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More than 50 Years Before George Floyd, the Kerner Commission Predicted Deepening Divisions

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Kerner Commission, policing



Similar scenes have played out for decades: A Black person is killed by police, protests erupt in cities across the US, the unequal treatment of Black Americans becomes the focus, and the debate over policing ensues.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders -- better known as the Kerner Commission -- put out a report that attempted to address systemic racism in the US, including police violence against Black people.

The report stated that racism was a major cause of economic and social inequality for Black people and that it was moving the nation toward two societies: "One Black, one White, separate and unequal." That, coupled with the brutal police treatment of people of color and poverty, helped spark the race riots of the 1960s.

At the time, the commission's findings shocked many Americans because for the first time, "White racism" was noted as a major cause for the unequal status and living conditions of Black Americans, said the commission's last surviving member, former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris. But the report's findings and proposed solutions led nowhere.

More than 50 years after the report, Harris, historians and policy experts tell CNN that change will only come when the people have the will and the government is truly honest about what must be done politically, socially and economically to address racial inequality.

Jelani Cobb, historian and co-editor of "The Essential Kerner Commission Report," tells CNN that people and institutions already know what the problem is and that the only action that needs to be taken now is actually following the recommendations of the commission, and pay the price that comes with it.

"The actions are laid out, you really don't need more recommendations," Cobb said. "The fundamental observations (of the commission) have never been acted on."

Because officials never acted on the recommendations of the commission, the US has seen the same issues of policing, poverty and inequity in Black communities manifest themselves in different ways in the decades since the report's release.

So, here's a look back at the Kerner Commission, what it found and the solutions it suggested for, hopefully, how to move forward.

 

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