Is America Repeating the Mistakes of 1968?

Roundup
tags: The Kerner Report



Julian E. Zelizer is a historian at Princeton University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.

“All of us, as Americans, should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” said President Barack Obama following the horrific shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal-justice system.” In an American tragedy of the nation’s own making, Obama will end his historic presidency with racial turmoil rocking the nation. The person whose election brought so much hope about the trajectory of race relations in the United States, a country that has perpetually suffered from the original sin of slavery, is spending these days desperately trying to calm the anger over police killings of African Americans and the protests and violence that have ensued.

Today, America has a president who understands the urgent need to address the problems of institutional racism that have been broadcast to the entire world through smartphones and exposés of a racialized criminal-justice system. But this conflict is taking shape right in the middle of a heated election season—one that includes a candidate who has made draconian proposals for national security and who appeals to the “Silent Majority.” Following the events in Dallas, Donald Trump released a statement that read: “We must restore law and order. We must restore the confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street.”

This is not the first time this has happened. When questions over race and policing were front and center in a national debate in 1968, the federal government failed to take the steps necessary to make any changes. The government understood how institutional racism was playing out in the cities and how they exploded into violence, but the electorate instead was seduced by Richard Nixon’s calls for law and order, as well as an urban crackdown, leaving the problems of institutional racism untouched. Rather than deal with the way that racism was inscribed into American institutions, including the criminal-justice system, the government focused on building a massive carceral state, militarizing police forces, criminalizing small offenses, and living through repeated moments of racial conflict exploding into violence.

In July 1967, during the aftermath of the devastating race riots in Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—each of which started after incidents of police brutality against African Americans—President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known popularly as the Kerner Commission (for the chairman, Otto Kerner), to examine the roots of the violence. The rioting had taken place at a politically fraught time for Johnson. Southern Democrats and Republicans were leading a resurgence of the conservative coalition following the midterm elections of 1966. The disastrous Vietnam War had consumed all of the president’s remaining political capital, and conservatives on Capitol Hill were forcing him to make a decision between spending for guns or butter. Meanwhile, the civil-rights crusade had splintered, with the Black Power movement insisting that activists needed to take a bolder stand on issues like housing discrimination, policing, and unemployment.

Desperate to do something, but not in a position to do much more than defend his existing accomplishments, Johnson created the high-profile commission. The president stacked the commission with established political figures who were moderate and committed to the existing economic and political system. He wanted them to demonstrate to the public that the administration took the problems seriously—but he also wanted them to avoid recommendations that would embarrass him. Johnson was deeply cognizant of the economic and racial problems afflicting cities, but he felt that there was not much more he could do politically at that moment in time. Which is why the first version of the report was killed. ...




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