How the Kerner Commission unmade American liberalism

tags: liberalism, Kerner Commission, Racial inequality, Ethnic inequality

Steven M. Gillon is scholar-in-residence for HISTORY and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. He has hosted a number of series and specials on the network including HistoryCenter. He is the author of ten books including the forthcoming, "'Separate and Unequal': The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism."

Related Link The Kerner Report’s 50th Anniversary: An Occasion to Rewrite History By Tony Platt

A half-century ago, American liberalism unraveled. When discussing the symptoms and warning signs that preceded the crackup, most people overlook the Kerner Commission on civil unrest and its deliberations. When they do discuss the commission, they justifiably laud the final report, released 50 years ago today, for its bold willingness to acknowledge the role of white racism and inequality in sparking urban unrest — and for offering a set of policy proposals designed to revitalize liberalism by forging a new “political will” to address the problems facing urban America.

If we set aside the report and look instead at the debates among the commissioners and its public reception, we can see the fragile nature of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s consensus and how the Kerner Commission, for all its laudable work, contributed to the unraveling of American liberalism.

Johnson created the commission in July 1967 after bloody and destructive riots in Newark and Detroit that marked the culmination of four consecutive summers of racial unrest. Riots ripped through more than 100 cities during the “long hot summer” of 1967. Nearly every week produced new violent images of angry confrontations between police and protesters.

For many white Americans, urban riots appeared to be part of the crime epidemic that swept the nation in the 1960s. Johnson had to walk a fine line. If he appeared too sympathetic to the demands of protesters, he would alienate many middle-class whites. If he took a hard “law and order” line, he would anger liberals who wanted to address the root causes of the riots. A presidential commission seemed an ideal option: It allowed him to demonstrate leadership without committing his administration to a specific course of action.

The president filled the 11-member commission with mainstream figures from both parties. There were two African Americans, two Republican and two Democratic members of Congress, one woman and representatives from both business and labor. Johnson assumed this mix would produce a mainstream report that would endorse the broad outlines of his existing domestic agenda and insulate him from attacks from the right and left. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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