Kerner Report

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Because the Kerner Report was a report generated by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, it does not really have characters, per se, but it is worth looking at some of the individuals associated with it to get a sense of the context in which it was created.

First, the namesake of the report and that of the Commission that generated it was Otto Kerner, governor of Illinois throughout most of the 1960s. In this role, he had to deal with numerous riots that broke out in Chicago, in particular. He therefore had a vested interest in the committee's findings. Like most of the other committee members, he was a moderate—President Lyndon Johnson chose him for that reason, feeling that the commission might otherwise be seen as too far left on issues of race and class.

Another important character in the Kerner Report is President Johnson himself. Johnson commissioned the report hoping that the committee would not reach conclusions that could be perceived by conservatives as radical. This, of course, is exactly what they did, and Johnson was, in the words of one historian, "blindsided." The political fallout from the Kerner Report was exactly what Johnson feared. By seeming to blame whites for the violence that broke out in black inner-city neighborhoods, the report played into a narrative that would be exploited by presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968.

Nixon's "law and order" platform emphasized the violence and destruction without looking at the underlying causes of racial tension. He played into white fears that society was falling apart and that radicals (like the rioters) were to blame. Nixon, in a sense, was also a character in the drama surrounding the Kerner Report, as it provided a convenient target for the white backlash that helped propel him into the White House. In the wake of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had approved of the Kerner Report, Nixon called for tough measures rather than the sweeping structural changes called for by the Commission.

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