Kerner Commission: Prejudice – A name for racism (1968)

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Prejudice – A name for racism

Kerner Commission Report backstory, part 3: Prejudice. It’s in all our hearts. What can we do about it?

By Otto Kerner, Chairman, National Advisory Commission an Civil Disorders

Prejudice - A name for racism 1968




[Original] Editor’s Note: Judge Otto Kerner, former governor of Illinois and chairman of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders discusses in a series of five articles the significance of the report. Judge Kerner tells for the first time the inside story of how the members arrived at their findings on racism, and gives his views on where do we go from here. Today’s third article deals with prejudice. It’s in all our hearts. What can we do about it?

Prejudice. It’s in all our hearts. What can we do about it?

I was lucky. My parents never designated anyone by racial or religious label. It was outside my home that I first learned about prejudice.

But the fact is that nearly all of us have prejudices of one sort or another. These feelings feed the racism that has done so much to divide America into two societies, separate and unequal. We are trying to close that breach now, to achieve the great American dream of an equal society.

Racism, bred into our society for 300 years, is the underlying cause of the rioting in our cities. That was the inescapable conclusion of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, of which I was chairman.

White racism, we found, maintains and enforces the ghetto system — and thus is primarily responsible for its explosive mixture. Black racism also plays its part.

What can we do about these racist prejudices? How do we cleanse our hearts of them? We must start by facing ourselves and admitting we have such feelings. If we are unwilling to do that, we can spend billions of dollars to overcome the racist system, and the money will go down the drain.

All the federal money in the world will not help under these circumstances. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding and, above all, new will. So this means confronting ourselves and acknowledging prejudices if we have them. We need not feel guilty or resentful about it; racial stereotypes are part of our world, and we grew up with them.

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Often they are unconscious, unintentional or simply based on ignorance or misinformation. It is amazing, for example, that so many people believe that Negro blood is different from white blood. It isn’t. If you believe that it is, that is a racist belief.

As a result of my work with the civil disorders commission, I have received many hundreds of letters, not all of them complimentary.

Some of thosee writers merely proved the obvious far* that there are many people with racial prejudices. I suppose they were surprised when a Negro’s heart was transplanted into a white body and the body did not reject it. Many people believe that the Negro is not even part of the human race.

And many of us categorize. One Negro does something wrong, and therefore all Negroes are no good.

People tell me, for instance, that when Negroes move into a neighborhood they destroy it. Perhaps that is right — but we are talking about slum areas. When whites lived there, there may have been three or four people living in a four-room apartment. When Negroes moved in, there might be 12 of them in that same apartment. That overcrowding is the result of poverty and the fact that Negroes generally are restricted to certain neighborhoods.

The property owners tend to tell themselves, “Well, the building is going to be destroyed and I know they can’t move to another neighborhood.” So they raise the rents. Negroes actually pay more for comparable living space than whites do.

And because of the crowding, there is bound to be more garbage. But as a rule garbage collections are not increased.

Many of us have not faced these facts — and that is a prejudice. We grow up in an atmosphere of subtle and not so subtle racism and we are fooling ourselves if we think that Negroes are not bitterly resentful of this.

In Detroit, after the severe 1967 disorders, I visited the ghetto ruins and talked with a black man employed in a poverty office.

“I have been working with youth gangs,” he told me, “and I think I’ve done a pretty good job in straightening them out.

Yet this morning when I was walking to work, a prowl car came along with two cops in it. They said, ‘Hey you, hey boy, come here.’ I am no boy. I am 54 years old. I haven’t broken any laws. Damned if I like to be called ‘boy.’ I’ll bet they wouldn’t call a white man ‘boy.'”

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I asked this man what the police did to him, and he replied: “They said, ‘Come here, what have you got in there?’ I opened the case I was carrying and showed them my lunch. Then they said. ‘Stretch.’ Every three or four days I am stretching over a police car.”

And that is an example of prejudice at work — the disrespectful white attitudes that have done so much to inflame the black ghettos.

The police uniform, whether warn by a white man or a black man, has become a symbol of the “establishment” in poverty areas. They hate the uniform itself. It’s the closest personal association with the “establishment.” What can we do about these things?

Our commission report is full of specific recommendations, of course. But I am not concerned with whether people agree or disagree with its conclusions. I do ask them to put aside prejudice and to read the factual parts of the report objectively. By reading and accepting the facts, one acquires a new attitude. Then one begins to understand the problem.

I say to them, “If you have the courage, and I hope you have, go into your own slum areas, black or white. Go into the poor districts. Visit with the people in their homes. Don’t just drive around the streets and expect to know what is going on behind the walls. You don’t see the sickness and malnutrition that way.”

And I add: “You might like to invite some of them to your homes. You might want to help them develop plans far bettering their communities. But remember, they don’t want patronizing; they are sick of it, and cynical. You may be a successful businessman, but this doesn’t mean you know more about their problems than they do.”

Overcoming racism in the end, requires new attitudes of all Americans. We all must work at it, black and white. And, actually, I am most encouraged particularly by our youth. Many of them understand. They have a concern for others.

There is a certain age group we are never going to change, but there is hope for changing the prejudices of people willing to change.

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