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Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Kerner Report Revisited

President Obama has embarked on a course of consultation and action that will hopefully bring a nearly 47-year-old report to some fruition.  It is his intention to bring the powers of the Presidency to bear on the country’s present need to face the Ferguson syndrome that plagues many parts of our nation.  That syndrome has at its base, the destructive forces of bigotry, institutional racism, discrimination and of indifference to what those forces beget, such as lack of adequate education and unemployment or menial employment.  President Obama describes it as an American problem because it affects who we are as a people and as a nation. 

 The Ferguson syndrome includes many parts and complicated issues.  One of the major issues is the role of police forces in working with minority communities and individuals.  Mr. Obama called to my mind a fundamental aspect of community policing when he made reference to the importance of communication, involvement and concern for those who live in areas of poverty and limited opportunity.  He especially pointed to young black men who are not only experiencing unemployment and underemployment but also an epidemic of harassment, arrest and incarceration, and even death at the hands of some police. He did make it plain that our first responders in police departments are generally committed public servants who do their jobs well, and protect and defend as they are called to do. But he also reminded us that we must listen to the grievances and concerns of minorities and that we must act.  He also said that what makes his efforts different than those of the past is that the President is putting the power of his office behind this effort.

As I have done before, I want to take you back to something fundamental that informs our present situation as much as it spoke to past circumstances.  I believe that the President may have had this particular Commission in mind when he spoke of the difference he expects to make with his approach as opposed to what happened in the past. 

Over 47 years ago, on July 28, 1967, a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was established by President Lyndon Johnson to look into the underlying causes and grievances that precipitated riots plaguing many of the large cities of this country each summer since 1964. In the summer of 1967, the worst riots occurred in Newark and in Detroit.  Each set off a chain reaction in surrounding communities.  The National Advisory Commission, informally known as the Kerner Commission “released their report on February 29, 1968 after seven months of investigation. The report became an instant best-seller, and over two million Americans bought copies of the 426-page document. Its finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life."  It could almost have been written in the present circumstances (except that the words ‘Negro’ and ‘ghetto’ would be replaced by ‘Black,’ ‘African-American’ and ‘inner-city.’).  (The summary portions of the Kerner Commission Report for this Blog are taken from a piece found on   

In general, the Commission found:

1)      The civil disorders of 1967 involved Blacks acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Black neighborhoods – rather than against white persons.
2)      With few exceptions, violence subsided during the day and flared rapidly again at night.  The final incident before the outbreak of disorder generally took place in the evening.
3)      Disorder generally began with rock and bottle throwing and window breaking.  Once store windows were broken, looting usually followed.
4)      Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” 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 Afro-American community with a reservoir of underlying grievances.  At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident – in itself often routine or trivial – became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.
5)      In almost half the cases, police actions were the ‘final’ incidents before the outbreak of violence.  No particular control tactic was successful in every situation.  The varied effectiveness of control techniques emphasizes the need for advance training, planning, adequate intelligence systems, and knowledge of the minority community.
6)      The typical rioter was a teenager or young adult, a lifelong resident of the city in which he rioted, a high school dropout and was usually unemployed or employed in a menial job.  He was proud of his race, extremely hostile to both whites and middle-class Blacks, and, although informed about politics, highly distrustful of the political system.  Most rioters were young Black males and nearly 53% of arrestees were between 15 and 24 years old.
7)      What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens.  Rather than rejecting the system, they were anxious to obtain a place in it for themselves.  Counter rioters (generally better educated and with higher income) tried to get rioters to “cool it.”  
8)      The number of Blacks represented in local government was substantially smaller than the Afro-American proportion of the population.  Only three of the 20 cities had more than one Black legislator; none had a Black Mayor or City Manager.  Although almost all cities had some sort of formal grievance mechanism for handling citizen complaints, this was typically regarded by Blacks as ineffective and generally ignored.

At least 12 deeply held grievances were identified and ranked into three levels of relative intensity, said the Commission.

First Level of Intensity:
  • Police practices
  • Unemployment and underemployment
  • Inadequate housing
Second Level of Intensity:
  • Inadequate education
  • Poor recreation facilities and programs
  • Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms
Third Level of Intensity:
  • Disrespectful white attitudes
  • Discriminatory administration of justice
  • Inadequacy of federal programs – the result of a three-city survey indicated that despite substantial expenditures, the number of persons assisted constituted only a fraction of those in need
  • Inadequacy of municipal services
  • Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
  • Inadequate welfare programs
In Chapter 4 of its Report on “Why It Happened,” the Commission turned more to the national scene and to those factors within the society at large that created the mood for violence among many urban Blacks.  Despite factors varying significantly from city to city, certain fundamentals became quite clear:

  • The most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of most White Americans toward African-Americans. Racial prejudice has shaped our history decisively and threatens our future. Racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture that has been accumulating in our cities since the end of WWII.  Some ingredients include:
    • pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing resulting in the exclusion of great numbers of Blacks from the benefits of economic progress
    • Black in-migration and White exodus producing a massive and growing concentration of impoverished Blacks in our major cities and a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs
    • Black “ghettos” is where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce (and re-enforce) failure.  Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result
    • At the same time, most whites and some Blacks outside the “ghettos” have prospered and through our ever-present media, this affluence has been flaunted before the eyes of the poor and jobless inner city residents
  •  Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Blacks compared with Whites, whether the Blacks lived in the area where riots took place or outside it.  Blacks had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school.  Blacks were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs, and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty.  Although housing cost Blacks relatively more, they had worse housing – three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard.  When compared to white suburbs, the disadvantage is even more pronounced.
It is, perhaps, the next listing of more recent catalysts that had begun affecting the situation in 1967-68 that drives home the parallels with present day protests and riots, and the realities of our current situation.

  • Frustrated hopes are the residue of unfulfilled expectations that were aroused by great legislative and judicial victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and other struggles for Rights that have characterized those times right up to the present.  Whites often point to the “strides that have been made” in race relations.  The reality is that the small “strides” are offset by the enormous disadvantages and built-in prejudices that Whites do not experience in their daily lives.  The unfulfilled expectations for Blacks are very real to them, and generally hidden or ignored or unknown to Whites. 
  • There is a climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a legitimate form of protest created by white militarism and terrorism directed against nonviolent protests.  My Comment:  Violence is a tricky matter.  The violence we see occur out of non-violent protests is usually the only violence considered as such, and is the most condemned.  What is ignored by the White community in general is the accumulation of violence created by white-imposed systemic systems and techniques of control and discrimination in the form of harassment of young Black men and others by the police (“stop & frisk” for no reason other than racial profiling); a lack of, or insufficient protection and aid from authorities when they are called to assist in the “Black community;  the excessive incarceration of people of color; exclusion from white power bases like unions or business guilds and organizations, and local legislative bodies; exclusion from suburban housing; from good schools, from holding municipal or state office whether elected or appointed;  the lack of adequate transportation, health care, adequate and nutritious foods – the list goes on and on.  This pervasive form of white power structure violence goes on every day, all day in most of the Black sections of our cities and towns.  Instead of addressing the causes of such violence, whites see a boiling pan of water and put a lid over it to hide it, wondering why the lid explodes when the boiling water has reached a certain point.  
  • The frustration of powerlessness leads some in the Black communities to a strong conviction that there is no way to move the white power “system” except through violent protest.  The inability to find an effective means by which to voice grievances and basic needs is often reflected in an alienation from and hostility toward institutions of law and government.  In contrast, when whites have a grievance or problem, they expect to be heard and that the underlying problem will be acted upon and resolved satisfactorily by our governing representatives and officials.    
  • To some Blacks, the police and justice systems have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.  When Blacks are treated unfairly and unjustly – remember actions speak louder than words – by the police and the justice system, it serves only to reinforce the widespread belief amongst the Black community that there is a double standard of justice and protection – one for Blacks and another for Whites.  The grand jury decisions not to indict in Ferguson and Staten Island are visible symbols of that double standard to the Black community.
There will be those who say that we have come a long way since 1967-68 in race relations, and that comparing the starkness of the conclusions of the Kerner Commission to present-day is not a reasonable comparison – almost like comparing apples to oranges.  They will say that many more African-Americans hold public office.  They will remind us that young people of today are apt to be less tolerant of racial prejudice and less bound or influenced by the prejudices of the past.  They are apt to point to the mixture of people in the protests as signs of greater integration and support for a culture of tolerance and fairness.  They might point to the increase of graduations of Blacks from high schools and colleges as signs of change and progress in race relations.  All of these protestations and claims have some factual truth within them, but they are still inadequate indicators of fundamental change in our institutions and our systems of administering equal justice.  Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland are living symbols of the fact that we have not moved much beyond the realities of 1967-68. Actions to eliminate racism and bigotry have been sporadic and limited, although individuals may have progressed in their attitudes, they are still supporters and users of systems that discriminate and repress a segment of our society, and they are still ignoring the consequences for people of color. 

It is interesting to note, as does the piece on which my writing is based, that in 1998, 30 years after the issuance of the Kerner Report, former Senator and Commission member, Fred R. Harris co-authored a study that found that the racial divide had grown in ensuing years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels.  Harris reported, “Today, thirty years after the Kerner Report, there is more poverty in America, it is deeper, blacker and browner than before, and it is more concentrated in the cities, which have become America’s poorhouses.”  Opposing voices to this idea cited a marked increase in the number of African Americans now living in suburbs!  However, in those urban areas where the vast majority of Blacks are living, increasing polarization is evident with a continuing breakdown of inter-racial communications evident.  However, in our own recent past, we are seeing a burgeoning growth of white segregationist militias and groups.  But those extremes are not the norm, any more than the norm is blacks moving to the suburbs.

The norm is that we have not, as a nation, made great strides in overcoming our racial inequities, because those inequities are perpetuated by forces we have not recognized as being part of the causes of racial divisiveness in this country. 

Certain corporations perpetuate racism – not only because of their hiring practices, but because they tend to locate far enough from inner cities to be immune to the problems of unemployment and lack of access and difficulty using transportation. 

And what about those small businesses that keep getting looted and burned by rioters – are they part of the problem?  Ever heard of monopolies?  What do monopolies tend to do but raise prices, carry only the products from which they realize large profit margins, and charge more for them than is reasonable; plus, they carry inferior or lesser brands because who cares if they don’t last

The flight of big chain stores and large food chains discriminates against those who live far from such resources.  Try buying your food supplies and other sundries from Nice ‘N Easy or other such stores.  Know what?  Your food budget is going to be higher.

Absentee landlords – charging higher rents but letting properties deteriorate so renters end up paying more for less and getting all those little ‘extras’ as well – bugs, termites, mice and rats.  What a bargain!

How about the fact that a homeowner can’t afford maintenance because contractors from outside the area charge more to come in to their house?  Or how about the fact that a homeowner can’t get anyone to come over to fix the problem, whatever it is?  Try to find a minority contractor within the area – there are none?  Wonder how that happened…

Got to go to the bank to take care of some extra charge?  You get there and the bank associate says sorry we have to put a lien on your paycheck because you also owe this or that, or because they don’t have assurance that you can pay your loan or mortgage...  Before you can leave that bank, you have to overspend your paycheck(s) and then can’t even buy the food you need for your children. 

“The sentence for a minority person is longer than a sentence for a white person going to prison. Minorities are more likely to get the death sentence than white. The sentences for crack cocaine, used disproportionately by minorities, are longer than the sentences for powdered cocaine, used disproportionately by whites. And so, there is still this endemic, institutional racism in America that people forget about (Alan Curtis in an interview with Bill Moyers).

These are just some of the ways that institutional racism, ignored and perpetuated by the white power structure, continues to harass and repress the aspirations and the normal life everyone, regardless of race, tries to live.  The problem with racial prejudice and racism is not just that individual whites are practicing it. The basic problem is that racism is being carried out by institutions and structures and systems that whites don’t protest because they get along most of the time real well with those same institutions.  But when Whites sense they are being taken advantage of by such entities, they will protest and even sue to bring those entities to a reasonable settlement.  That’s the thing about racism – if you don’t experience it, you think it isn’t there.  It’s there.

The Kerner Commission Report reminds us that it is there and is not going away without concerted action.  Ferguson and Staten Island remind us it is there and it’s not going away.  In fact, with the attack of the Congressional Republican right wing against welfare, the working poor and the continuation of the war on drugs (the war on drugs equals minority incarceration), affirmative action, and the outright display of contempt and hatred for our first Black President, we are reminded almost daily that the will to change and reform our institutional, entrenched racism and repression is not going to be addressed in any positive way.  And, by the way, what was the number one response of some cities to the protests of 1967 and to those of late—to increase militarization, aggressive actions and control techniques in preparation for future protests.  That is the #1 reason why we haven’t made progress against poverty or racism – we keep choosing the wrong solutions, the wrong techniques, the wrong targets.  Progress toward peace and good will is not made by turning up the heat under an already boiling and roiling pan of water.

The Kerner report probably had it about right:  their basic conclusion was that “Our nation is moving toward two different societies: one white, one black – separate and unequal.”  But that report also suggested some solutions, or at least steps toward solutions.  They echo down the years to the present day.  Most have not been instituted, practiced or even recognized.  You be the judge as to their viability.

 The Kerner Commission report recognized that the black/white race divide was largely an economic divide and proposed mainly economic policies to meet this social problem. Their policy prescription included:
·         creating two million jobs, in both the public and private sector;
·         fully  subsidizing on-the-job training for the chronically unemployed;
·         providing federal assistance to all schools that worked to end de facto segregation;
·         offering federal funding for year-round compensatory education programs serving disadvantaged children;
·         developing a uniform national welfare standard to bring everyone's income up to the poverty line; and
·         building six million new and renovated units of housing for low and moderate income families.

What happened?  First, because of the expense of the Viet Nam War, President Johnson rejected their recommendations.  Second, "Congress passed anti-riot legislation rather than the kinds of social programs advocated in the Kerner Report." (

Congress is still rejecting the recommendations and going a step further by attempting to eliminate and de-fund most governmental attempts at economic or social welfare programs aimed at alleviating the root causes of poverty and the lack of opportunities for minority communities.  The question remains: will President Obama’s strong support be enough to bring about the changes and reforms now being called for in many cities in this country, or will a Right-wing Congress act to preserve those powerful forces that are keeping Blacks contained in segregated areas, walled off from good-paying jobs, a first class education, and having a voice in the larger community.  In 1968 there was at least an understanding that ending the black/white race divide was an important challenge to the nation as a whole and that it would require massive federal investment. Today that very premise is rejected in the Halls of Congress and in many of the state legislatures.  If the President is to accomplish anything toward equal justice, voting rights, equality of opportunity, alleviating joblessness, and improving education for inner city schools, he is going to need the backing and support of more than the protestors in the streets.  We all must “get on-board” this particular train.