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Transcript: Revisiting the powerful thesis of the Kerner Commission

The full episode transcript for The Essential Kerner Commission Report.


Into America

The Essential Kerner Commission Report

Archival Recording: The cry of the rioters was, "Burn, baby, burn." They torched one building after another with Molotov cocktails.

Archival Recording: This is bad.

The Safeway market was among the 977 buildings damaged or destroyed during the six days of riots.

Trymaine Lee: For much of the late 1960s, America burned.

Archival Recording: As we came back up, another place went on fire. I believe that was a liquor store that was just starting in the front. Well, the roof hadn't caught yet. You could see the people running and you could see people with their arms full of various kinds of goods. And this is quite a shocking thing to see all the way around.

Lee: Black America was seething.

Archival Recording: Without the power, the Black power, you control our lives, our communities, without effective political institutions through which to relate to the total society, these communities will exist in a constant state of insurrection.

Lee: Fueled by segregation, economic isolation and police brutality, pent-up anger and frustration spilled into the streets of some of America's biggest cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Newark, New Jersey all erupted. Hundreds were killed, many by police. And there were tens of millions of dollars in damages.

Archival Recording: If they knew that police were going to put it down in the proper manner, if a looter knew he was going to be shot, which is the law, and the common law (and always has been), he wouldn't loot.

Lee: At the time, the press and policy-makers called them race riots. Looking back, though, that's kind of reductive. More than just mayhem and chaos, these were rebellions, uprisings; something much more complicated than riots.

Archival Recording: What can we do? What can you say behind all this murderin'? I wish things could be better for the Negro people.

Lee: President Lyndon B. Johnson told the country that he wanted to understand what caused so much violence and unrest.

President Lyndon B. Johnson: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through. I want to talk about that tragedy. And I want to talk about the deeper question that it raises for us all.

Lee: On July 27th, 1967, six days after the Detroit uprisings, L.B.J. announced the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It was more commonly known as the Kerner Commission, named for its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, of Illinois.

Johnson: The commission will investigate the origins of the recent disorders in our cities. It will make recommendations to me, to the Congress, to the state governors, and to the mayors, for measures to prevent or contain such disasters in the future.

Lee: What the commission ultimately found was damning. White America was responsible for the structural and societal failings that led to the uprisings, famously declaring, quote, "White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."

The commission recommended sweeping policy changes, including takin' responsibilities away from police departments and handing them to other social services. That's right. Defund the police isn't some new idea that got started last summer. It's decades old.

The Kerner Commission's final report was a landmark publication that would prove to be potent and prescient. But little ever came of their recommendations and America has continued to cycle through waves of inequality, state violence and rebellion.

Archival Recording: This is a community on edge. Rampant looting underway. Armed shop owners standing guard.

Archival Recording: We're sick and tired of the abuse. And we can't take it anymore. I encourage you to stand up.

Lee: That tape is from last summer and the parallels between now and then are heartbreaking.

Archival Recording: We're standin' here. We don't care if they throw tear gas. We don't care if they shoot rubber bullets. We are here to accept the pain; fight with you.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. More than 50 years after its original release, we're takin' a look at a new edition of the Kerner Commission Report with the help of historian, writer and friend of the show, Jelani Cobb.

Jelani Cobb: I mean, who would put out a report that says that white society is responsible for the ghetto? We can't say that now.

Lee: Jelani Cobb edited and wrote an introduction for the re-release of the report entitled The Essential Kerner Commission Report. And he joined me to talk about why this 1968 report is still so relevant today. Earlier this summer, Jelani and I caught up at an outdoor event hosted by the New York Public Library. Thank you very much. Thank you. First of all, man, look at us out here in the wild, man--

Cobb: I know, it's amazing.

Lee: --we got people and birds and we're in the park. It really is amazing.

Cobb: It's almost like we're in a city.

Lee: Almost. Almost. Thank you all for joining us. It really is an honor and a pleasure to sit here with you, Jelani.

Cobb: You know, Trymaine, it's good to be here with you. We can dispel the myth that we are the same person.

Lee: It happens. It happens.

Cobb: It happens. It's when people come up to me like, Mr. Lee, I really love you. I'm like, sure. Thank you.

Lee: For the listeners who can't see me and Jelani, just trust me, we don't look anything alike. But back to the Kerner Commission. Jelani says the biggest surprise of the report might not be the findings, which are remarkable even by today's standards, but rather who came up with them.

Cobb: First off, ten of the 12 people on this commission were white. Eleven of the 12 people on this commission were men. It was bipartisan but by no means did it reflect a kind of default critical stance on America and American society that might've been popular in other places.

These were very much establishment figures. They are corporate representatives on their Senate, congressional representatives. It is a commission of the kind of respectable citizens that L.B.J. pulls together, led by the governor of Illinois at the time, Otto Kerner.

Governor Otto Kerner: We have just recently completed the first hearings of the president's commission to look into the matter for which we're assembled. I do feel, and have felt for some period of time, as Governor of Illinois, that we have not really attacked some of the major problems right at the grass-roots level in the urban areas.

Cobb: They get together and begin to sort through the many dynamics that happened in Newark, in Detroit, in Plainfield, in Minneapolis and all these places that have had these civil disturbances.

Lee: President Johnson gave the Kerner Commission explicit orders to look broadly into the causes of the uprisings. Here he is addressing the commission at the White House, after their first round of hearings.

Johnson: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice Chairman, let your search be free. Let us be untrammeled by what has been called the conventional wisdom. As best you can, find the truth, the whole truth, and express it in your report. The work that you do ought to help guide us not only just this summer but for many summers to come and for many years to come. Thank you.

Lee: The commission took that task seriously and quickly widened its scope, probably a lot more than Johnson anticipated.

Cobb: And it begins to move past these discrete incidents into the broader history of Black people in the country. And that is the point at which I think the train jumps the tracks. And I attribute some of this to Roy Wilkins, who was the president of the NAACP.

But by no means was this all his doing. And the other Black person on this commission was Edward Brook, who was the Senator from Massachusetts, who was (at best) a moderate figure. And neither of these people are Malcolm X. You know, but the commission goes to these really fundamental questions about what happens in American society.

And one of the downsides of the time that we did it was that we couldn't go to the L.B.J. Library at the University of Texas where all the papers are housed, and kind of walk through how the commission actually wound up pushing in the directions that it did.

But what we do know is that L.B.J. who, like any good politician, and whatever we think of L.B.J., he knew, you know, how to handle politics, any good politician would've kept tabs on what was going on with this report, and he was not at all pleased with the direction that it was going in and, ultimately, just kind of shelved the report when it came out.

Lee: Give us a greater sense of the political context. We understand that L.B.J. had a specific kind of liberalism, a specific kind of departure from the Southern Democrats.

Cobb: Sure.

Lee: Give us the broader political context.

Cobb: So, I mean, L.B.J. is a endlessly fascinating figure, you know, for all of these reasons. You know, he's a Texan who signs the Voting Rights Act and knows that when he does it, he has basically doomed the Democratic party in the South for the foreseeable future.

He's also the architect and the driving force behind the War on Poverty programs. He has this kind of reckoning and comes to understand the what they would've called ghettos at that point as being a reflection of the impoverished communities that the New Deal helped when he was a young man.

You know, one of the formative experiences that L.B.J. had was teaching school after college, right, in Texas and seeing at this point mainly young Latino, Hispanic children in desolate poverty, and then recognizing the impact that the New Deal had in changing people's fortunes.

And that's the kind of genesis of the War on Poverty programs. And at the same time, there's a very clear understanding that this may be too little, too late. He signs the Voting Rights Act in August of 1965, five days before Watts erupts; the second largest city in the country explodes.

And there's a real sense that even though it takes two years for him to introduce the Kerner Commission, there's a real sense that the country is due for a reckoning in terms of its racial history that may not be controllable. And so, these are all of the things that are kinda going on in L.B.J.'s mind as he's navigating the really treacherous political waters of 1966, 1967, 1968.

Lee: Is L.B.J. a good faith actor here? I mean, if he didn't like the direction that the commission was going in, what was his expectation? If the whole goal was to set out and say we need to understand the roots of these uprisings and the violence in our cities, what was he hopin' for?

Cobb: Yeah. So, if you say was he a good faith actor or a bad faith actor, my answer would be yes.

Lee: Two things can be true at once?

Cobb: Right. I mean, because, you know, he does have this sense of the kinda political moment (and the historical moment) that he has inherited. And he understands, you know, what the implications of the nation's racial history have been. At the same time, I mean, who would put out a report that says that white society is responsible for the ghetto? It created it? It maintained it?

We can't say that now. We get called proponents of critical race theory and driven out of town if we say that in 2021. And so, the idea of the leadership of the country co-signing this real indictment of who and what we have been, I think that was a bridge too far for L.B.J. or for most people.

And I mean, although it's, like, the very, like, easy comparisons people make to Lincoln (between Lincoln and L.B.J.), but I think that it bears saying that the two of them had to grow up pin public. These were two white men who, because of circumstance and the moment that they inherited, had to try to decipher the riddle of race in public and have all their mistakes held up for scrutiny. And that's why I think that L.B.J. finds himself in such contradictory kinds of places as he's navigating this.

Lee: We have to take a break. When we come back, Jelani talks about some of the report's findings and why, to some, they still sound so radical today. Stick with us.

Lee: When the Kerner Commission released its findings in 1968, the report (which was more than 700 pages long) quickly became a best-selling book. And it didn't just cover the past few years. It went way back.

Cobb: There's a huge section of the book on the history of Black people in the United States that goes from the colonial era into the early Republic era into the post-Civil War era, and kinda walks through how the people who were in the cities got to be in those cities in the first place. And so, that's contextual.

They then move to a point that I think we have been slow to recognize, and that we have to reiterate now, which is that they said police are not the problem. You know, they said that police were merely the spark in a much bigger set of dynamics.

So, they looked not only at police reform, they looked at education. They looked at employment. They looked at housing. They looked at health care. They looked at all the fundamental, foundational institutions that contribute to what we call life outcomes.

And they found that all of them were indicted in the same ways that the police departments had been. Now, police had a particular role in this because they, in Newark, in Watts, in Detroit, walking through all these incidents, police interaction had been the incident that led to the uprising.

And so, police were there. But the difference between police and all these other institutions were that they were the sole one out of any of these institutions that actually touched people. The terrible educational system did not. The terrible housing system did not.

The unemployment (the rampant unemployment) didn't physically take you and throw you on the ground. But police did. And so, they became the face of a much bigger set of institutional problems. And so, one of the other things that I'll say struck me when I went back and read the report in detail was that there's a section in which they say that the ghetto communities (community's a term that they would've used then) are over-policed.

And what they mean by over-policed is that there are police responsible for all sorts of interactions and all sorts of responsibilities that didn't really fall squarely into the rubric of law enforcement. And so, they say we should de-emphasize policing and create other social services that will stand in the breach such that if there is a problem, these social services can interact with the communities.

Because every time you send out police to handle a non-law enforcement matter, you increase the risk of something catastrophic happening. Fifty years later, people picked up that banner and started saying defund the police. And so, when I heard people saying defund the police, I recognized the echo of history. It was just funny 'cause defund the police was thought of radical. It was, like, the radical left saying this. These were middle-of-the-road, moderate, mostly white people who said this in 1968.

Lee: And what was the response? Because, again, if this drops today, I can only imagine the backlash. What happened in 1968?

Cobb: So, there are two different responses. You know, one is that the report is among a handful of government documents that hits the New York Times bestseller list. You know, people are running out and grabbing this as quickly as they can.

There are other dynamics that happen. This book comes out just shy of a month before Martin Luther King is assassinated. And so, they've been talking about what happened from 1968 and before. But people picked up the book to understand what was happening in 1968 and beyond, you know, especially as city after city across the country exploded after King's death. The book rockets up the New York Times bestseller list.

At the same time, it finds a quiet, bureaucratic grave within the Johnson administration. Now, of course, Johnson doesn't run for reelection. And you know, I think historians have tended to overemphasize the degree to which he ignored the report.

There was no real fanfare attached to the delivery of the findings. But you know, he was on his way out at the time. And moreover, I think you can see Kerner as a flagpole, the last stand of 1960s liberalism, because they propose really extending the liberal state to address. They say the problem has been that we have not extended the liberal state. It has worked for all these other communities. We have neglected the Negro community. And we have excised them from the social compact. And so, we need to do more.

Kerner: There is a feeling of deep inferiority among these people.

Lee: This is Governor Otto Kerner in 1968, talkin' about some of the report's findings.

Kerner: They had been rejected as to housing, as to job, and after job, as to improving the status of the job. I think there's an awful lot of that just built in to the entire problem. And I do have a feeling, myself, and again, I'm speaking personally, that the white community of the United States is not aware of the existence of this problem.

I'm afraid many aren't. And many who are aware of it are not aware as to how deep and sensitive this is. One of our witnesses indicated to us that he became very irritated with a policeman who called him, "Hey, boy. Hey, you." And this, I think, would indicate an awkward reaction to your question.

He said, "I am certain that that policeman, going in a white community, wouldn't speak to a white man that same way." Extreme sensitiveness, I think, of a sense of inferiority. And as long as that exists, of course, there are going to continue to be problems.

Cobb: But by 1968, the winds are blowing in a different direction. And Richard Nixon is not a do-more kind of guy, you know, if the idea of law and order are these people need to be handled, they need to be made to respect our social order, et cetera, et cetera. And so, Kerner, both lacks a champion in L.B.J. and then (more fundamentally) lacks a broader audience that make it politically palatable to enact the ideas that they propose.

Lee: You know, it's one thing to shine a bright light. It's another thing to present recommendations and say here's what's possible. Here are the problem and here's how we might be able to fix it. Did they have any good recommendations?

Cobb: Oh, they had a ton of them, even including some that were germane to our own institution of media. One of the things about Kerner that was so far-reaching was that they did look at things like media. They did content analysis of the ways in which these incidents were reported and found that often white reporters brought a kinda inflammatory context to the way that they reported on these stories. They urged media organizations to diversify, which we got that one taken care of.

Lee: Done.

Cobb: Done.

Lee: Done and done.

Cobb: Perfect. Like, the media's so diverse that people still confuse us for each other. (LAUGH) But I will say I got the trifecta which is that, this week, I have been confused for you, for Ta-Nehisi and for Jamelle Bouie.

Lee: Man, that's the--

Cobb: I'm just on fire this week. (LAUGHTER) So, I'm workin' on Amanda Gorman. I'm gonna get that one. (LAUGHTER) But you know, they talk about the need to diversify these institutions. They said that policing had to be diversified. They said that there had to be a serious approach to reforming housing in ghetto communities.

And one of the things I think that handicapped this report, even outside of the political moment that it was delivered in, was the simple fact that they made so many recommendations that if you had had 50 commissions with 100 years, I don't know that they could've enacted everything that Kerner Commission suggested. But it was sweeping.

Kerner: There are real problems.

Lee: Once again, Otto Kerner.

Kerner: And there are areas where we're making some progress; other areas where we're making not sufficient progress. Try to isolate them all at this moment, to break them all down between jobs and housing and the problem of education, integration, police and community relations of various kinds, is a very tall subject. And that's why we're spending so much time at it.

Lee: You know, it'd be easy to view this as a missed opportunity, right. Yeah, they were so wide in scope that it might've been hard to unpack. But was America ever in position to really enact any of these recommendations? And it's so deeply ingrained, the racism and segregation, everything that makes America tick, so deeply ingrained that no report, no recommendation, no political operative was ever gonna get us in position to do that.

Cobb: Yeah. See, I think at the risk of ruining my reputation, I actually am optimistic in some of these. I think that America has been, at points, where it could make significant changes. But it's the question of what has been the motive and the motivation to do it. It's been a question of will.

And the reason I say that is that I just, this afternoon, finished a piece for the New Yorker on Derrick Bell, which, you know, some of us will remember Derrick Bell. He was the famous Harvard and then later NYU law professor; passed away in 2011.

Notably, resigned from his job at Harvard in protest of the law school's refusal to hire or tenure any Black women faculty. And it's a tremendously principled person. The reason I bring up Derrick Bell in response to that question was that Bell had a very kind of pragmatic read on American history.

And he said that there had been moments of great racial advancement when the interests of Black people and the interests of the American state converged. And that is very kind of there. If you read Lincoln's writings where people think of Lincoln as the great emancipator, he didn't think of himself as that.

You know, in Lincoln's writings, he talks about very much there being a transaction. I'm emancipating these enslaved Black people. They are interested in no longer being slaves. I am interested in keeping this union together. Those two things are mutually beneficial. And that will be what will happen. It's a kind of one-to-one relationship here.

And so, all of the reforms, for a moment, what white people wanted to do in Alabama was in conflict with what white people in Washington, D.C., wanted to do in the world. And what people in D.C. wanted took precedence over this. And so, these two things aligned.

And so, I think there are moments, just quite frankly, looking at George Floyd and the fact that his death embarrassed this country internationally. And I do believe people were legitimately moved emotionally by what we saw, the catastrophe, the horrific episode, that we all witnessed via video.

But greasing the levers of the machinery to make any kind of change happen was a product of national interests. And so, I think it has been (the struggle has been), to answer the very elongated response to your question, for those of us who are interested in the work of democracy-building, for us to persevere through the fallow times in the interest of those moments where these interests align. And I think that has been the story of progress in this country, not only on matters of race but fundamentally and centrally in matters of race.

Lee: We talk about progress. How much has really changed? Here we are, 50 years later, coming off of Michael Brown and Ferguson, comin' off of George Floyd. And do we have any different kind of vantage point or different lens from which to view the takeaways from the initial Kerner Report and then this re-release?

Cobb: Yeah. I think that there are parts of Kerner that don't really hold up over time. One of the things they talked about was the need to diversify, you know, police departments. Police departments in many places, you know, are much more diverse than they were, you know, at these points.

They talked about, you know, in kind of outmoded language, some of the things that we've seen, you know, come to pass. But we still have a situation that is recognizable. It's still legible to us in ways that were if not identical then highly similar to the circumstances that Kerner was talking about, but also to make sure we understand this.

The Kerner Report drew these conclusions in the same way that the '67 Lily Report had drawn them in Newark, and that the '65 report had drawn in Watts, and that the 1943 report had drawn in Detroit, and that the 1935 report had drawn in Harlem.

There's a whole collection of reports that you could throw up in the air and let them fall, and you wouldn't be able to tell one from the other because they had looked at this problem again and again and again. The 1992 Christopher Report from the LAPD, after Rodney King, the Ferguson Report, like, they all share this kind of DNA.

And so, about the ideas of police corruption, you're less likely to have the kind of naked graft that you saw that, like, Serpico, you know, was about. But in terms of the use of force, I think that we are far too similar to what we saw in 1968.

Lee: In this deep dive into the Kerner Commission Report, what you learned about America, about who we are, does it say something fundamental about not just where we've been but perhaps where we might be headed if we don't right the ship?

Cobb: Yeah. I mean, I think it's like the poet, Amiri Baraka, used to say that we had the Sisyphus Complex, you know, where we were cursed to roll the boulder up the hill only to see it roll back down, you know, for all eternity. And I think that my version of optimism has been that we roll the boulder up the hill, knowing that it will likely roll back down, but not all the way to the bottom and that each time we may stop it a inch or two quicker and begin, you know, the work of pushing back in that direction.

Lee: That was New Yorker writer, Jelani Cobb, from an edited version of our conversation put on by the New York Public Library this summer. If you wanna learn more, you can get a copy of the Essential Kerner Commission, wherever books are sold.

And, of course, we always wanna hear from you. You can tweet me @trymainelee. That's @trymainelee; my full name. Or write to us at That was IntoAmerica@NBC, and the letters, U-N-I, dot-com. Into America is produced by Isabell Angell, Allison Bailey, Bryson Barnes, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Aisha Turner and Lushik Wahba. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.