September 2019

Clapperclawing White America: Black Protesters, the Kerner Commission, and Striving for an Antiracist Democracy

The anti-racist protests of the Kerner Commission reveal that if structural racism can be overcome in U.S. democracy, the moral weight of white supremacy must be eradicated otherwise democratic protest will forever be read as a threat.

By Mary Ryan

“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.”[i]

It is rare, especially among the Trump Administration, to witness the U.S. federal government acknowledge how whiteness has underpinned institutional practices. But as the opening quote of the Kerner Commission’s final report reveals, occasionally, there have been scathing condemnations of state domination which warrant the attention of antiracist activists and should cause us to think more deeply about civic participation in democracy.

The Kerner Commission is the common name used for the riot commission founded by President Johnson in 1967. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Figure 1) became known as the Kerner Commission after its chairperson and former Illinois Governor, Otto Kerner. Johnson convened the commission following an intense summer of riots in more than 120 cities across the country—the worst being Newark, NJ, and Detroit, MI.

Figure 1: Official White House photo of President Johnson with members of the Kerner Commission featured in the 1968 Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders published by Bantam Books.

Although there had been previous official inquiries into civil disorders—namely the Report of the Special Committee Authorized by Congress to Investigate the East St. Louis Riots (1917), the Chicago Commission on Race Relations (1919), the Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem (1935), the Governor’s Committee to Investigate a Riot Occurring in Detroit (1943), the McCone Commission (1965), and the Watts Report (1965), the Kerner Commission report was the first Presidentially-appointed, federally-funded, nation-wide examination of American racial violence.

The Commission was charged with answering three questions regarding the uprisings: what happened, why did it happen, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?[ii] Sociologist Gary Marx described Kerner’s final commission report as “the most significant and far-reaching statement of a programmatic nature ever made by a governmental unit on American race relations.”[iii] Ultimately, the Commission called for reforms largely grouped by three principles: government should mount programs on a scale commensurate with the problems; these programs should be high impact in effect to close the racial gap between promise and performance; and the government should invest in new initiatives and experiments to address failures and frustrations plaguing U.S. society.[iv] White supremacy, the Commission declared, had to be attacked directly to reform racial equality and enable “the creation of a true union—a single society and a single American identity.”[v]

The federal government commission did not convene itself without cause; the Kerner Commission came into existence in response to thousands of Black rioters in hundreds of cities that were relentless and passionate in their activism for true inclusion in American democracy and equal civil rights. Black protest actions transitioned from nonviolent demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts before 1963 to fourteen cities of violent protest in 1964, 139 cities in 1967, and 125 cities in 1968.[vi] While the Kerner Commission was underway, most of the riots subsided by early fall. But then everything changed late in the Kerner Commission’s operation. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Four thousand National Guardsmen enforced a curfew in Memphis. Newark had nearly two hundred fires, and fires also raged in Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City. In total, more than a hundred American cities saw some burning, looting, or destruction. More than 50,000 troops were deployed against American citizens, with 20,000 arrests nationally and 39 deaths.[vii] In all cases, the Kerner Commission documents rampant police brutality against Black citizens as well as common suppression tactics of curfews, reconnaissance, and negotiation. The federal government also actively supported the use of surveillance of social movement activists.

While Black protests spurred federal action, they were not universally welcomed, especially by many whites. White fear was validated all the way at the top by President Johnson. The role of white supremacy makes the Kerner Commission documents more complex than its liberal appearance connotes. In a dog whistle call to white voters, President Johnson sought to divide the Black community and undermine the political implications of the protests from the start of the Kerner Commission. In Johnson’s 1967 address to the nation on civil disorders[viii], he stated that “the looting, arson, plunder, and pillage which have occurred are not part of a civil rights protest…The criminals who committed these acts of violence against the people deserve to be punished—and they must be punished. Explanations may be offered, but nothing can excuse what they have done.”[ix]

It is clear Johnson is already choosing, even before the commission’s work has begun, to criminalize the rioters instead of viewing their efforts as democratic activism. By not even showing a willingness to hear reasons for such behavior, Johnson puts whiteness in a democratic bubble, protecting it from any potential threat (and also precluding structural reform). In this way, Johnson embodies the philosopher Charles Mills’ contention that “the white delusion of racial superiority insulates itself against refutation.”[x] Johnson ultimately ignored the Commission’s finding and failed to act on many of their suggestions. This set the stage for the law-and-order surge to come in the following Republican-controlled Congress and the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, further damaging the liberal state of U.S. democracy. “If riots can be partly explained as the work of a few agitators or hoodlums, it is then much easier to engage wide support in repudiating violent methods of social protest.”[xi] This mindset guided the use of police and military in regulating national turmoil, and also impacted residential housing patterns of different races.

Figure 2: Dan Hogan Charles, The New York Times, February 29, 2012

Instead of instilling a permanent militarized occupation of communities of color through a Garrison state-like environment, (Figure 2) the Kerner Commission report demonstrates the kind of democratic acts needed to achieve racial equity. More broadly, antiracist protests show democratic politics to be a performance of the world protesters want to see. Rioters in 1967 understood that the law would not save them without their mobilization. As they strived to cultivate a more inclusive polity, the riots examined by the Kerner Commission tested how a liberal state like the U.S. responded to illiberal groups of rioters within it. I suggest that riots should be construed as a kind of resistant exit. As Jennet Kirkpatrick describes, resistant exit is characterized by “noise, spectacle, and disturbance” whereby “the actor uses the exit itself or the status as exile to vociferously expose, shame, or wound the home regime.”[xii] This is consistent with Albert Hirschman’s concept of “noisy exits” in which actors use voice to appeal to “a higher authority” or use various types of actions and protests, including those intended to mobilize public opinion.”[xiii] The Kerner Commission found participants in Black civil violence to have been better educated, held longer and better employment records, and had higher participation in advocacy groups, greater knowledge about political figures and issues, and greater levels of distrust of municipal officials.[xiv] Resistant exit recognizes democracy as a confluence of the social and the political, since it seeks attention of the “external public or the attention of outside political authorities…with the hope that this attention will prompt opposition and pressure.”[xv] This understanding of exit advances the idea that the rioters were attempting to create democratic reforms. As democratic citizens, not colonial subjects, protesters believed that they should be able to assume a direct role in the life and law of the polity. As Kirkpatrick concludes, “leaving can be transformative of politics, and it can create possibilities for political growth and development that were not apparent before.”[xvi] But the Garrison state denies more than democratic promise by squandering liberty and the affiliated freedoms of movement and associations; it also physically inhibits resistance. This is an especially critical problem in the civil rights movement given that “non-movement defined the condition of the American slave.”[xvii] Building on Kirkpatrick’s understanding of civic participation, I argue that morality preconditions democratic activism. Activists feel compelled to engage in protests or other activities when they feel morally violated, disrespected, or treated unjustly. As such, riots are an important type of civic participation to discuss in order to better understand morality’s relationship with democratic politics. Morality arises to bring the law to justice or when, as Kirkpatrick explains, “the sharp jab of a perceived injustice brings cries of violation, rights, and fairness to the fore.”[xviii]

Less than a year before his murder, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in Where Do We Go from Here? that “the white backlash is an expression of the same vacillations, the same search for rationalizations, the same lack of commitment that has always characterized white America on the question of race.”[xix] While many suggest there have been significant and important advancements towards racial equality in recent decades, U.S. society is still remarkably and tragically unequal for people of different racial identities. We need only consider a range of policy issues like incarceration, education, living wage, or environmental pollution to see stark racial contrasts in issues which are heavily influenced and/or regulated by the federal government. The anti-racist protests of the Kerner Commission reveal that if structural racism can be overcome in U.S. democracy, the moral weight of white supremacy must be eradicated otherwise democratic protest will forever be read as a threat.

Mary K. Ryan received her Ph.D. in Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought from Virginia Tech in May 2019. Her first book, The Democratic Kaleidoscope in the United States, is forthcoming in 2020 from Lexington Books. Mary has published many pieces on race, democracy, and social justice, including chapters in the books Whitelash (forthcoming from University of Washington Press), Poverty in American Popular Culture (forthcoming from McFarland), Critical Insights: Civil Rights Literature Past and Present (Salem); Surveillance, Race, Culture (Palgrave Macmillan); and Spaces of Surveillance: States and Selves (Palgrave Macmillan) as well as peer-reviewed journal articles in Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory and the Journal for the Study of Peace and

[i] Report of the national advisory commission on civil disorders. (1968). New York: Bantam Books, 2

[ii] Report 1968, 1

[iii] Marx, Gary. “A Document with a Difference,” Trans-action (September 1968), 56.

[iv] Report 1968, 2

[v] Report 1968, 23

[vi] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Serious Incidents of Racial Conflict: January 1, 1964 Through May 1, 1968. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, n.d.

[vii] O’Donnell, Lawrence. (2017) Playing with fire: The 1968 election and the transformation of American politics. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 238

[viii] President Lyndon Johnson addressing the press after the formation of the Kerner Commission in 1967.

[ix] Report 1968, 538-9.

[x] Mills, Charles. (2017). Black rights/white wrongs: The critique of racial liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 55.

[xi] Platt, Anthony ( 1971). The politics of riot commissions 1917-1970: A Collection of Official Reports and Critical Essays. New York: Collier Books, 34

[xii] Kirkpatrick, Jennet. (2017). The virtues of exit: On resistance and quitting politics. Chapel

Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 104

[xiii] Hirschman, Albert. (1970) Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 30

[xiv] Report 1968, 111, 127-135, 174-178

[xv] Kirkpatrick 2017, 105

[xvi] Kirkpatrick 2017, 117

[xvii] Kirkpatrick 2017, 118

[xviii] Kirkpatrick, Jennet. (2008). Uncivil disobedience: Studies in violence and democratic politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 91

[xix] King, Jr., M.L. (1967) “Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?” New York, NY: Harper and Row, 72

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