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“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” That’s the now-legendary warning of a government report, issued 50 years ago, that became a surprise bestseller. But the policy recommendations of the Kerner Report, as it is known, weren’t followed by the federal government that commissioned it. In the May issue of The Atlantic, Justin Driver writes that the country was shocked—and fascinated—by findings that remain relevant today. In this issue, I ask what would have happened if the government had taken the report as seriously as the public did, and consider why it didn’t. And Annika Neklason reports that the benefit of hindsight hasn’t stopped history from repeating itself.  

—Caroline Kitchener

Today’s issue in 25 words: Even if Congress had acted on the Kerner recommendations, chances are, they wouldn’t have been effective in the 1960’s and 70’s. Racism ran too deep.

Could the Kerner Commission Have Changed the Country?

By Caroline Kitchener

When President Johnson ordered a commission headed by former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to deliver a report on the race riots of 1967, he might have had something anodyne in mind. Instead of sanitizing “America’s ugly racial realities,” as many activists and journalists—and, it seems, President Johnson himself—expected, the report implicated “white racism.” The country’s first objective, according to the report, should be to eliminate “all barriers” stopping African-Americans from pursuing “their choice of jobs, education, and housing.”

Although the report received repeated front-page coverage in The New York Times, Johnson didn’t speak publicly about it for weeks, according to Kevin Kruse, professor of modern American history at Princeton. “This was surprising, given the way he had previously leapt on things—the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act,” Kruse said. “He could move when he wanted to.”

But by 1968, Johnson faced a Congress much less friendly to civil-rights measures than during his early years in office. Two years earlier, in 1966, there was a “backlash election,” Kruse said. Middle-class whites rebelled against Johnson’s Great Society policies, expelling a wave of liberals from Congress. “The Democrats that remained were suddenly skittish about race issues.” The Democratic Party agreed to include only the most watered-down version of the Kerner recommendations in Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 presidential platform, Kruse said. Richard Nixon’s win in 1968 foreclosed any possibility of further action.

But what if the political circumstances had been different? The report offered almost 100 pages of policy recommendations that focused on the desegregation of housing, public spaces, and schools. What if Congress had pursued them?

“There is a certain way in which a lot of these issues of housing and integration would have fallen apart,” Kruse told me. While white liberals of the sixties may have claimed to favor desegregation, Kruse said, their enthusiasm did not typically extend to their own neighborhoods. They’d support integration of public parks or even schools, he said, but then join country clubs and send their children to private schools. “Housing integration really proves who is serious about integration and who isn’t.” This hasn’t changed much since.

When it came to school desegregation and busing, “the political system prevented reformers from implementing busing plans that would have worked,” said Matthew Lassiter, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. In his book, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, Lassiter examines how several Southern communities were successful at using busing to integrate schools: The cities consolidated with the suburbs, forming one giant school district. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, busing worked because “you couldn’t move to the suburbs to get away from the school integration plan,” Lassiter said. “White flight” couldn’t happen.

“Eventually the people of Charlotte grow to like it. They see that busing works,” Kruse told me. By the mid-seventies, schools across the city and its suburbs were roughly equal across the city—about 70 percent white, 30 percent African American—far more balanced than before the busing policies were implemented. (These ratios generally held until 1999, when a federal judge ordered the district to stop using race when assigning students to schools.)

When the Kerner Report was published, only a few school districts in the country included both the city and its outlying suburbs. Charlotte’s school districts had already been consolidated. Raleigh, however, chose to consolidate into one district in the early seventies. Hoping the change would improve the economic prospects of its urban center, the region, perhaps inadvertently, also effectively integrated its schools. If the federal government had chosen to use Raleigh and Charlotte as a guide to implement some of the Kerner recommendations, Lassiter said, they may have succeeded.

Even if Congress had acted on the Kerner Report, however, the country may still have resisted lasting change. “There have been distinct periods in history when changes have been made, when there has been progress—but following that progress, there has been pushback,” said Valerie Wilson, who directs the race and ethnicity program at the Economic Policy Institute. Just as the period following Reconstruction saw the government implement Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement was followed by the Reagan administration scaling back many of the programs intended to lift low-income, black Americans out of poverty. “When we change policy in a very direct way, it does have an effect,” Wilson told me. “But it all depends on what happens after that.”

The Legacy of the Kerner Commission

By Annika Neklason

As told in The Atlantic over the past 50 years, the story of the Kerner Commission’s prescient 1968 report on race and urban rioting is a tragedy of executive inaction, a failure on the part of President Lyndon B. Johnson that continues to resonate decades after he left office. But expectations were low even before the report reached him.

“Even to entertain the idea that the commission might change the national climate requires an energetic suspension of disbelief,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in 1967. Her report detailed the commission’s apathetic origins, moderate members, and limited mission. She also expressed doubt that Johnson would be open to any substantial change in policy in response to the commission’s findings:

Next year’s budget is already being drawn up, and the word is out in the government agencies that funds for domestic programs will be as scarce, or scarcer, than they are this year. Barring, therefore, an unexpected silence of the guns, there is little reason to think that next year’s public mood, the political context as viewed by Lyndon Johnson, and the coherence with which the urban crisis is met will be very different from what they are now.

But she included a caveat: “Nevertheless ... those close to the commission’s work insist that it should not be written off.”

Those close to the commission’s work were vindicated when the report was released the following February. But as Nicholas Lemann wrote more than twenty years later, Johnson fulfilled Drew’s expectations even as the commission exceeded them:

[Johnson] was deeply suspicious of the Kerner Commission … David Ginsburg, the Kerner Commission's executive director and an old friend of Johnson's, says that when Johnson called him in after his appointment, "he made it very clear that in his view it was simply not possible to have so many outbreaks [of rioting] at the same time without someone orchestrating it.”

The Kerner Commission recommended billions of dollars' worth of new government programs for the ghettos, which Johnson thought put him in an impossible position, by making whatever he did thereafter look like a sellout. Despite the entreaties of his staff, he refused to comment on the report, refused to allow the commission to present it to him, refused even to sign the form letters his staff drew up thanking the members for their work.

Lemann goes on to contend that such suspicions and misjudgments on Johnson’s part crippled efforts to counteract racism and to relieve poverty in American cities—a trend that continued under the more conservative, “law and order”-focused administration of President Richard Nixon. So, Julian Zelizer wrote in 2016, “With a powerful analysis of the problems of institutional racism before them, the government and the public moved in a very different direction.” He was writing about 1968—but also describing America in the present day.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: Do you have personal experience with the conditions described in the Kerner Report? Reply to share your stories of segregation in schools, housing, or other aspects of public life.

  • What’s coming: On Friday, now that President Trump has withdrawn from the Iran deal, Matt Peterson reports on how America’s adversaries have reacted to sudden changes in U.S. foreign policy in the past.

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