We entertain competing memories of the 1960s.
The Woodstock Festival, the Beatles, the Vietnam War, the NASA moon landing and John F. Kennedy’s assassination all capture historic moments and moods of the ‘60s we wish to remember.
But it was also a time of extraordinarily intense and violent racial confrontations that we wish to forget.
The persistence of racial turmoil in our time, such as the 2015 Ferguson riots, Baltimore after Freddie Gray and last year’s unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina obliges us to reconsider the lost lessons and forgotten recommendations from the 1960s.
In 1965, the Watts riot in Los Angeles raged for six days, left 40 people dead, claimed $40 million in property damage and put four thousand people in jail.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 unleashed the strongest episode of social unrest since the Civil War. Riots raged in 125 cities, emboldened militant Black Power groups, hastened white flight from urban areas, entrenched segregation and played a critical role in the landmark 1968 presidential election of Richard Nixon.
But it’s not like racial tensions ever disappeared.
Like any social pattern, these violent episodes sparked from different incidents but shared similar causes.
In response to the 1967 riots, Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the riots and make recommendations about how to reduce mass violence.
Despite passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, he ignored the Commission’s findings and relegated their recommendations to the dustbins of history.
But it’s worth considering what their expert review had to say.
They found that police action was the immediate or ‘final’ precipitating event before almost every outbreak of violence.
Abusive police practices, high unemployment, a popular feeling of lost agency and the ineffectiveness of intersystem progress contributed to environments of mistrust and anger.
Inadequate housing, education and social services were key factors in the outbreaks of violence.
If racial violence is a social problem, as the Commission suggested, it requires social remedies.
They recommended eliminating abusive practices such as using clubs and guns on nonviolent offenders, employing more black and female cops and ensuring their fair promotion.
A massive campaign to create jobs in urban areas, providing tax incentives for firms to employ intercity populations, ending de facto school segregation, extending early childhood education to black communities and expanding access to credit and home ownership were also the Kerner Commission’s important finding.
They advocated an enforceable open-housing law, uniform standards for welfare assistance and a public housing policy that emphasized a transition from “traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites.”
Who knows where race relations would be today if their findings were actually taken seriously.
It is tempting to simply condemn looters and arsonists as betrayers of peaceful protest.
“When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing,” Obama said about Baltimore.
It is easy to pass off moral censure as our only obligation to address social unrest.
But if we truly want policies that improve life for all Americans, we must be willing to take these reforms seriously, sacrifice our comfort and break our silence.
On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, we are 50 years too late.
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