality that, the report’s authors concluded, reflected a broader pattern in which police were expected to handle the symptoms of an economic and political crisis that was much deeper than they could manage. “The policeman in the ghetto is a symbol not only of law, but of the entire system of law enforcement and criminal justice,” the report observed. “As such, he becomes the tangible target for grievances against shortcomings throughout that system.”
One of the most surprising findings was that participants in the rebellions tended to be better educated and more likely to be employed than the average resident of their communities. While conservatives would point to this as evidence that the rioters lacked legitimate grievances, the report’s authors clarified that most of these residents, if employed, “worked in intermittent, low status, unskilled jobs—jobs which they regarded as below their level of education and ability.” In addition to creating new jobs and eliminating discrimination in higher-paid professions, the commission recommended increasing and expanding coverage for the federal minimum wage and other ways to address low wages and underemployment, which were “as significant for Negroes as unemployment.” Rejecting Moynihan’s emphasis on shoring up male breadwinners, the commission called for dramatically expanding welfare relief and extending it to unemployed and underemployed adults regardless of their family status.
The most controversial aspect of these recommendations was their price tag, which the commission estimated would total between $20 billion and $30 billion. But it was external politics that prevented the commission and the Johnson administration from realizing any of these policies. Facing mounting criticism over the “stalemate” in Vietnam, Johnson attempted to bury the report. As his challengers in the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, gained ground, Johnson momentarily reconsidered, seeing the report as a possible way to win liberal votes. But after McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection, and it was clear that the report’s recommendations would be left by the wayside.
Even so, the Kerner Report cast a long shadow on the 1970s. It is true, as Gillon explains, that one of its most visible legacies was to serve as “an obvious foil” for Richard Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric. A few days after its publication, Nixon claimed that the report’s “major weakness” was that it “blames everybody for the riots except the perpetrators of the riots.” That message was central to the campaigns that gave Nixon a narrow victory in 1968 and a landslide win in 1972, and it has become a central theme in nearly every Republican presidential campaign since then—including Donald Trump’s own “law and order” response to the latest protests against police brutality.
But conservative backlash was only one of the Kerner Report’s many legacies. It also had a tremendous impact on the liberal consensus and its understanding of racial inequality and urban poverty. Kerner’s team, according to Gillon, defied Johnson, leaking the report to the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post and prearranging for Bantam Books to publish it several days after its official release. Hitting the stores on March 3, 1968, the 700-page volume sold nearly 1 million copies in two weeks and became the fastest-selling book in two years. The actor Marlon Brando reached millions more by reading sections of the report on late-night television. While The Wall Street Journal dismissed it as “grossly simplistic,” The New York Times, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor praised it for what the Times called its “realistic promise of swifter advance toward a society of equal opportunity.” The National Council of Churches hailed the report as “courageous,” and the United Presbyterian Church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and the Chicago Board of Education each purchased thousands of copies for their clergy, teachers, and schools.
Ironically, by stacking the commission with moderates, Johnson lent legitimacy to positions that had previously been taken only by radicals. Martin Luther King Jr. initially dismissed the commission for not having “enough Negroes on it and no Negro militants,” but after reading the report, he telegraphed Wilkins to thank him and the other commissioners for stating clearly “that white racism is the root cause of today’s urban disorders.” Conversely, Rustin chided the report for its emphasis on “white racism,” declaring that he would “rather have a job program for blacks than a psychoanalysis of whites,” though he later noted that its “recommendations parallel those urged by civil rights and labor groups over the years.” Black Power activist H. Rap Brown, jailed at the time on charges of inciting a rebellion in New Orleans, joked that Kerner and his team should be arrested “because they’re saying essentially what I’ve been saying.”
The publicity generated by the Kerner Report reinvigorated King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which had flagged after its official launch three months earlier. “This report reveals the absolute necessity of our spring campaign in Washington, D.C., for jobs and income and the right to a decent life,” King stated. Soon afterward, the campaign gained endorsements from major religious organizations and the NAACP. Echoing the report, King told 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis that “the problem is not only unemployment” but the fact that they were “making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.”
King’s assassination in Memphis sparked renewed unrest across the country and plunged the Poor People’s Campaign into chaos. But the influence of the Kerner Report persisted. For example, its publication played a key role in the passage of the Fair Housing Act, despite the fears of several commissioners that the subject was too controversial to mention in the report. John B. Anderson, the conservative congressman who cast the deciding vote on the law, later credited the report with convincing him “that we are living in a time of crisis today that threatens the very salvation of our democratic system.” Despite Nixon’s narrow victory in 1968, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress continued to implement the report’s recommendations throughout the late 1960s and ’70s. They indexed Social Security benefits to inflation and expanded food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid. They created the Supplemental Security Income and Section 8 housing programs and enacted the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which created over 750,000 jobs in poor communities. Congress also more than doubled the minimum wage, extended it to cover the mostly nonwhite workers in domestic service and the public sector, and narrowed the exemptions for workers in agriculture, retail, and hospitality. The federal government also funded nearly 1.2 million units of new housing between 1970 and 1972—short of the 6 million units recommended by the Kerner Commission, but significant nonetheless.
By the 1980s and ’90s, however, the Kerner Report’s influence had started to wane. This was due to Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, as well as the Democratic Party’s shift from Keynesian to neoliberal approaches to employment, housing, and welfare over the following two decades. Asked to reflect on the legacy of the Kerner Report on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 rebellions last summer, the only living member of the commission offered his assessment. “Well, we’ve made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for about 10 years, not quite 10 years,” said former Oklahoma senator Fred Harris, speaking on NPR, but most of those gains were undermined “and then eventually reversed” in the 1980s and ’90s. “So it’s a disappointment to see where we are now compared to what we might have been…. But it also should be an inspiration for us to try to do something about that.”
With Trump and the GOP firmly in control of Washington, we need that inspiration now more than ever. While solutions to poverty and discrimination are far from the national political agenda, the history of the Kerner Report reminds us that liberals and the left can still influence policy from the margins. Although the Kerner Commission didn’t begin with radical ambitions, its members were transformed by their engagement with the people affected by urban poverty and racial inequality and with those who had long been organizing to address those deep-seated problems. Change is never easy or inevitable, but we cannot afford to overlook those rare moments when it occurs.