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Kerner Report

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Subject: Stephen Donaldson (activist), Counterculture of the 1960s
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Kerner Report

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois, was an 11-member commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future.


Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still underway in Detroit, Michigan. Mounting civil unrest since 1965 had stemmed riots in the black neighborhoods of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles (Watts Riot of 1965), Chicago (Division Street Riots of 1966), and Newark (1967 Newark riots).[1] In his remarks upon signing the order establishing the Commission, Johnson asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"[2]

Members of the Commission

Findings of the Report

Appointed by Johnson to serve as the commission's executive director, David Ginsburg played a pivotal role in writing the commission's findings.[3] The Commission's final report, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders[4] or Kerner Report was released on February 29, 1968 after seven months of investigation. The report became an instant best-seller, and over two million Americans bought copies of the 426-page document. Its finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity. Martin Luther King Jr., pronounced the report a "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life."[5]

The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social-service policies. The report also aimed some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media. "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective."

The report's most infamous passage warned, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

Its results suggested that one main cause of urban violence was white racism and suggested that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. It called to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to wipe out the destructive ghetto environment. In order to do so, the report recommended for government programs to provide needed services, to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and, most notably, to invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation.

The Commission's suggestions included, but were not limited to:

  • "Unless there are sharp changes in the factors influencing Negro settlement patterns within metropolitan areas, there is little doubt that the trend toward Negro majorities will continue."
  • "Providing employment for the swelling Negro ghetto population will require ...opening suburban residential areas to Negroes and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers..."
  • "...cities will have Negro majorities by 1985 and the suburbs ringing them will remain largely all white unless there are major changes in Negro fertility rates, in migration settlement patterns or public policy."
  • "...we believe that the emphasis of the program should be changed from traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites."

One often overlooked recommendation of the report was for an expansion of police surveillance in order to better deal with further unrest. The Commission recommended that:

police departments...develop means to obtain adequate intelligence for planning purposes...An intelligence unit staffed with full-time personnel should be established to gather, evaluate, analyze, and disseminate information on potential as well as actual civil disorders...It should use undercover police personnel and informants.

The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration released federal funding for local police forces in response.[6]


President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had already pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, ignored the report and rejected the Kerner Commission's recommendations.[7] In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. [8]

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Kerner Report, the Eisenhower Foundation sponsored two complementary reports, The Millennium Breach and Locked in the Poorhouse. The Millennium Breach, co-authored by former Senator and Commission member Fred R. Harris, found the racial divide had grown in the subsequent years with inner-city unemployment at crisis levels.[9]

The Millennium Breach found that most of the decade that followed the Kerner Report, America made progress on the principal fronts the report dealt with: race, poverty, and inner cities. Then progress stopped and in some ways reversed by a series of economic shocks and trends and the government’s action and inaction.

Harris reported, “Today, thirty years after the Kerner Report, there is more poverty in America, it is deeper, blacker and browner than before, and it is more concentrated in the cities, which have become America’s poorhouses.”[10]


Conservative critics of the Kerner Report argue that the basis and findings of the report are deeply flawed. They contend that the report exonerates rioters for their behavior and places the blame for their actions on the larger society. The notion that racism created pathological social conditions that lead to the eruption of racial riots, as the Kerner Commission argued, was not supported by the findings of many uncited sociologists. The major riots took place in cities where blacks experienced the least racism; although Los Angeles, Newark, and Detroit were certainly not without racism, it did not compare with that in the deep South.

Abraham H. Miller, who won a Pi Sigma Alpha Award from the Western Political Science Association for his statistical refutation of some of the Commission's data analysis, stated, "There is considerable reason for rejecting the sociological and popular cliché that absolute or relative deprivation and the ensuing frustration or despair is the root cause of rebellion."[11]

At a 1998 lecture commemorating the 30th anniversary of the report, Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor at Harvard University, stated,

"Because the commission took for granted that the riots were the fault of white racism, it would have been awkward to have had to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not. Likewise, if the problem was white racism, why didn’t the riots occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s?”[12]

Critics of the report also attribute the cause of the riots to the size of the black community where the eruption occurred and the failure of the police force to respond swiftly and adequately.[13]


External links

  • 1967 Newark Riots
  • Excerpts from the Kerner Report
  • Riots of the 1960s
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