A Warning Ignored: The Kerner Commission after a Half Century

tags: racism, 1960s, urban history, Kerner Commission

On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a twenty-one-year-old African-American, was pulled over in Los Angeles while driving his mother’s Buick, then arrested after failing a sobriety test. In the argument that followed, Frye was struck by the officers as residents began hurling objects at them. Six days of civil unrest that became known as the Watts riots ensued, leaving thirty-four people dead and miles of the city pockmarked by charred ruins. When Frye died in 1986, his New York Times obituary called the riots “the biggest insurrection by blacks in the United States since the slave revolts.”

Between 1964 and 1967, black anger over policing practices, voter suppression, poverty, and economic inequality boiled over in cities throughout America. In the summer of 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Kerner Commission to examine the nearly two dozen uprisings that had occurred. (Formally called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, it was referred to by the name of its chair, the second-term Democratic Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr.) The eleven-member commission released its conclusions in March 1968, but it soon found that they were a forecast, not a review. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following month, and more than one hundred American cities exploded in just the type of violence that the commission had sought to understand, if not prevent.

The proximity of the two events—the report’s release and King’s death—allowed them to be conflated. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that the Kerner Commission examined the unrest of the entire 1960s rather than just its earlier episodes. But the timing is important. George Santayana’s dictum that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is quoted with eye-rolling frequency, yet the Kerner Report shows that it is possible to be entirely cognizant of history and repeat it anyway.

Never was this more apparent than in the spring of 2020, when the half-century-old report reemerged as part of the stilted national dialogue on race, policing, and inequality. On the evening of May 25, four Minneapolis police officers arrested George Perry Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black man, for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill at a convenience store. He ended up handcuffed on the pavement next to the patrol car while a white officer, Derek Chauvin, cavalierly knelt on his neck for at least eight minutes and forty-six seconds, despite the pleas of nearby people that Floyd needed medical attention, and despite Floyd’s repeated assertions that “I can’t breathe” and “They’ll kill me,” while crying out to his deceased mother for help. When Chauvin at last relented, Floyd was unconscious. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The reaction was immediate. The following day protesters began gathering on the block where he had been killed, which would soon turn into a shrine. In a Facebook post Jacob Frey, the mayor of Minneapolis, observed that “being black in America should not be a death sentence.” Minneapolis police chief Medaria Arradondo fired all four officers involved, which Frey described as “the right call.” The next day the mayor called for criminal charges against them. This bureaucratic reaction could not, however, stave off a tempest. By evening, hundreds of protesters with signs that read “Stop Killing Black People” had swarmed the streets of Minneapolis, gathering at the site of Floyd’s death and at the Third Precinct, where the officers suspected of killing him had worked. The sustained protests turned sporadically violent with looting and arson. On May 28 a multiracial crowd of demonstrators returned to the Third Precinct and, after police abandoned the building, burned it to the ground.

The video of Floyd’s death circulated around social media, sparking new outrage. By May 2020 there were enough videos of civilian deaths at the hands of police to nearly constitute a genre. A disproportionate number of them recorded the deaths of African-Americans. And there was growing concern on the part of activists and advocates that the public was becoming inured to the brutality being captured (largely on cell phones) with terrible redundancy. The video of Floyd’s death caused a different reaction in part because of its excruciating length. This was one reason the Floyd protests spread within days from an isolated spot on the south side of Minneapolis to Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York City, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Anchorage, and dozens of other American cities.


Here is where the fifty-two-year-old insights of the Kerner Report remain most applicable today. “Police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor,” it tells us; they are part of the broader set of institutional relationships that enforce and recreate racial inequality. The problem is never simply the incident but the factors that made such an incident possible, even predictable. In 2019 Minneapolis ranked, according to US News & World Report, among the best places in the US to live, but it was also among the cities with the worst socioeconomic disparities between black and white residents, with a $47,000 gap separating the median household income of the two groups—shocking even for the United States. Seventy-six percent of whites in the area owned their homes; only a quarter of blacks did. This disparity is part of the long legacy of restrictive housing covenants—contracts prohibiting home sales to specific racial groups—which in Minneapolis began as early as 1910. In an op-ed following Floyd’s death, former Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges pointed to racial hypocrisy as a cause of the crisis:

White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades. We have mostly settled for illusions of change, like testing pilot programs and funding volunteer opportunities.

These efforts make us feel better about racism, but fundamentally change little for the communities of color whose disadvantages often come from the hoarding of advantage by mostly white neighborhoods.

Here again, the Kerner Report is instructive. “Our nation,” it warned in 1968, “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” There were two realities in the Twin Cities, neatly calibrated by race.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books