Kerner@50: Why the Kerner Report matters for racial equity today

Book cover image

The cover of the Kerner Commission Report published in 1968

Fifty years ago this week, a special commission assembled by President Lyndon B. Johnson released a blockbuster report. Tasked with investigating the causes of more than 150 civil uprisings that erupted across the nation in 1967, the “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” led by Governor Otto Kerner, squarely placed the blame on white racism.

The report concluded that white Americans had denied opportunity to far too many fellow black citizens, locking them out of schools and jobs, and into neighborhoods that were far inferior to those enjoyed by whites. These conditions gave rise to, as the report described, a “burning sense of grievance” that mainstream white Americans did not understand.

The Kerner Commission sought to correct this, unequivocally instructing its audience: “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 report the commission wrote systematically made its case, documenting how government action and private discrimination produced segregated living and occupational patterns from Reconstruction through Jim Crow. The report described how black migrants to Northern cities were kept out of white neighborhoods by custom, law and force. It provided detailed tables and statistical charts, as well as qualitative surveys and field reports.

The Kerner Report further described in detail the inequities in voting, municipal governance and policing in the more than 20 cities the authors most closely investigated. For example, it documented how at-large districting prevented black residents from having their voices represented on city councils and school boards, how sanitation and recreational services were either denied or substandard for black communities, and how black families were compelled to pay higher prices for food in local markets than their white suburban counterparts, despite receiving inferior meats and produce.

In its most memorable phrase, the commission’s report warned that “our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Accordingly, the Kerner Commission called for a wide-ranging agenda of more than one hundred programmatic and policy interventions they regarded as a bold plan for national action. The commission called for the creation of 2 million public and private sector jobs over in three years, raising the minimum wage, expanding and universalizing pre-K education for poor families, massive federal investments in public education and housing, providing public daycare centers for children, curtailing police harassment, including indiscriminate stops and verbal abuse, and the long-term development of a universal basic income and much more.

Unfortunately, this ambitious program was dead on arrival. President Johnson’s political capital had been sapped by the war in Vietnam and his political coalition suffered massive losses in mid-term elections. More dauntingly, Richard Nixon and George Wallace tapped into white’s racial anxiety with a campaign message of “law and order” that strategically stoked a backlash to the uprisings. In a sense, Nixon and Wallace ran against the Kerner Report, arguing that such a program would “reward the rioters.” Nixon’s election to the presidency in November 1968 ensconced this position. Five decades later, President Trump campaigned on a similar appeal of cultural and racial resentments, describing inner cities as “a living hell” and immigrants as “rapists” and criminals.

The Kerner Report sits at the heart of the most elemental questions of racial politics and policy. It is not just a relic of another era; it is a roadmap not taken. Moreover, it is not just about what we must accomplish, but about how to accomplish it — how do we build a movement and a set of political and institutional pathways that can realize a more equitable future? How do we rebuff appeals to cultural resentments and explicit and coded racial demagoguery? The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society here at UC Berkeley has partnered with the Economic Policy Institute and the 21st Century Cities Initiative at Johns Hopkins University to organize a conference to help answer these questions, as well as to envision what a contemporary Kerner Report might recommend.

Not merely a case study in what went wrong, the Kerner Report has powerful historical resonances. Each of the disturbances investigated was precipitated by an “inciting event,” which in every case was a police encounter not much different from those that have attracted so much recent attention since Michael Brown, Jr. was killed in Ferguson. The first account described in the Kerner Report was an incident that occurred in Tampa, Florida in June, 1967, with chilling parallels. Police officers shot and killed a 19-year old man named Martin Chambers after a brief chase following reports that a nearby camera store had been broken into.  The officers claimed that Chambers was running and refused to halt after so they shot him in the back to prevent him from escaping. When he was shot, his hands were stretched upward along a fence, and many believed that he was trying to surrender with his hands up when he was shot. This sparked three days of unrest.

Anyone reading the Department of Justice’s Ferguson, Baltimore, or Chicago reports of recent years cannot avoid the similarities to the causes and contexts found in the Kerner report.  In the executive summary of its report, the Kerner Commission included a quote from one of its more eminent witnesses, Dr. Kenneth Clark, a social scientist whose research informed the US Supreme Court’s Brown decision, which serves as a fitting epitaph to the report today as it does when originally published:

“I read the report… of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.  I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”


Find out more about the Race & Inequality in America: Kerner Commission at 50 conference here, including how to register.

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