Justin Driver on the 1968 Report on Race That Shook America—and How Little Has Changed

The Report on Race That Shook America

Surprisingly, when the Kerner Report surfaced, in February 1968, black-power supporters felt cheered, and President Johnson was chagrined. H. Rap Brown, who was in a Louisiana jail cell for inciting a crowd, released an exultant statement: “The members of the commission should be put in jail under $100,000 bail each because they’re saying essentially what I’ve been saying.” For his part, an infuriated LBJ canceled the White House ceremony where he had been scheduled to accept a bound copy of the report, avoided public commentary on the eagerly anticipated document, and refused to sign customary letters recognizing the commissioners for their service. But Johnson’s effort to ignore the report failed utterly. The Kerner Report became an instant publishing phenomenon; Bantam sold almost 1 million paperbacks in the first two weeks. Public appetite ran so strong that Marlon Brando read aloud excerpts of the volume on a late-night television talk show.

Fifty years have now elapsed since the Kerner Report appeared, but even in our current age of woke-ness, the document stands out for its unvarnished, unflinching identification of “white racism” as the fundamental cause of urban unrest. Works written by committees (especially government committees) have a well-deserved reputation for inducing somnolence, but the Kerner Report somehow managed to frame its indictment of racial oppression in several stirring formulations that have endured. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission stated. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The report warned, in perhaps its most celebrated passage: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Some aspects of the report may resonate even more loudly today than they did in the late 1960s. For example, the commission’s repeated emphasis on the role of police brutality in alienating black citizens and sowing the seeds of urban discontent now assumes added significance, given the many images of unarmed black men whose deaths at the hands of the state have been seared into the national psyche. Indeed, some of the report’s assessments could—eerily and depressingly—have been written yesterday to describe America’s recent racial disturbances, in locales ranging from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland: “Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action.” Apart from its sharply phrased critique of the riots’ origins, the report promoted an ambitious policy agenda, including major measures in the domains of education, employment, housing, and welfare.

Read more at The Atlantic