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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Baltimore Riots and the Kerner Report

Spring 2015 witnesses riot and civil unrest engulfing the streets of Baltimore over the tragic death of an unarmed black man while in police custody. Thorny issues relating to law enforcement priorities and practices, racial profiling, due process and fundamental fairness under the law bubble to the surface once again.

For those old enough to remember, scenes from Baltimore conjure up images from the 1960s, standard-bearer for racial unrest in the modern civil rights era. Were the Baltimore riots (and events perhaps yet to come) the result of the mistreatment of just one man? Or is there more involved? As the national economy ebbs and flows, prosperity in this age of acquisitive individualism appears to have bypassed Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods, which remain largely unchanged in 50 years.

Why did they riot in Baltimore? Why did they riot in the 1960s? Are events related?

The 1960s riots took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles, as well as several other major northern US cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Newark.  The riots were not confined to the US, however.  Great Britain and South Africa also experienced race riots during this time.

The riots had begun in 1965, due to mounting civil unrest, and continued for three successive summers.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed a federal commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still in progress.  He determined to learn the cause of the race riots and unrest.  Upon signing the order establishing the commission, the president asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

The commission’s final report, named the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation.   The 426-page document became an instant best-seller, with over two million Americans purchasing copies.  Its basic finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. critiqued the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

One of the commission’s core findings was that the federal government had engaged in unfair and discriminatory loan practices.  For example, in important matters of employment, education and housing especially, federal low interest loans under the GI Bill were made available to World War II and Korean war veterans who were white, as an incentive to flee to the “safety” of the suburbs, where a better quality of life awaited.  Black veterans were illegally denied equal treatment under the law.

The Kerner Report’s most infamous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white --- separate and unequal.”  The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social service policies, also aiming some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media: “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

The federal commission concluded that the riots were the result of poverty, police brutality, poor schools, poor housing, attributed to “white racism” and its heritage of discrimination and exclusion.  The equation was a simple one: no education, no job, no housing and no political power equaled no hope.

Following the riots of the 1960s, America’s suburbs continued a trend of becoming more white and its cities more black.  This phenomenon occurred as much in the North and on the West Coast (Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles) as in the South (Atlanta and Charlotte).

The Johnson administration had the report analyzed but dismissed its recommendations, however, on budgetary grounds.  Soon the Great Society would be sidetracked anyway by external events in a far away place called Vietnam.  The War on Poverty would be swallowed up and replaced by the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs, with all the attendant shortcomings of that campaign.  Some argue persuasively that the resulting discriminatory enforcement of these laws was by design --- and is alive and well to the present day.

Is this some of what's going on --- and not going on --- in Baltimore?

-Michael D'Angelo