Why the Kerner Commission Didn't Move the Needle on Racial Justice

Why the Kerner Commission Didn't Move the Needle on Racial Justice

Five decades after President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate the roots of racial discrimination and violence in urban America, remarkably little has changed. That’s the conclusion of a new book co-authored by former Senator Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the commission. Organized in the wake of deadly riots in more than 100 cities in 1967, the commission offered a grim assessment of the stark inequality, police brutality, and endemic discrimination fueling racial violence. “We are moving toward two societies,” the commission warned, “one black, one white, separate and unequal.” On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, Senator Harris writes that the United States has largely failed to confront those issues head on.

We may be disappointed, but we should not be surprised. Appointing commissions to study the causes of racial violence was the standard American response to racial turmoil in the 20th century—typically with limited results. Starting with the riots in East St. Louis in 1917 through the Harlem riots of 1943, at least 21 commissions were appointed in the United States to make recommendations to prevent the recurrence of riots. In the 1960s, at least 13 riot commissions were appointed to respond to race-related civil unrest.

The best of these reports provided fair pictures of endemic racial biases and disparities. None proved to be a blueprint resulting in progress.

The Kerner Report was unique only because it raised the profile of racial unrest to the national level. But it wasn’t unique for long. Three months after it was released in February 1968, riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (as well as the shock of the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy) prompted Johnson to once again appoint a commission to investigate.

Interracial violence has taken various forms over the years—whites attack black communities, blacks respond to police violence, for example. But despite this variation in the forms of interracial conflict, appointing commissions to study riots has been the norm. To what end?

The primary purpose of riot commissions, as David J. Olson and I concluded in our book Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America (1977), has been to allow political leaders to give the appearance of responding to crises without having to make any consequential decision in the heat of the moment. The commissions, comprised of high-status individuals with strong ties to existing institutions, instead report some time later, when the immediate crisis has cooled and normal political processes can prevail. In short, political leaders buy time. 

The Kerner Commission differed from other riot commissions not only because its scope was national rather than local, but also because its report was soon followed by the riots that occurred after Dr. King’s death, in a sense continuing the urgency underlying the origins of the report. 

As has been widely reported, President Johnson was disappointed that the Kerner Commission did not give more credit to his domestic policy agenda. And it’s possible that the president’s embrace of the report might have led to greater progress on the report’s recommendations. 

A reading of the history of riot commissions in America, however, would temper this conclusion.  Riot commissions have typically functioned to dampen demand for change and restore the status quo. However well-intentioned, the Kerner Commission was hardly an exception.