“All of us, as Americans, should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” said President Barack Obama following the horrific shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal-justice system.” In an American tragedy of the nation’s own making, Obama will end his historic presidency with racial turmoil rocking the nation. The person whose election brought so much hope about the trajectory of race relations in the United States, a country that has perpetually suffered from the original sin of slavery, is spending these days desperately trying to calm the anger over police killings of African Americans and the protests and violence that have ensued.
Today, America has a president who understands the urgent need to address the problems of institutional racism that have been broadcast to the entire world through smartphones and exposés of a racialized criminal-justice system. But this conflict is taking shape right in the middle of a heated election season—one that includes a candidate who has made draconian proposals for national security and who appeals to the “Silent Majority.” Following the events in Dallas, Donald Trump released a statement that read: “We must restore law and order. We must restore the confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street.”
This is not the first time this has happened. When questions over race and policing were front and center in a national debate in 1968, the federal government failed to take the steps necessary to make any changes. The government understood how institutional racism was playing out in the cities and how they exploded into violence, but the electorate instead was seduced by Richard Nixon’s calls for law and order, as well as an urban crackdown, leaving the problems of institutional racism untouched. Rather than deal with the way that racism was inscribed into American institutions, including the criminal-justice system, the government focused on building a massive carceral state, militarizing police forces, criminalizing small offenses, and living through repeated moments of racial conflict exploding into violence.
In July 1967, during the aftermath of the devastating race riots in Detroit, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey—each of which started after incidents of police brutality against African Americans—President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known popularly as the Kerner Commission (for the chairman, Otto Kerner), to examine the roots of the violence. The rioting had taken place at a politically fraught time for Johnson. Southern Democrats and Republicans were leading a resurgence of the conservative coalition following the midterm elections of 1966. The disastrous Vietnam War had consumed all of the president’s remaining political capital, and conservatives on Capitol Hill were forcing him to make a decision between spending for guns or butter. Meanwhile, the civil-rights crusade had splintered, with the Black Power movement insisting that activists needed to take a bolder stand on issues like housing discrimination, policing, and unemployment.
Desperate to do something, but not in a position to do much more than defend his existing accomplishments, Johnson created the high-profile commission. The president stacked the commission with established political figures who were moderate and committed to the existing economic and political system. He wanted them to demonstrate to the public that the administration took the problems seriously—but he also wanted them to avoid recommendations that would embarrass him. Johnson was deeply cognizant of the economic and racial problems afflicting cities, but he felt that there was not much more he could do politically at that moment in time. Which is why the first version of the report was killed.
Commission staffers had produced a blistering and radical draft report on November 22, 1967. The 176-page report, “The America of Racism,” recounted the deep-seated racial divisions that shaped urban America, and it was damning about Johnson’s beloved Great Society programs, which the report said offered only token assistance while leaving the “white power structure” in place. What’s more, the draft treated rioting as an understandable political response to racial oppression. “A truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold,” they wrote, “an unwillingness to compromise or wait any longer, to risk death rather than have their people continue in a subordinate status.” Kerner then nixed the report, and his staff director fired all 120 social scientists who had worked on it.
Nevertheless, the final Kerner Report was still incredibly hard-hitting: “This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Though the commissioners had softened the language from the first draft, much of the data remained the same and the overall argument was still incredibly powerful. The report focused on institutional racism. This meant that racism was not just a product of bad individuals who believed that African Americans were inferior to white Americans, but that these racial hierarchies were literally embedded in the structure of society.
“Segregation and poverty,” the report said, “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.” The riots in Newark and Detroit, the report continued, “were not caused by, nor were they the consequences of, any organized plan or ‘conspiracy.’” The rioters were educated and had been employed in recent years; most of them were furious about facing constant discrimination when seeking new employment, trying to find a place to live, or, worst of all, interacting with hostile law-enforcement officials.
The police received the most scrutiny in the report. In a haunting section, the report explained, “Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods.” The rioting had shown that police enforcement had become a problem not a solution in race relations. More aggressive policing and militarized officers had become city officials’ de facto response to urban decay. “In several cities, the principal response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The report stressed that law-enforcement officers were not “merely a spark factor” to the riots but that they had come to symbolize “white power, white racism, and white oppression.”
The commissioners believed that cities had to stop arming the police with automatic rifles and machine guns, and instead recruit more African Americans and impose stricter guidelines on political conduct. Critics decried the commissioners for backing away from tougher language about police—language that would have acknowledged how violence was often used in retaliatory fashion against protesters and how police brutality against African Americans was constant, not sporadic. Nonetheless, for 1968, the Kerner Report included extremely tough language for a government body. The commissioners warned of “ominous consequences” if nothing changed. In the absence of action, many African Americans would see the conditions they faced as “justification for violent protest.”
Johnson knew the Kerner Report would embarrass him, and so he tried to ignore it as long as possible. He refused to formally receive the publication from the commissioners, and he didn’t talk about the report with the media for weeks. But the public did not ignore it. The report generated instant national attention when Bantam Books published it as a paperback in March 1968. With an introduction by New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, the 708-page paperback reached the best-seller list and sold more than 740,000 copies. In addition to exceeding sales of the Warren Commission Report, the Kerner Report was said to be the fastest-selling book since Valley of the Dolls. Marlon Brando even read parts of the report aloud on ABC’s Joey Bishop Show.
The problem for Johnson was that the political environment had changed so dramatically since the start of his Great Society in 1964. The report made recommendations for massive investments in employment, education, and housing that Johnson knew would never move through Congress. Richard Scammon, a respected pollster, told him, “If Congress were to be given such a program at this time, I presume it would not pass.” Scammon believed white middle-class voters would determine the next election. “If I were a candidate,” he told Johnson, “I would follow a program of ‘law and order’ balanced with ‘goodies’ for the ghetto.”
And that’s exactly what happened. With a powerful analysis of the problems of institutional racism before them, the government and the public moved in a very different direction. Johnson for one decided not to run for reelection. His successor, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, concentrated his energy on trying to find a plausible path forward on Vietnam. Humphrey, despite his long-standing commitment to civil rights and his historic role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, feared the power of the right more than the Democratic left. So he kept his distance from the liberal grassroots activists urging his party to take the Kerner Report’s recommendations seriously and even go further than the commissioners did. But it was former Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, the American Independent Party candidate, who framed the way Americans would ultimately talk about racial unrest in the 1968 election.
Governor Wallace didn’t hold back: “The people know the way to stop a riot is to hit someone on the head.” Nixon, however, figured out how to use the theme of “law and order” to play to these same anxieties, but in way that would resonate with the mainstream. Humphrey complained that Nixon was a “perfumed, deodorized” version of George Wallace. Blasting liberal Supreme Court decisions on crime and denouncing radical civil-rights activists who accepted violence as a means of protest, Nixon called for the federal government to restore law and order throughout the nation. “We have been amply warned that we face the prospect of war in the making in our own society,” Nixon said in a radio address. “We have seen the gathering hate, we have hard the threats to burn and bomb and destroy. In Watts and Harlem and Detroit and Newark, we have had a foretaste of what the organizers of insurrection are planning … We must take the warnings to heart and prepare to meet force with force if necessary.”
He had already fine-tuned these arguments while campaigning in the 1966 midterm elections, before the most recent round of riots, and now he had an even better atmosphere in which to sell his message. In one TV ad, Nixon warned: “We owe it to the decent and law-abiding citizens of America to take the offensive against the criminal forces that threaten their peace and their security, and to rebuild respect for law across this country.” And in his acceptance speech, Nixon declared: “Working Americans have become the forgotten Americans. In a time when the national rostrums and forums are given over to the shouters and protesters and demonstrators, they have become the silent Americans.”
Nixon’s law-and-order arguments won the day. Indeed, as Michelle Alexander has shown in her landmark book The New Jim Crow, they became the intellectual foundation for a racially unequal criminal-justice system that exists today—one that disproportionately punishes blacks, revolves around an expansive federal prison system, militarizes local police forces, and sentences individuals who commit the most minor offenses to jail.
The problem today is that politics might once again be moving in the wrong direction, not unlike what happened in 1968. Structural racism has to be addressed, but Obama is a lame-duck president with a Republican Congress that is unwilling to work on any legislative proposal that this White House sends them. The prospects of this Congress making progress on any kind of federal criminal-justice reforms are slim to none. And though Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has taken a much tougher stand in calling for criminal-justice reform and fighting for racial justice, she does not have an extensive record of dealing with institutional racism, and in the 1990s, she supported federal crime policies that only bolstered the law-and-order approach. Like Humphrey, she has shown a willingness to allow the political fears of the right push her toward a more conservative stance on these issues.
And then there’s Trump. Last year, he said of the Black Lives Matter movement: “I think they’re trouble. I think they’re looking for trouble.” And, though Trump mentioned the “senseless, tragic” deaths of the two victims in Louisiana and Minnesota in his statement after Dallas, there is little reason to think he will pay much attention to systemic racism and police violence. In the coming months, Trump instead will likely continue to play to the worst racial sentiment in the electorate and use this moment to build support for expanding rather than reforming the way that criminal justice is administered in America.
During the late 1960s, the United States saw firsthand what could happen when institutional racism was allowed to persist. The string of racial violence Americans have witnessed in the past three years has brought the nation to a comparable historical inflection point—and one that, depending on the results of the election in November, could be just as consequential.
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