55 years ago, the Kerner Report predicted that divisions driven by racism could lead to the destruction of our democratic values 

OPINION: The report was refreshingly honest about the impact of systemic racism and ways to address it. Tragically, such honesty, in a nation currently being devoured by its inner racial demons, is lacking today. 

Former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner holds a copy of the 1968 Commission on Civil Disorders report as he testifies before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. Kerner, who headed the commission, warns of possible future civil disorders stemming from high unemployment among minorities. (Getty Images)

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God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, the fire next time 

— ”Mary Don’t You Weep,” Negro Spiritual

This month marks the 55th anniversary of the release of the Kerner Report, the highly anticipated 1968 document forged from the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. In the aftermath of widespread violence and racial unrest in urban centers across the country, the 11-member commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner ultimately pinpointed racism as the primary cause of the hostilities.

Popularly, the most indelible takeaway from the Kerner Commission study, which was released on Feb. 29, 1968, was the contention that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” However, far less quoted and yet as prescient was the report’s subsequent prediction that without the adoption of drastic and timely remedies, there would be a “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” 

So was the Kerner Commission report — one mirroring the earlier prophecy of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic “The Fire Next Time” — correct? Are our nation’s basic democratic values being destroyed as a result of the racism that continues to plague our country?

One need look no further than recent headlines to gauge the prophetic nature of the report. Consistently, the deep polarization of our contemporary society is wholly reflected in our politics, our media, our economics, and in our national discourse, particularly in matters of race. Despite the international focus on and aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd in 2020, fatal police shootings are actually occurring at a higher rate today. Voting rights are under constant attack. And in June 2021, in an installment of “Unequal,” a series produced by the Harvard Gazette, staff writer Liz Mineo penned, “The wealth gap between Black and white Americans has been persistent and extreme. It represents, scholars say, the accumulated effects of four centuries of institutional and systemic racism and bears major responsibility for disparities in income, health, education, and opportunity that continue to this day.”

The parallels are apparent. Along with rampant poverty, systemic racism, and police brutality, the 1968 report clarified that the “social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it.” It further pointed to lower rates of education and graduation for Black citizens; discriminatory consumer credit practices; a racially skewed system of justice; ongoing voter suppression; and how “Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing — three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard.” 

The Kerner Commission, despite the politics of the day and Johnson’s desire to not alienate the white middle-class voters who elected him, was refreshingly forthcoming in its reporting. While many Americans instinctively attributed the cause of the unrest to the young Black men the national media captured on their TV screens, the report concluded otherwise, that white racism with its direct and systemic impact, rather than Black anger, was at the heart of the violence. “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans,” declared the commission. “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.”

Such honesty at a time of American crisis was necessary to identify the problem, one that could potentially, if left unaddressed, could consume the country in flames. 

Tragically, such honesty, in a nation currently being devoured by its inner racial demons, is lacking today. There exist far too many examples of our modern social dystopia in what has increasingly been regarded as the “age of lies” — Trumpism; alternative facts; declining media credibility; declining government and institutional credibility; corporate corruption; instigated racial resentments and xenophobia and more. This tragic lack of credibility in American institutions, be they political, educational, economic, criminal justice, or media, is directly related to our nation’s dishonesty in dealing with issues of race. Put differently, if American institutions continue to employ a disingenuous and superficial approach to racial equity, this accompanying and destructive lack of credibility will continue to devolve into extreme polarization, violence and civil unrest. 

For lies leave gaps. And dirt can only be swept under the rug for so long before lumps reveal what festers beneath. 

A more honest, proactive way to address the vexing racial challenges of today requires us to go back more than half a century and pull from the recommendations of the Kerner Commission. Fortunately, and unfortunately, many are as timely as they were when first published in 1968. They include a large-scale investment, both human and financial, into our American future regarding the relevant areas of economics, employment, housing, education, and criminal justice. They have implications for politics and media as well as requiring a more sincere and robust discussion on issues of race, a more honest dialogue aimed at dousing flames rather than fanning them. For fires require oxygen to grow, and the fires of racial resentment have now spread from one century to the next, from the fire next time to the one this time — massive, leaping flames fanned by white supremacy and its conjunctive need to conquer, to enslave, to subjugate, to discriminate.

Undoubtedly, in “The Fire Next Time,” the prophetic Baldwin — published five years before the Kerner Report — smelled the smoke: 

“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Stephanie Robinson, Esq. is a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School where she teaches on issues of democracy, media, and race, and their intersections with the law. She is the president of Sly Bear Media Group. She is the former chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and was a political and social commentator for “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” offering her perspective weekly to over 10 million people on the day’s most pressing issues.

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