After riots broke out in cities across the country in the summer of 1967, President Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, it issued a 426-page report that became a paperback best-seller. Much of it reads like the country 47 years later. It’s a challenge to highlight only a few passages:
Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident – in itself often routine or trivial – became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.
Unlike today’s talking heads on cable news, the commission staff actually talked to people in the 23 communities where disorders had taken place. The report ranked their grievances:
- Police practices
- Unemployment and underemployment
- Inadequate housing
- Inadequate education
- Poor recreation facilities and programs
- Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms
- Disrespectful white attitudes
- Discriminatory administration of justice
- Inadequacy of federal programs
- Inadequacy of municipal services
- Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
- Inadequate welfare programs
The commission’s recommendations emboded “a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale [that] can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society.” Its objectives included:
- Opening up opportunities to those who are restricted by racial segregation and discrimination, and eliminating all barriers to their choice of jobs, education and housing
- Removing the frustration of powerlessness among the disadvantaged by providing the means for them to deal with the problems that affect their own lives and by increasing the capacity of our public and private institutions to respond to these problems
- Increasing communication across racial lines to destroy stereotypes, to halt polarization, end distrust and hostility, and create common ground for efforts toward public order and social justice
We lived in a different context five decades ago. Racial discrimination was as a matter of law as well as practice. Driven by a nation whose conscience had been awakened by Martin Luther King, an empathetic Congress acting under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson entered a legislative flurry, passing civil rights laws and spending money on an infrastructure to address inequality across a range of human needs: health, education, housing, and living standards.
Soon came the backlash. Richard Nixon ran for president on “law and order.” George Wallace’s 1972 presidential bid captured white angst at the government’s efforts to mitigate racial inequality. The prison boom began. After two oil “crises,” a presidential resignation, and a soul-sapping, 444-day hostage drama, Ronald Reagan’s inaugural contention that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” set a tone that still resonates, paralyzing our potential to act.
Today we have a president who identifies as black but no galvanized civil rights movement, a Congress and Supreme Court antagonistic to government promotion of equal opportunity, and an electorate disengaged from politics and fearful of its economic and social insecurity.
This week House and Senate Republicans agreed to a joint budget resolution, the internal congressional memorandum that instructs various committees how to write the annual spending bills. The details are to come later, but Republican leaders have targeted domestic spending items, among them college aid, low-income rent assistance, and food stamps. They support higher defense spending and repealing Obamacare. On rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure or addressing racial, social or economic inequality, the budget is silent.
The political response to Baltimore has been polarized. Fox News talking heads blame a “welfare mentality.” Republican candidates are mum. President Obama and Hilary Clinton note underlying issues. The Justice Department will investigate the Baltimore Police, as it did Ferguson’s.
But the electorate has yet to connect the dots: a hollowed-out, de-industrialized economy that no longer needs 15 percent of its workers; unequal K-12 schools and a system of higher education whose costs the government is unwilling to address despite the urgent need for a higher skilled workforce, and politicians who respond to discrete constituencies rather than to the whole.
When the electorate begins to connect the dots, it will be time for another Kerner Commission.