Remember The Kerner Report?

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission, and asked its members to identify and analyze the social forces and dysfunctions that had triggered a national epidemic of inner-city riots in the 1960s.

Their findings weren’t what Johnson had anticipated or wanted.

Unhappy with the findings and the flaws they revealed in his “Great Society” agenda, Johnson ultimately distanced himself from the Kerner Report, even refusing to sign thank you cards to the commissioners.

The most famous paragraph, of course, was the one that warned “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The report was an indictment of white America:

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.

As an article from the Smithsonian recently put it, the Commission’s inquiry identified those “white institutions”: bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other “culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination” that had converged and triggered violent upheavals, primarily in African-American neighborhoods of American cities.

And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.

Rereading the report, it is stunning to realize how much hasn’t changed, especially the escalation of violence caused by policing practices. 

Far too many of the “institutions” the Kerner Report identified still persist, half a century later. Thanks to cell phone cameras, America has almost daily evidence of bad policing. A robust academic criminal justice literature documents the flaws in our justice system. Redlining and other discriminatory banking practices continue, although somewhat abated. Housing issues persist. And vote suppression has become more sophisticated and–if anything–more widespread.

That said, there are some striking and hopeful differences in the eruptions we are currently experiencing. For one thing, the crowds on the streets are multi-cultural and largely peaceful. For another, polling reflects widespread public support for Black Lives Matter and for measures to (finally) address the issues first identified by the Kerner Commission.

Also hopeful (yes, I know–hope “springs eternal”) is growing recognition of the structural nature of racism. The Kerner Report was prescient in its use of the term “institutions.”

Racism isn’t just Neo-Nazi rioters chanting “they shall not replace us,”  or the KKK burning a cross, or the refusal of a business to hire or serve “those people.” It isn’t confined to overt bad behaviors or bigoted personal attitudes. 

Racism is implicated in our acceptance of mass incarceration, our failure to notice, let alone protest, social stereotypes, the widespread trust in– and easy acceptance of– official versions of police interactions that turned violent or deadly. It’s reflected in acceptance of the way we  finance public education–methods that ensure that affluent areas will have well-resourced schools while schools in poorer areas will struggle. It’s the reason for the persistent animus and political pushback against efforts to strengthen the social safety net–the reason Americans sneer at poor people, especially poor people of color, who accept “welfare,” while applauding the real recipients of welfare– the “captains of industry” who lobby for and profit from obscenely large subsidies.

In a particularly pertinent observation, the Kerner Report deplored the practice of arming police officers with more deadly weapons. Instead, it recommended “a policy which combines ghetto enrichment with programs designed to encourage integration of substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto.” 

It wasn’t just President Johnson who rejected the findings. Overall white response to the Kerner Report was hostile. According to the Smithsonian article,

White response to the Kerner Commission helped to lay the foundation for the law-and-order campaign that elected Richard Nixon to the presidency later that year. Instead of considering the full weight of white prejudice, Americans endorsed rhetoric that called for arming police officers like soldiers and cracking down on crime in inner cities.

Fifty years later, white America cannot afford to make the same mistake.


  1. Obviously LBJ didn’t bother watching local and national news during his tenure in the White House or he would never have constituted that report. The entire country has always been aware of and condoned the racial problem and 50 years later, continuing and escalating the racial problems, WHITE AMERICA HAS BEEN HANDED THE BILL.

    My recent question regarding other than white race and/or ethnicity among commenters on this blog to speak out was never responded to. I GOT MY ANSWER BY THEIR SILENCE.

    I live in fear for my black and brown family members whose fears run much deeper than mine for obvious reasons. Will any of you respond to this question; do any of you have other-than-white racial makeup in your families? Sheila and Marv might ask the same question regarding Jewish – or Muslim – commenters or family members who remain victims. The same question can be asked regarding LGBTQ orientation or family members. There is nothing shameful in this but there IS much to fear. This is not an oddity 50 years after LBJ’s Kerner report, Jim Crow laws or the violence of the Civil Rights Movement which has restarted with thousands of white members joining the battle. The SCOTUS decision upholding LGBTQ rights in the workplace will simply continue to be ignored by state laws such as here in Indiana.

    “White response to the Kerner Commission helped to lay the foundation for the law-and-order campaign that elected Richard Nixon to the presidency later that year. Instead of considering the full weight of white prejudice, Americans endorsed rhetoric that called for arming police officers like soldiers and cracking down on crime in inner cities.”

    White America’s current Poster Boy is Donald Trump with his trusty sidekick riding shotgun (no pun intended), Mitch McConnell. Until both are gone we will maintain the racist status quo as hundreds of thousands continue to protest in our streets and white cops continue killing unarmed black men and women…and a few children.

  2. A quote from the John Hersey novel The Conspiracy seems appropriate here.
    “…We have developed a misconception of power. The institutions of war and slavery subtly pervade all our human relationships; and we have come to this: The aim of power is to keep power…”

  3. And yesterday we were told by the fake-POTUS that we want law & order whether we know that’s what we want or not. Sounds painfully familiar to what the “Silent Majority” demanded. I’d forgotten al about the Kerner Rpt – thank you for writing about it. We briefly studied it in a topics in economics class, which I thought odd at the time, but I later came to deeply appreciate Dr. Loescher at IU for his broad perspective and insistence that the dismal science be used to solve our problems, not just gin up GDP.

    Has/is anyone among author/commenters read/reading one of the 3-4 popular books out by black authors targeted to a white audience. “How to be an antiracist” by Inram X. Kindi is one. I have just started “Me & White Supremacy” by Layla Saad. I would be interested in participating in any discussion groups form or informal on some appropriate platform.

  4. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is a book written for White People and is about understanding how we move through the world oblivious to how our whiteness gives us privilege that people of color will never know. There are lots of book groups meeting. Former Congressional Candidate Dee Thornton, an African American woman who ran for District 5 (Susan Brooks current seat) in 2018 and without any money from the Democrats ran a very successful campaign and who this time was beaten by a woman (who I guess has some Hispanic background In her but who presents as a white woman) who was given lots of money by the Marion Count Democrats to win the Democrat primary to run for District 5 — is hosting a book discussion on White Fragility today. One this morning and another one tonight. Check her website or facebook page. By the way, while Dee was campaigning this time she was told by a Democrat voter, “I like you a lot, but you will never win because of the color of your skin”. The Marion County Democrats thought that also and didn’t even try to help a Highly accomplished Black Women win a seat to Congress. Even the supposedly White allied institutions perpetuate racism. The problem is huge and deep.

  5. Consider what 45 said two days ago about the pandemic, ” If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases. If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.” This has pretty much been the order of the day for us on every topic. If we don’t know about it, it didn’t happen. Today, there is so much we can’t NOT know about, but now that we know, what will we do? First step: VOTE blue.

  6. I would like to offer Sheila and her readers a unique and soul stirring experience. Some of you may have heard reference to “the talk” that Black parents have with their children, especially boys, about interacting with white people, especially law enforcement.

    A very talented (now brand new PhD) Black friend of mine, Sonny Kelly, wrote and performed a one-person play about this experience a few years ago here. It got raves. It is now being made available to stream through July 10. This is a true “walk a mile in my shoes” experience.

    You can find it here:

  7. Per WIKI on the Kerner Report: Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

    Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, MLK was killed April 4, 1968 and a new wave of civil disorder began.

    As a young white man living in the South Chicago area, the Kerner Report was rejected by those in power and by white people in general.

    Another report (we have a lot of reports) U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence had this to say:

    “To be a young, poor male; to be undereducated and without means of escape from an oppressive urban environment; to want what the society claims is available (but mostly to others); to see around oneself illegitimate and often violent methods being used to achieve material success; and to observe others using these means with impunity – all this is to be burdened with an enormous set of influences that pull many toward crime and delinquency. To be also a Negro, Mexican or Puerto Rican American and subject to discrimination and segregation adds considerably to the pull of these other criminogenic forces.”

    The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence appointed Walker to head the Chicago Study Team that investigated the violent clashes between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

    In its report Rights in Conflict (better known as the Walker Report), the Chicago Study Team that investigated the violent clashes between police and protesters at the convention stated that the police response was characterized by:

    “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the areas where confrontations were occurring.”

    The Walker Report, “headed by an independent observer from Los Angeles police – concluded that: “Individual policemen, and lots of them, committed violent acts far in excess of the requisite force for crowd dispersal or arrest. To read dispassionately the hundreds of statements describing at firsthand the events of Sunday and Monday nights is to become convinced of the presence of what can only be called a police riot.”

    I read this quote on Facebook, “One reason people insist you use proper channels to change things, is because they have control of the proper channels and they are confident it won’t work.”

    You could add to this quote above they do not want the “proper channels” to work in any case so various hurdles, mazes, and blind alleys are constructed. If for some reason the controllers do decide to move it will be at a glacial pace.

  8. The United States is–by far–the most likely country to be imprisoned:

    Our prison population per 100,000 is 737. Russia is second at 615. China, by comparison is just a blip on the scale at 118.

    Our jail occupancy rate is 107.6%; Brazil is the worst at 150.9%

    When blacks say nothing has changed they are at least correct. In truth, it has gotten even worse.

    Blacks, brown, and red incomes have cratered. We are more segregated than than ever. Education for minorities sucks, and, of course, our militarized police forces kill more minorities–especially blacks–every day.

    Now some one is hanging blacks in trees–reminiscent of the 1950’s and ’60’s white Trump encourages white extremist groups while attacking antifa.

    This country is a racist mess.

    Finally, in a concerted effort to lose in November dumb ass Democrats are promoting “Defund the Police,” the most ridiculous and exploitable slogan I have ever heard. Republicans will bludgeon democrats with this abomination and simple rhetoric such as, “Democrats want to leave you defenceless,” “IF the Democrats defund police, who will protect us from murder, rape and robbery?” and similar tropes.

    How about, “Re-imagine policing?” or “De-militarize policing,” or “Spend our taxes for education, not intimidation,” or damn near anything else.

    I’m 72 and a lifelong Democrat, not because they are perfect, but because at least they aren’t crazy . . . most of the time. Defund Police is clearly an exception.

  9. Theresa’s quote from a Hershey novel tells it all, as in, it’s all about power, economic, political and social. Whether or not such power is derived from other authoritarian means (religion, racism etc.) is in keeping with this basic premise. I was practicing law in Indianapolis when the Werner Report came out and we liberals thought that Report would change things. It didn’t, but rather gave racists and others fearful of losing “power” a new reason to hunker down with or even expanding the then existing order.

    When in law school as Justice of my law fraternity we initiated the first black student ever into our fraternity and were, I’m sorry to say, called to account for this “mistake” by practicing lawyers who were our fraternity alums. My Vice Justice (later to become the bankruptcy judge for the Southern District) and I held firm and our new fraternity brother did well in the practice for years afterwards.

    It occurred to me recently that we humans with a virtually identical DNA to chimpanzees have no business in discriminating against fellow chimpanzees who have a differently colored “fur,” but do, not in response to any valid rationale other than as a means of holding and maintaining power, power which approves of crimes by police and other ways and means of holding off-color (by what standard?) citizens at bay. Perhaps driving while white in the Congo and being stopped by a Congolese policeman for such a transgression would elucidate us.

  10. What’s interesting.

    Liberals want freedom, authoritarians want authority.
    Democrats believe that Republicans want powerless government, Republicans believe Democrats want overreach.


    The only way that that resolves in my mind is if liberal Democrats want federal government freeing people from the consequences of poverty and disease and oppression and ignorance while the authoritarian Republicans want only the wealthy and businesses and white, Christian, heterosexual, born in this country males to have authority.

    I checked with the Constitution and it seems to define us as living under liberal democratic governance.

    In November we’ll get to choose to continue what we have traditionally been or relaunch as part of a new world order.

  11. JoAnn — I have black nephews in their 20s. The stories they and their mother share are heartbreaking and frightening.

  12. MG; sorry we share such a frightening and sad part of the history of this nation. My family members are strong but the fear is always there and they hide their pain. I wonder if I could be as strong in their place; racism and bigotry is much, much more to me than a political or social issue; it is deeply personal. Thank you for speaking out.

  13. I wrote Werner when it was the Kerner Report in my piece today. Wrong. I knew better. Mea culpa.

  14. JoAnn Green@7:15

    I think I’ve definitely discussed this issue before, if there are those that didn’t read it because it on agree with my viewpoints, well, can’t help that.

    I am Italian, German, Native American, and African! So, very mixed ethnicity. My wife is African-American, so I’m familiar with racism!

    My wife and daughter were stopped in 1995 by an all-white police force in Libertyville Illinois. There was a hold up of a liquor store about 40 minutes away, she was coming back from taking my daughter who was 10 years old at the time, to an arts and crafts store. She was driving her brand-new white Chevy conversion van, when 6 squad cars boxed her in and pulled her over. They had their guns drawn and freaked out my daughter, my wife had been through that drill before, so she just told Amber to not move a muscle. The officers were pointing their weapons at my daughter’s side of the vehicle and towards the back of the van. They claim they stopped her because the robbers were black and wearing blue overalls. My wife and daughter had skirts on. But they claim they saw a blue sleeping bag on the back seat of the van. Now, how that happened I have no idea, there were blinds on the window of the van, and they were tempted very dark. On top of that the interior was blue. But that was their story! They wanted her to get out of the van, and she told them that she was going to drive to the police station and then get out. The Sgt. on-site told her to never mind, that they were just doing their jobs. Although, when she was stopped, it was only 10 minutes after the stick up. So unless she had a helicopter conversion van, she could not have been implicated whatsoever. And she was heading back north where the holdup happened when they stopped her. No apology issued!

    My son was stopped by some neo-Nazi white nationalists on his way home from middle school, the Abbott mathematics Academy in Waukegan. They told him if he was going to walk by their property, he would either have to pay them a fee, or he would not like the alternative, and all the kids of his ethnicity would have to do the same thing. I had just gotten home from a 16 hour shift, my wife and son told me what happened, my son told me exactly where the property was, I took my Mossberg 12gauge and 357 magnum, called Carl, one of the leaders of the Black Eagles where I would work security on the weekends, and they rode by for support. I told them the next time they saw me, it was going to be the last thing they ever saw! And, I wasn’t joking! There was more to what happened, but that’s the gist of it.

    I was constantly accosted by neo-Nazis when I was a kid, my father became involved when I finally told him. These were Nazis that came from Germany to work in the United States and collect a Social Security pension once they move back to Germany. Now they claimed they weren’t Nazis, but my father was German said they absolutely were Nazis. Anyway, that was handled through the legal system and some physical foreplay so to speak. Needless to say it didn’t go over when it was discovered they were threatening to shoot me from their window. I was in 2nd grade.

    My wife was accosted by teachers in her school, because she was developed at a young age, they were very hands on so to speak those teachers were all white, and more than 1 told her that she wouldn’t be smart enough to graduate high school. Today, as we are both retired, she has 6 college degrees. I’ve seen store detectives follow her around the store, I’ve seen people cut in line in front of them because they feel their privileged, except if I’m there, I don’t stay quiet about it. Her grandfather was a preacher in Missouri, he owned horses, and there was a church on his property. The KLAN burned down his barn along with the horses, and his church. So his horse business was gone. He was considered a wealthy man back in the day, that was during the burgeoning Jim Crow issues, so that family wealth and all that it could bring with it was gone forever. That happened to many black families, where their wealth was stolen by whites, to keep the black folks in their place.

    My uncle David had back broken, wrapped in a chain and thrown into a lake for dating a white girl in Wisconsin. That was my grandmother’s brother. He was 17 years old! Nothing was ever done to those white boys that did it, because they were family of the police chief and local politicians. That was only one of my uncles that were murdered, there are more. One of my brothers was murdered by a white woman in Kenosha, and suffice it to say, even though I might look white, I really despise and do not trust white people. Except, those who are in my congregation, because they are just like me and have had similar experiences. And, if it wasn’t for my wife and those who I worship with, I probably would be pulling a trigger somewhere.

    And, let’s not forget, how during World War II, the white soldiers used to tell those European women, black soldiers would grow tales at midnight! Now these men, were fighting for their country, and they were disrespected by their compatriots while they were fighting, and many were murdered once they got back home.

    My wife worries about our black sons, our youngest lives in the city, and she’s calling him every day, and I see her cry because she so worried that he’s going to be murdered. This society is nasty, it’s evil, and it needs to End! I look forward to that, Because it is the only justice many will ever receive! White Man’s justice does not SAVE lives of the oppressed, it puts its knee on the neck of the oppressed !!!!!

  15. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren are mixed race and all males, and they have their horror stories. They also have their strategies for avoiding the conflicts, both with police and with gangs that try to force them to join. They are not proud of their strategies, because none involve standing up to oppression like a man. They just want to survive, so they swallow their pride and then suffer from the guilt of cowardice.

    My oldest is 23. He graduated from Lawrence Central. He tells me that of his high school friends every male is either now dead or in prison. However, I know one of his friends who is not dead or in prison, at least not in conventional prison, not yet. He failed to find enough work to have a place of his own, so he either lives with his mother or with a woman who has a job. He too flays himself for the guilt of social impotence and cowardice.

    For these young black men, emasculated by the system, there is a temptation to respond to their masters with passive aggression, like crossing the street slowly and developing counter culture–counter to whatever we white men think is proper. That passive aggression alone is an aggravation to police and to white men.

    My grandson is often stopped for driving black. A very common police practice during traffic stops is for two officers to give conflicting orders. Example: “Keep your hands on the steering wheel.” while the other cop commands, “Hand me your registration.” If you obey one, you disobey the other. Disobeying an order for far too many prosecutors and judges automatically justifies whatever force the police use and the camera sees.

    The police with their various restraining tools and holds will deliberately cause pain, primarily for the camera. Why for the camera? The pain causes the detained individual to squirm, which the camera records as appearing to resist arrest. Often, just in case viewers of the video might question the resist accusation, police will shout “Do not resist. Stop resisting” while applying more pain. These shootings and beatings by police, and the “escalations” the police use to justify violence are not accidents. And they are not organic to peacekeeping, but they are part and parcel of the Blue Mafia, as is the Blue Mafia’s code of silence.

  16. “Still a man hears what he wants to hear
    and disregards the rest. . . .
    After changes upon changes
    We are more or less the same
    After changes we are more or less the same.”

    The Boxer
    Simon & Garfunkel

  17. John and Larry; thank you, these events in your lives and your families lives are vital to know when the subject of race is the issue. We are a family of sorts on this blog, thanks to Sheila’s daily grind of keeping us informed while maintaining all of her other responsibilities. Your familial connections are much more historical and of longer duration than mine; only 21 of my 83 years as witness pales compared to your lives. But all Black Lives Matter. Your knowledge and understanding runs much deeper and is more painful so thank you. I have been remiss in not asking about LBGTQ relatives and there are a number of Lesbians and Gays throughout my family. My marriages, and divorces, from 3 Black men were not due to race that I was aware of; possibly they dealt with issues regarding our marriage I was unaware of. I was very much aware of the resentment from Black women and disdain or open disgust from white men due to my choices but I did gain insight I wouldn’t have otherwise and don’t regret my choices.

    Some of you will remember Earl Kennedy who commented here until his death about 3 years ago. We took 2 vacations in Toronto, Canada, and one to Montreal; a beautiful, cosmopolitan country. We got to Montreal about 3:30 a.m. to find “no room at the inn”, no inns with a room, due to a convention. Stopped at a filling station and asked for help; the serviceman called friends nearby, a gay couple, who owned a Bed & Breakfast and got us a place to sleep. Slept late and walked through the beautiful neighborhood of brownstones looking for a restaurant. Found a large local tavern which served meals; walked into the overcrowded, extremely noisy dining area and spotted a table across the room. As Earl and I made our way carefully between tables we noticed the stares and the noise level dropped noticeably. We had only been seated about two minutes when we saw the bartender coming toward us. He leaned over and whispered in Earl’s ear, “I’m sorry sir, but I have to ask you to leave; we don’t serve women in here.” We looked around carefully and not another female in the place, we asked about the situation and were told it is, or was at the time, acceptable. Earl spent the next 30 years telling people the only time in his life he got kicked out of anywhere was because he was with me. He had other stories with no laugh as the punch line.

    The emasculation which begins early in life for Black boys makes those who become highly successful as men in whatever their chosen field may be, a bigger threat to white men. Whether real or imagined; that threat permeates our police and sheriff forces, allowed and supported by local, state and federal level governments. Who will write the report on what we are living through now and how will it end; how will the report end, for racism and bigotry will continue, unabated unless and until Trump, McConnell and their personal Republican party are removed from power. And with them gone; we can only realistically hope for some improvement in time to save some of the Black lives remaining in the cross hairs and under the knees of white men.

  18. Have any one of you ever taught high school as a white male in a school that was 90% black student population?

  19. Jo-Ann,
    I didn’t know Earl, I wasn’t on the block at that time, but I can relate to the experience! Way back when, I went out to California to live with my cousin for a couple of years. We went into a little bar eatery combo called the chess King in North Hollywood California. When we went in, this very burly lady told us that we we’re in the wrong place, LOL, and there was not another guy in the place. She suggested we go up the street a ways, that was for the guys, and we declined and left hungry.

  20. John; that reminds me of when my friend’s brother was released from prison he stayed with her, she lived downtown in the old Lockerbie Square. He walked a few blocks away and tried to enter Labyris Bar but the woman who bared his way said it didn’t matter that he promised not to start any trouble, he could not come in. Until his sister explained the situation; he thought they could tell he just got out of prison.

  21. Years ago, I remember reading how distraught and angry LBJ was with the Kerner report. He felt, with significant justification, that he had done more for American blacks than any President since Lincoln. As President, Johnson had used his considerable legislative skills to somehow convince congressional southern Democrats not to kill the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Johnson’s biographer, Robert Caro, feels those two advancements would not have happened TO THIS DAY without the considerable legislative skills of LBJ AND the large legislative majorities he enjoyed in both Houses subsequent to the assassination of John Kennedy. Johnson said at the time that the Civil Rights bill meant Democrats would lose the south for a generation, but he did it anyway.

    LBJ also passed Medicare for senior citizens which is said to have raised more black people from poverty than any other program in history. Health care for retirees had been a Democratic goal since the time of FDR but only Johnson could get it passed.

    LBJ passed 50 education bills alone to provide equal education opportunity and to pump new funds into K-12 including for special education, to kick off head start for inner city kids, and to provide more federal grants and loans for college educations. Various war on poverty programs also passed WITH FUNDING to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder. In a society that often equates money with power and influence, the war on poverty seemed a way to bring both to American blacks. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a major booster of these programs. He and Johnson had a longer, stronger, and closer relationship than King had ever had with John Kennedy. But race riots had been the catalyst for the Kerner Report. There was considerable unrest as well over Vietnam. Then came the 1968 election year, release of the Kerner report in February, assassination of King with his death and subsequent riots across the nation focusing MORE attention on the Kerner report. The report essentially said entrenched, systemic, institutional racism had overwhelmed the dozens and years of legislative accomplishments LBJ and MLK had worked so hard to enact. King had become an opponent of Vietnam and was reluctant to do so because he felt he owed Johnson so much. Nevertheless, after April of 1968, King was no longer alive to praise Johnson for his historic record of achievements for civil rights, voting rights, and those in poverty, so many of whom were American blacks.

    The Kerner report was correct, but I also understand LBJ’s reaction to it.

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