Opinions

We were warned about a divided America 50 years ago. We ignored the signs.

(Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post; Otto Kerner photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)
By

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.”

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.

A project of the Editorial Board, in conversation with outside voices.

As in the 1960s, the nation today stands at a turning point. A growing mandate for racial justice has been propelled by the massive demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. At the same time, the escalation of white-supremacist violence threatens to further divide the public. The moment demands that policymakers rethink priorities and, in the process, right the wrongs of history. This urgent transformation must start with the nation’s policing and prisons systems, which have functioned as the engine of racial inequality since the fall of Jim Crow.

In 1968, the Kerner Commission warned that the aggressive enforcement of misdemeanors encouraged arbitrary “stop-and-frisk” interrogations and racial profiling. Yet this strategy became entrenched in urban policing and remains so in many cities today. Moreover, under Johnson’s War on Poverty, law enforcement officials came to assume greater influence in the administration of all social programs. Community-based welfare initiatives were defunded and replaced with neighborhood police stations, such as the police-run recreation center that replaced the health clinic in the National Capital Authority Housing Projects in Southeast D.C. Through the 1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration created by Johnson granted state and local governments what amounts to $25 billion in today’s dollars to expand and modernize their police forces, courts and prisons.

In the absence of the widespread implementation of the jobs, education and housing programs the Kerner Commission had imagined, poverty and crime increased in many vulnerable neighborhoods. The fact that the strategies federal policymakers developed to fight the wars on crime and drugs proved to have the opposite impact in the low-income communities of color they targeted is one of the most disturbing ironies in the history of American domestic policy.

Meanwhile, community-based public safety efforts championed by the Kerner Commission were often ignored or underfunded by policymakers and law enforcement.

This choice led to tragic failures. In 1978, Black police officers in the Afro-American Patrolman’s League united with residents of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes — a massive housing project plagued by violent crime — to form the League to Improve the Community, which developed ambitious programs to address drug abuse, youth crime and gang violence with education, counseling and job training. They applied to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for at least $600,000 to fund these programs and unarmed resident patrols.

HUD promptly rejected the League’s proposal. Instead, the Carter administration allocated $3.4 million, matched by an additional $2 million from the city of Chicago, to install security cameras, vandal-proof mailboxes, metal bars and barbed wire fences, and to expand the housing project’s police force. As violence persisted, recreational facilities, health-care services and basic infrastructure continued to deteriorate until the project was demolished beginning in 1998.

We must not make the mistake of overlooking such promising efforts again. Today, community groups from Oakland Power Projects in the Bay Area to the Detroit Justice Center are asking for funding and political support for work they are already doing to keep their communities safe. With more than 50 years of hindsight, we know the punitive policy path has only exacerbated inequality and incited racial divisions. The unpursued alternative — focusing on the conditions themselves and encouraging widespread community participation — not only is cost effective but also has the potential to make all Americans safer. Reversing the misguided policies of the past is the first step toward a more equitable future.

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