Today's date:
Winter 1987

A Slow Motion Riot: The Kerner Commission Revisited

In 1967-68, a series of riots broke out in 25 of America's major cities. Urban America was literally on fire; and amidst the shock, people asked why the ghettos were exploding in such violent anger.

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Johnson, better known as the Kerner Commission, attempted to find answers to the question why. They found that the primary cause of violence was black rage against the white racism which kept blacks segregrated from the rest of the society. John V. Lindsay, former Mayor of New York, co-chaired that commission.

The Kerner Report
The Kerner Commission Report focused on every aspect of societal life, especially the engine room, our cities. We found that minorities were shut out of the mainstream and that it would require a massive effort by the public sector to change the status quo.

We have to remember that in those days we never saw a black face in the television anchor chair. I recall that when, as Mayor, I visited tense areas in the city, the television crews filming street eruptions were entirely white.

The police in minority neighborhoods had very few minority members. The schools in minority neighborhoods were not relating to the communities. The school administration was highly centralized, overwhelmingly white and unable to understand the needs of Brownsville and Harlem. The Kerner Commission report addressed itself to all of these things.

What the Kerner Commission also discovered was that the problem would not be solved without a concentration of power, money, resources and time. We needed to get to the roots of the problems. We still need to. We need to focus on the dropouts. We must improve the schools. We have to provide job opportunities and language skills. We must break the entrapment in the welfare cycle. We've got to get to all those things and others we may not even understand. That takes huge amounts of money and an enormous long-term commitment.

Now, even though we have not been able to effectively root out the problems of the urban underclass, the Great Society reforms that ensued after the '67 riots helped create a black middle class, if we use the term "middle class" broadly. Blacks have moved into the mainstream on television, in government, in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Some of the young people who I remember were throwing rocks on the streets are now distinguished members of the New York state legislature and, by the way, behaving like any other politicians. In this sense, the barriers of white racism that the Kerner Commission saw as the chief underlying cause of the riots have been substantially reduced.

Slow Motion Riot
But, for all the optimism engendered by the creation of a black middle class, this exodus to success had unintended side effects. When the new black middle class left the crowded streets, there were no coattails to pull others along with them. Now minority leadership is in the very difficult and frustrating position of being expected by the larger community, and by the white community in particular, to have a message and to relate that message back to their own people. But their own connection with the ghetto has been broken and they no longer talk to each other. There is no communication.

The deeper problem is that the country doesn't have an inner city policy. We don't even have a mass transportation policy. Presently we don't seem to have a housing policy. Abraham Lincoln said that the role of government is to step in when people cannot fend for themselves through no fault of their own. It's too bad the present Republican party has abandoned that principle.

This unwillingness to plan, to have policies, to deal with problems is the reason we're heading for the same troubles we saw in the urban riots of the '60s. There are, when all is said and done, different forms of rioting. Today there are smoldering riots going on all the time. Our cities are not all burning down in one night as they did in 1967, but roving crime and violence is there. The behavior of street gangs, nurtured in the culture of poverty - kids who are disconnected from everything, functionally illiterate, ripping off whole communities, snatching purses, grabbing necklaces - is a perpetual riot, what I choose to call a slow motion riot.

Kerner Commission Report of 1968
The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation.

On July 28, 1967, the President of the United States established this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions:

What happened?

Why did it happen?

What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.

Reaction to last summer's disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible.

To pursue our present course as a nation will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

An alternative course will require a commitment to national action - compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding and, above all, new will.

Violence and destruction must be ended in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.

Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

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.

It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress.

These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which call them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation's conscience.

- Report of the US National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968.

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