Kerner Report

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Kerner Report was a lengthy document produced by a National Advisory Committee, which was convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. The committee's purpose was to investigate the origins of the riots that shook American inner cities (most notably the cities of Newark and Detroit) in the late 1960s, and especially during the "long, hot summer" of 1967.

The report was quite long, and went beyond a superficial explanation of the riots to look at deeper, structural problems that confronted American inner cities. As the report itself noted, the "basic conclusion" of the committee was the following: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." Three years after de jure segregation was outlawed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Kerner Commission warned that this had only scratched the surface of inequality in the United States.

The report analyzed the causes of riots in first Newark, then Detroit, and then a disorder in New Brunswick that failed to materialize. Having done this, the commission turns to some commonalities between these events and more than twenty others across the country. In almost every case, they noted, the riots did not begin with a single "triggering incident" but rather an "increasingly disturbed social atmosphere" in which a series of events (like incidents of police violence) became attached to larger grievances held by city residents. The committee concluded that what motivated most of the rioters was "fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens."

Contrary to media narratives, these were not radicals bent on upending the American social order but ordinary people frustrated by the lack of opportunities, basic services, and, in a word, hope in their communities. The report goes on to summarize more specifically some of the grievances held in common in each of the communities surveyed. These included policing, unemployment, inadequate housing and education, and failed or inadequate government programs, to name a few. Overall, the riots were a consequence of these grievances, but the report went further, contending that these conditions existed because of racism. Pervasive discrimination in employment and housing, "white flight," and white opposition to taxation to provide basic services had created the ghettos where these riots erupted.

Overall, the report was not just a scathing indictment of conditions faced by African Americans in inner-cities. Rather, it implicated whites in the conscious creation of these conditions and warned that the very future of the nation was at stake in national efforts to address them.

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