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.