From the editor: A look back at the Kerner Report

A conversation with John Koskinen '61

Protests sparked by police actions. Anxiety over (invented) outside agitators. “Lawand- order” leaders drawn into competing crises. Media accounts—Newsweek, in one case—offering assessments that to be Black in America is to assume “that America is after all a racist society.”

Such was the fraught state of the nation in 1967. With racially charged flare-ups in more than 150 cities, some of them violent, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an eleven-person commission. It would be headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, seen as a moderate Democrat. The idea was to make sense of the unraveling: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

And here we are, in a landscape much changed but achingly familiar: It keeps happening.

From a fifty-year perspective, John Koskinen ’61 looked back on that work in a Russell Sage Foundation monograph, “Measuring the Distance: The Legacy of the Kerner Report.” (His coauthor was Rick Loessberg, director of planning and development for Dallas County, Texas.) Koskinen’s perspective was hardly disinterested: Just three years out of law school, toggling between Los Angeles and Washington, where he was looking for a staff position on Capitol Hill, he would join the commission as special assistant to the deputy executive director. For him, it became, in a sense, a postgraduate course on the scope of a national crisis.

A former Law Review editor, he would play a role in editing the report; he would also help inform the commissioners of the raw reality of racism in the U.S. Part of his role was supporting their visits to riot-torn cities. It’s one thing, he told me in a late-June phone conversation, to be listening to testimony in formal settings—quite another to be on the ground and engaging with individual stories of long-standing grievances.

When the retrospective came out three years ago, Koskinen had his own title as commissioner—of the Internal Revenue Service. The Kerner Commission stint would always be a backdrop, a pivot point and a reference point, in a long career.

Later, Koskinen would head the Washington lobbying office for New York City—whose mayor, John Lindsay, was vice chair of the commission; look after the interests of a majority African-American city as deputy mayor and city administrator of the District of Columbia; help improve operations of the federal government as deputy director for management of the White House Office of Management and Budget; coordinate preparations at the federal level and throughout the country for the transition to the year 2000; and, in the midst of the economic meltdown of 2008, chair Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation). Beyond his public-service roles, he would take on organizational- turnaround roles: Alongside Victor Palmieri, the Kerner Commission’s deputy director, he would build a company that eventually brought new life into failing entities like the Penn Central Railroad, the Teamsters Pension Fund, and the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company.

When the commission released its findings, in February 1968, Johnson—celebrated (or satirized) for appointing a record-breaking twenty presidential commissions—canceled the White House ceremony. He avoided public comments on the work of the commission, and he even refused to sign the customary letters recognizing the commissioners for their service.

Koskinen and I talked a couple of weeks after he had joined his first-ever protest, in the form of a rush-hour show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The organizers were churches along 16th Street, which stretches from Silver Springs, Maryland, through D.C. to the White House, and to the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza. In a similarly troubled time, with L.B.J. in the White House, something else mattered a lot: the president’s sinking political fortunes. He was convinced that urban rioting could not have been spontaneous, and that a firm law-and-order response would be well-received. A commission made up largely of establishment- types—“no flamethrowers,” in Koskinen’s phrase—would, he expected, affirm a “Great Society” agenda topped by landmark civil-rights legislation.

Rather than affirmation, Johnson was presented with an indictment of America’s racist legacy. A chapter on the history of racism in America was unsparing, portraying as it did a society that was not great for everyone. It was based on the work of African-American historian John Hope Franklin, who would finish off his career of teaching and scholarship at Duke. As the report put it: “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

From that unvarnished history, the report looked to a hopeful future, with a set of suggested initiatives: expanding training opportunities for the unemployed, extending early-childhood education, adding millions of low-income housing units, providing more social services through neighborhood centers, offering tax incentives for investment in impoverished areas, and on and on. But Johnson felt too beleaguered to be building up the Great Society: From the right, he was facing a backlash against the Fair Housing Act and other social-welfare programs; from the left, he was grappling with growing resistance to the Vietnam War. That hopeful future, then, was put on hold.

Koskinen told me it was important for the report to be fact-based, especially in light of past commissions that were quick to blame racial unrest on “riffraff” rather than on underlying conditions. (A prior commission, looking at the Watts riots in 1965, had cited the “extreme and emotional nature” of complaints from Black citizens.) “We felt we needed to ground the findings in the larger context, in the history of racial discrimination. So who were the people in the streets, where did their anger and frustration come from, what was the reality like for them?”

Among the commissioners was the police chief of Atlanta; earlier this summer, after a video emerged of another fatal police shooting of an African American, his most recent successor resigned. In a finding that echoes across the decades, the report didn’t hold back on police brutality: “Almost invariably the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action.”

With a renewed national focus on Black lives, Koskinen sees a sad irony and a lost opportunity: “A lot of what we’re now talking about, like the impulse to send in troops against the protesters, was the wrong thing to do then, and it remains the wrong thing to do. The report called out the need to recruit a diverse police force, to train them better, to have the police focus on community relations, and to have a transparent and accountable system for police mistakes. It’s amazing how little has been done since then. You shouldn’t be tear-gassing protesters, and militarizing the police is a terrible mistake.”

Discrimination—not radicals, riffraff, or a conspiracy—had been responsible for the rioting, the report said. And it carried an enduringly sober warning, based on such indicators as housing, life expectancy, income, and educational attainment: America was moving toward “two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal.”

That warning, as described in “Measuring the Distance,” focused the nation’s attention on race and the conditions of Black communities as no other government report had ever done. Newspaper headlines declared “White Racism Blamed in Riots,” television networks devoted special coverage to the report, and the public rushed to read it. By the end of its first month, more people had bought copies of it than had bought copies of the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy during the equivalent period; within three months, 1.6 million copies of the Kerner Report had been sold.

“Measuring the Distance” argues that the Kerner Commission had a lasting impact—though Koskinen says he wishes the impact had been greater. Its influence can be seen in public policies that have helped in closing the life-expectancy gap between Blacks and Whites, promoting a Black middle class, and bringing down the poverty rate for Black families. Still, Black median income is only about 60 percent that of Whites, and the home ownership rate for Blacks is basically unchanged.

Economic indicators are one measure of how racism remains embedded in the American story. Other indicators are more disturbing, Koskinen and his coauthor acknowledged in their retrospective. Among them is the felt need to have “the talk” with Black children about the consequences of police interactions. More than five decades later, they wrote, the commission’s report maintains “the power when a questionable police shooting occurs to quickly remind us that not as much progress has been made as thought (or hoped).”

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