Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
On August 11, 1965, deadly and highly destructive rioting broke out in the city of Los Angeles. The rioters were African Americans. The riots were an expression of pent-up anger regarding the extent of racial discrimination with which they had been forced to contend—discrimination that manifested itself in the form of inferior educational and professional opportunities and, most significantly, in the treatment of black and latino citizens at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Following the suppression of the riots by the police and the National Guard, then-Governor Pat Brown established a commission under the chairmanship of former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John McCone to study the origins of that riot. The final report, Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning? A Report of the Governor’s Commission on the Los Angeles Riots, was published on December 2, 1965. The report’s conclusions accurately pointed to the social problems including those listed above that contributed to the riots. Missing from that report, however, was a serious discussion of the origins of the social problems like poor education and job opportunities that contributed to the violence in the community of Watts. Of particular significance was the McCone Commission’s conclusion that the violence was attributable to troublemakers seeking to exploit social unrest.
One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, institutionalized racism had continued to be largely ignored, landmark Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Brown v. Board of Education) and legislative accomplishments (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) notwithstanding. Racial animosity remained a serious festering wound across the United States. That wound exploded into widespread rioting in cities across the united States during the later part of the decade, frustrations with the war in Vietnam contributing to sentiments underlying social discord. As a result came this wave of rioting, which was especially bad in Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey.
It is of great importance to note that criticisms of most published reports of the events in Watts and the resulting report from the McCone Commission rejected the categorization of the violence as a “riot.” To these critics, this was no riot; it was a revolt, an insurrection against centuries of racial injustice, and that is where the Kerner Commission report comes in. Officially titled Report of the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission reached a far starker conclusion regarding the violence:
This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . . Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.
Unlike the McCone Commission, which focused on the events of one community in one city, the Kerner Commission approached its subject from a national and historical perspective that enabled it to reach far more nationally relevant conclusions. What this commission understood was that social, racial unrest could not be examined in a historical or cultural vacuum: the nation’s long history of racial discrimination beginning with the brutal and dehumanizing practice of slavery and followed by racial violence perpetrated against the victims of slavery (in effect, terrorization of black citizens by the Ku Klux Klan and related white supremacist groups) and the passage and implementation Jim Crow laws that institutionalized racial segregation, and, finally, the continued perpetuation of less-violent but still pernicious forms racial discrimination all contributed to the events that rocked the country during the late 1960s. Included in the commission’s conclusions was the following:
The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of "moving the system."
This, then, was the Kerner Commission’s contribution to the discussion about racial violence in America. In contrast to previous analyses, the commission drew attention to systemic flaws that continued to permeate American culture. If its conclusions were ultimately lost in the morass of historical developments, they remain important to any study of race in America today.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
The Kerner Report was a formal attempt to explain one of the greatest explosions of urban racial violence in the history of the United States. The report, the product of a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, blamed pervasive racist attitudes and practices for the riots in the nation’s cities.
Beginning in 1963, the United States experienced an unprecedented number of urban racial disorders. In 1967 alone, more than one hundred U.S. cities exploded in episodes of violence and looting. In November, 1967, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission (formally known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, to conduct an investigation to determine exactly what had happened and why and to make recommendations to solve the problem.
The commission reported that the basic cause of the urban disorders was white racism and that white, moderate, responsible America was where the responsibility for the riots ultimately lay. It had conducted detailed case studies of cities where violence had erupted and found that the riots had not been caused by any single factor or precipitating incident and were not the result of an organized plan or conspiracy. Its report stated that “the single overriding cause of rioting in the cities was not any one thing commonly adduced—unemployment, lack of education, poverty, exploitation—but that it was all of those things and more, expressed in the insidious and pervasive white sense of the inferiority of black men.” The commission emphasized that the source of the problems was the very structure of American society; it did not seek explanations in the psychology of individuals. The report pointed out, “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 report concluded, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
According to the commission, although racism was behind the riots, the more proximate causes of the unrest were pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education, and housing and the concentration of impoverished blacks in the inner city, produced by black migration into and white exodus from urban areas. Other contributing factors included the frustration of African Americans with civil rights legislation that failed to deliver the greater opportunity it promised; dissatisfaction with police practices that, for many African Americans, symbolized the oppression associated with racism; and society’s apparent tendency to approve of violence against civil rights activists. The commission also noted enhanced racial pride, especially among young African Americans, and a feeling of powerlessness that led some to conclude that violence was the only effective means of change.
The Kerner Commission concluded that discrimination and segregation were serious problems that presented a threat to the future of the nation and must be eliminated. It indicated that three options were open to the nation: to maintain existing, admittedly inadequate policies regarding integration and the elimination of poverty; to focus on improving life in African American ghettos and ignore the goal of integration; or to pursue integration by improving conditions in the ghetto and implementing policies that would encourage movement out of the inner city.
The commission stated that the first option, to maintain existing policies, would permanently divide the United States into two separate and unequal societies and create an irreversible, polarized, police state rather than a democracy. The second option, described as “gilding the ghetto,” would enrich the inner city but would further promote a separate, segregated society. Option three, a national commitment to change that involved moving a substantial number of African Americans out of the ghettos, was viewed as the most viable. This option was designed to create a single society in which all citizens would be free to live and work according to their capabilities and desires, not their color.
The Kerner Commission made a series of recommendations related to jobs, housing, education, law enforcement agencies, and nearly every other aspect of American life. It asked Americans to tax themselves to the extent necessary to meet the vital needs of the nation. Specific goals included the elimination of barriers to job choice, education, and housing and increasing the responsiveness of public institutions to relieve feelings of powerlessness. Other goals were to increase communication across racial lines to destroy stereotypes; to halt polarization, distrust, and hostility; and to create common ground for efforts toward public order and social justice.
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