Kerner Commission: Racism confronted after months of soul-searching (1968)

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Racism confronted after months of soul-searching

Kerner Commission Report backstory, part 1: How it evolved

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

Otto Kerner, Jr - kerner report 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 first article deals with white racism.

How the report evolved

It took months of soul-searching before we members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders fully faced up to racism.

Racism is very difficult for any of us to admit, even to ourselves. It certainly was not easy for the commission members. Nine of the eleven of us were white.

But gradually and inevitably we had to conclude that the basic cause of America’s racial disorders is white racism. I define this racism as the deeply-rooted system expressed in the belief that if you are white, you are superior — and if you are black, you are inferior.

We tried and rejected a softer approach. We looked for other words, but they were not right. It all came to a head at a six-hour, no-holds-barred session in Washington. Everyone spoke his mind. When we had finished, we knew the answer.

And we knew that telling it in that way would be bound to be uncomfortable. But we just could not avoid being blunt and direct.

That is why we insisted on that controversial and yet inescapable paragraph in our report to the American people:

“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.”

Our critics called us stupid for singling out racism, for making it the essential point of our report.

I know we were not stupid. It would have been intellectually dishonest to back away. We looked into this deeply and said it the way we saw it.

The story of how we confronted racism is a story of learning, of growing up, so to speak.

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damage done as result of 1967 Detroit riot
Senator Philip A Hart next to mayor Jerome P Cavanagh inspect damage done as result of the 1967 Detroit riot. (Credit: Bentley Image Bank, Bentley Historical Library)
Began after Newark riot

The eleven of us sat down together for the first time late in July, 1967.

There had been violent outbreaks and bloodshed in the Negro ghettos of Newark, Detroit and other American cities.

President Lyndon B Johnson called us together, eleven Americans from varying walks of life, to answer three basic questions:

What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

Our assignment was to examine only the disturbances of that year. As governor of Illinois, I was steaming downriver on a Mississippi paddle-wheeler, participating in a bi-state goodwill conference in the Quad Cities area, when the President’s call came. It was 8:30 p.m. July 28.

Scores of witnesses

Would I serve as chairman of the commission? The President wanted to know right away, and of course I said yes.

The other commission members were Mayor John V Lindsay of New York City, vice chairman; two US senators Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma and Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts; two congressmen, James C. Corman of California and William M. McCullough of Ohio. Also I. W. Abel, president of the United Steelworkers of America; Charles B. Thornton board chairman of Litton Industries; Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of the Colored People; Katherine Graham Peden, former commerce commissioner of Kentucky, and Herbert Jenkins police chief of Atlanta, Ga.

With the help of a skilled staff directed by David Ginsburg, we put in many hours of work. We walked in the riot-wrecked ghettos to see for ourselves.

We heard scores of witnesses ranging from far right-wingers to black radicals like Stokely Carmichael. Much of that testimony must remain confidential for the time being, for it was given only with that assurance We wanted everyone to be heard — left, right, center.

We immersed ourselves in America’s racial agony — its history, the system of segregation, the fears and fury of the ghetto.

And in November and December of 1967, we began to crystallize our thinking on the causes of black rioting. That weekend meeting in Washington clinched it in our minds.

Poverty not cause

I think a number of us started with the idea that the cause of civil disorders is poverty. It is not poverty. Actually, there are more whites than blacks in poverty areas.

Nor, essentially, are agitators to blame, although there are agitators. What about unemployment and underemployment, bad housing, inadequate education? They play a significant part, but there was something behind it all, maintaining and enforcing the system of two societies separate and unequal: racism.

Some of our members found it difficult, of course. There is no point in singling anyone out, but we all learned a good deal as we went along.

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Our black nationalist witness, for example, was so blunt and spoke with such frightening logic that some of our members left that room white as a sheet. Some of us said things at the start of our work that we no longer could accept at the end.

It was not the two Negro members of the commission — Roy Wilkins and Senator Brooke — who led us to confront racism. No, it was white members. The Negroes doubtless saw it all along, although they did not state it as bluntly as we decided to do.

Racism is many things, of course. Take a young man raised in a Negro ghetto. We call him a rioter. But how many of us know that by age 20 he probably will have been arrested five or six times, for no special reason? People in the ghetto simply are arrested frequently on suspicion.

When he applies for a job and his arrest record comes out — that is it. The personnel director probably never even tries to find out why the young man was arrested, or if he ever was convicted of anything — as he might if a white lad were involved. And that is racism.

Unconscious prejudice

We grow up with these: unconscious and perhaps unintentional prejudices. But to a Negro family man, racism means that his income is about 40 percent that of a white man of comparable education and skills.

His chances of being out of work is at least twice as high. He pays more for worse housing. His schools are poor. His life expectancy is lower. He is at the bottom — unemployed or underemployed.

That is why our report had to be so disturbing. The remarkable, thing about it was that it was unanimous.

We had some trouble, nonetheless, because some of our staff people thought we were I emphasize that it was the commission’s report, not the staff’s. I think some staff members were disappointed because we and not they were running the commission. Actually, we went over every word and often made them more emphatic. Some chapters were rewritten four or five times.

There was Chapter 5, on the history of 300 years of racial prejudice in America, written for us by a foremost historian; the chairman of the history department in one of our great universities.

He entitled the chapter ‘Alienation and Protest.’ We changed that first word to ‘Rejection.’

“That’s a strong word,” he told me.

“But don’t you have to be part of something before you can be alienated from it?” I asked him.

He agreed. “Rejection” was a more factual and descriptive word.

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