We Were Warned about a Divided America 50 Years Ago. We Ignored the SignsRoundup
tags: racism, Police, inequality, Kerner Commission, public safety
Elizabeth Hinton is a professor of history, law and African American studies at Yale and the author of the forthcoming America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.
Note: This essay is part of the Washington Post's Reimagine Safety series.
The fires in Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and elsewhere last summer drew immediate comparison to the “long, hot summer” of 1967. Urban uprisings had erupted during every summer of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, but the unprecedented property damage and civilian casualties in Newark and Detroit that July demanded immediate action. Less than a week after deploying federal troops in Detroit, Johnson established a special National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, whose goal was drafting “measures to prevent or contain such disasters in the future.”
Known by the name of its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, the Kerner Commission released its 431-page report in February 1968. It famously observed that the United States was moving toward “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” and offered policy options to manage the “problems of race relations.”
The remedies began with the “enrichment” of the separated society, then moved toward “the integration choice.” Aiming to achieve “freedom for every citizen to live and work according to his capacities and desires, not his color,” the commission recommended the creation of 2 million jobs for low-income Americans, continued federal intervention to ensure school desegregation, year-round schooling for low-income youths, the construction of hundreds of thousands of public housing units and a guaranteed minimum income.
Unfortunately, Johnson and subsequent federal policymakers did not follow that path. And despite the crisis of urban unrest that inspired the commission’s work, the administration did not even address the basic police reforms it outlined. Instead, policymakers escalated the use of aggressive patrol strategies from the War on Crime that Johnson launched in 1965, eventually fostering the mass criminalization of low-income Americans of color.
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