Saturday, July 09, 2016
theatlantic | Commission staffers had produced a blistering and radical draft report on November 22, 1967. The 176-page report, “The America of Racism,” recounted the deep-seated racial divisions that shaped urban America, and it was damning about Johnson’s beloved Great Society programs, which the report said offered only token assistance while leaving the “white power structure” in place. What’s more, the draft treated rioting as an understandable political response to racial oppression. “A truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” they wrote, “an unwillingness to compromise or wait any longer, to risk death rather than have their people continue in a subordinate status.” Kerner then nixed the report, and his staff director fired all 120 social scientists who had worked on it.
Nevertheless, the final Kerner Report was still incredibly hard-hitting: “This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Though the commissioners had softened the language from the first draft, much of the data remained the same and the overall argument was still incredibly powerful. The report focused on institutional racism. This meant that racism was not just a product of bad individuals who believed that African Americans were inferior to white Americans, but that these racial hierarchies were literally embedded in the structure of society.
“Segregation and poverty,” the report said, “have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. 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 riots in Newark and Detroit, the report continued, “were not caused by, nor were they the consequences of, any organized plan or ‘conspiracy.’” The rioters were educated and had been employed in recent years; most of them were furious about facing constant discrimination when seeking new employment, trying to find a place to live, or, worst of all, interacting with hostile law-enforcement officials.
The police received the most scrutiny in the report. In a haunting section, the report explained, “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods.” The rioting had shown that police enforcement had become a problem not a solution in race relations. More aggressive policing and militarized officers had become city officials’ de facto response to urban decay. “In several cities, the principal response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The report stressed that law-enforcement officers were not “merely a spark factor” to the riots but that they had come to symbolize “white power, white racism, and white oppression.”