Opportunity Lost: The 1968 Government Report on White Racism That America Chose to Ignore

Detroit police arrest black suspects on July 25, 1967, during uprisings that erupted in the city following a police crackdown. (AFP via Getty Images)

It didn't take long for the rage to spread like wildfire across the nation.

On the evening of Monday, May 25, Minneapolis police arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, who had been accused of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Shortly after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Floyd had been pinned face-down to the ground by three police officers as a fourth officer stood by. One of the officers, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

Video footage from bystanders shows Floyd pleading for his life just before losing consciousness: "I can't breathe, man, please," he cried. Floyd was loaded into an ambulance and brought to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The following night, Minneapolis erupted in furious protests, with hundreds pouring into the streets, demanding justice for Floyd. The demonstrations mushroomed in size and ferocity as the week went on, with many buildings, including a police station, vandalized and set ablaze, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency and send in National Guard troops to quell the unrest.

By Friday, protests had spread to scores of cities, large and small, across the country — including many in the Bay Area. Racially diverse groups of tens of thousands of demonstrators have since flooded the streets, demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

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Floyd's death follows a long succession of high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans, especially young men, who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and far more likely than anyone else to be brutalized or killed during such encounters. It's a somber fact black people live with every day, and one other Americans are reminded of in the wake of each notorious incident, from Oscar Grant and Michael Brown to Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray to Walter Scott and Stephon Clark — the list goes on and on.

And while each of those incidents sparked widespread outrage and activism — including the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Brown’s death in Ferguson — the extensiveness of the reaction to Floyd’s death stands apart.

But we've been here before: The massive reach of this moment is eerily reminiscent of a series of urban uprisings that unfolded more than half a century ago.

The 'Long, Hot Summer'

In 1967, during what was dubbed the “long, hot summer," more than 150 poor, largely black communities across the country were rocked by violent unrest. Some observers labeled them riots, while others tagged them uprisings and rebellions.

The incidents mainly flared up in East Coast and Midwestern cities, including Milwaukee, Buffalo, Tampa and Cincinnati, resulting in more than 100 deaths, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and scores of burned-out neighborhoods, some of which never fully recovered.

Black demonstrators face armed federal soldiers in Newark on July 17, 1967. (AFP via Getty Images)

The unrest stemmed from a deep-seated anger and hopelessness that had long simmered in many low-income, black and brown communities hobbled by systemic racism, where rates of poverty, police abuse, joblessness and crime were disproportionately high and opportunities for advancement few. Unlike in today's demonstrations, those involved were almost unilaterally the African American residents hardest hit.

And nearly every local instance of unrest was ignited by a similar spark: the news of an unarmed black man (or men) beaten or killed by white police officers for a seemingly minor infraction.

Two of the most devastating uprisings happened back-to-back that July.

In Newark, New Jersey, two white police officers beat a black cab driver after stopping him for a minor traffic violation. As word of the incident spread, thousands of residents came out to the streets, breaking into and burning businesses and prompting the deployment of several thousand police officers and the National Guard. The violence raged for six days, leaving 26 people dead, scores more injured and tens of millions of dollars in property damage.

Less than a week after the violence in Newark subsided, a police raid on an unlicensed bar in Detroit's largely black Virginia Park neighborhood sparked an even more devastating explosion. Again, crowds raided shops and set buildings on fire. Panic ensued amid rumors of snipers on rooftops. Roughly 17,000 local and national law enforcement personnel, including Army paratroopers, were sent in to quell the unrest.

Over the course of five days, 43 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured — most victims were black men shot by police and National Guard troops. More than 7,000 arrests were made and an estimated 2,500 stores were looted or burned, leaving large swaths of Detroit’s urban core in ruins.

That summer's uprisings were not without precedent. Two years earlier, a confrontation between a young black man and a white police officer in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles resulted in days of rebellion that left 34 people dead. Violent unrest continued in 1966 in poor sections of major cities like Chicago, Cleveland, New York and San Francisco.

'What Happened? Why Did It Happen? What Can Be Done to Prevent It Happening Again?'

Immediately after the chaos in Detroit subsided, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., the group was tasked with addressing three questions:

What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it happening again?

In his televised address announcing the commission, Johnson began, "We have endured a week such as no nation should live through: A time of violence and tragedy."

He went on to call for "an attack, mounted at every level, upon the conditions that breed despair and breed violence. All of us, I think, know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs."

A federal soldier stands guard on a ravaged Detroit street on July 25, 1967. (AFP via Getty Images)

Over the next six months, the commission visited poor urban communities throughout the country, interviewing residents, police officers and local officials. They drew on the research of social scientists and analyzed media coverage of the recent violence.

The 11-member, all-male commission was not politically radical in any sense of the word: It included four members of Congress, the mayor of New York, Atlanta’s police chief and union and industry representatives.

Only two members were black.

Commissioners actually rejected an initial draft of the report — titled “The Harvest of American Racism" — that had been produced by the group of social scientists tasked with synthesizing months of interviews and testimony. That version, which commissioners deemed too radical, and quickly buried, stated that “a truly revolutionary spirit has begun to take hold” in black communities, where residents were unwilling “to compromise or wait any longer" and would rather “risk death than have their people continue in a subordinate status."

Nevertheless, the final report delivered to Johnson, and later publicly released, was considered groundbreaking — a blunt and sobering assessment of substandard living conditions in many urban black communities.

'Two Societies ... Separate and Unequal'

"This is our basic conclusion," the report said. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities."

The report's direct reference to white racism as a root cause of the uprisings was particularly controversial.

"We used the word racism. And on the commission, we had two or three people say, 'Should we use that word, racism?' " former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, who served on the commission, told Bill Moyers in 2008.

"Our saying racism, I think, was very important to a lot of black people who said, 'Well, maybe it's not just me. Maybe I'm not, by myself, at fault here. Maybe there's something else going on.' "

The 1968 report elaborated on the often incendiary relationship between local, predominantly white police forces and the black communities they patrolled:

The police are not merely a “spark” factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a “double standard” of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.

At the time, some blamed the unrest on “outside agitators,” roving groups of radicals traveling from city to city, intent on sowing chaos and disorder. The commission said it found no evidence of conspiracy or premeditated plans connected to the violence. Although it stopped short of labeling the unrest a rebellion against racial oppression, it said the conflicts were an indication of the deep frustration stemming from a host of social problems afflicting disenfranchised communities of color.

Topping that list: police brutality, unemployment and an inadequate supply of affordable housing. The commission stated, in no uncertain terms, that white America was directly implicated in creating these problems:

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 commission's sweeping policy recommendations included:

  • Creating 2 million new jobs and 6 million new affordable housing units
  • Revamping the welfare system
  • Eliminating de facto school segregation
  • Eliminating “abrasive” police practices and establishing redress mechanisms
  • Improving news coverage of the problems facing black Americans
  • Making local government more responsive to inner city communities

The 426-page report, published in March 1968, sold more than 2 million copies and earned a spot on the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list, which called it a “stinging indictment of white society.”

And then it all but vanished.

Sidelined

The Johnson administration balked at the report, arguing that the commission hadn’t given the president enough credit for past legislation on civil rights and poverty alleviation. Johnson refused to support further research or so much as meet with the commissioners.

The report stressed that for conditions to improve, “hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.”

But there was little political will to do that.

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Johnson — who at the time was still planning a run for re-election — was threatened by the commission's findings, worried he would lose support among many white communities who were unwilling to acknowledge the central role systemic racism had played in fueling the unrest.

Also concerned about the political impact of rising rates of crime and disorder, Johnson supported several pieces of tough-on-crime legislation, including the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which he signed nearly six months after receiving the Kerner Commission report. The bill allocated roughly $400 million in grants to states to beef up local police forces with new equipment and technical assistance — in part to more effectively suppress future uprisings.

And less than a month after the report's publication, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking more violent unrest in cities throughout the country.

From Kerner to Ferguson to Minneapolis

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the unrest that followed, a new commission was formed to study a problem strikingly similar to the one examined nearly 50 years earlier.

Chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, the group was tasked with identifying the underlying causes of the unrest. Its final report, while much narrower in scope, bears some resemblance to the Kerner Commission's findings. Its recommendations included:

  • Reducing the use of force by police officers
  • Reforming sentencing laws
  • Improving the health and education of children and young people
  • Increasing access to affordable housing and public transit
  • Expanding Medicaid

Like the Kerner report, the Ferguson analysis identified racial and economic inequality as the primary source of the problems that led to the protests. But the language and tone are strikingly different:

“We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist,” the report diplomatically states. “We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist.”

In 2018, a study co-edited by Kerner Commission member Fred Harris followed up on the status of communities examined in the 1968 report. The findings were grim. The new study found that poverty in many of those places had actually increased, as had school segregation, while the inequality gap between white Americans and black, brown and Native Americans had widened.

The original Kerner Commission may have foreseen this outcome. The report's conclusion quoted the testimony of psychologist Kenneth Clark. Clark – whose famous doll tests were cited in Brown v. Board of Education – reminded the panel of the many previous commissions assembled to study incidents of racial unrest: Chicago in 1919, Harlem in 1935 and 1943, Los Angeles in 1965.

Testifying before the Kerner Commission, Clark said, was a kind of "Alice in Wonderland" experience: He watched the same images flickering past, sat listening to the same analysis and the same recommendations – and it all culminated, finally, in the same inaction. The commissioners quoted his words:

"It is time now to end the destruction and the violence."

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