In the mid-Sixties, our US cities were burning, with riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark.
Finally, in July 1967—54 years ago—and amid new riots in Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order appointing the Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders and demanding answers to three basic questions about the riots.
Why did it happen?
What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
Seven months later, the Kerner Commission issued its report. Its primary conclusion:
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
It added, “What white Americans have never fully understood but what [black Americans] 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 Kerner Commission nailed the problem: systemic white racism—despite the fact that it focused too narrowly on housing (and its use of the denigrating term “ghetto”).
What we can learn from the Kerner Commission Report
The report gives us insights into how we can confront two of America’s most vexing threats today:
- The pervasive existence of systemic racism (brought to the fore by the murder of George Floyd);
- The overt movement to overthrow our democracy as exemplified by the insurrection on January 6.
As we did a half-century ago with the Kerner Commission Report, we’ve identified—in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s murder—systemic racism as a major issue. Once again, racism is a major topic in the public debate. That’s an essential first step toward attempting to eradicate it.
So far, we’re not so good on combatting the second threat, however.
To deal with the insurrection effectively, we need a modern-day Kerner Commission study—a full-scale, blue-ribbon panel investigation to answer those three questions: What?” “Why?” and “What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”
We’ve all seen video evidence of what happened on January 6—the images haunt us, and words fail to capture the enormity: Appalling. Evil. Criminal. Despicable. Sickening. Heart-wrenching.