Kerner Report

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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.

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