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“And the beatdowns and deaths continue”.MA

After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the unrest that followed, a new commission was formed to study a problem strikingly similar to the one examined nearly 50 years earlier.

Chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, the group was tasked with identifying the underlying causes of the unrest. Its final report, while much narrower in scope, bears some resemblance to the Kerner Commission’s findings. Its recommendations included:

  • Reducing the use of force by police officers
  • Reforming sentencing laws
  • Improving the health and education of children and young people
  • Increasing access to affordable housing and public transit
  • Expanding Medicaid

Like the Kerner report, the Ferguson analysis identified racial and economic inequality as the primary source of the problems that led to the protests. But the language and tone are strikingly different:

“We are not pointing fingers and calling individual people racist,” the report diplomatically states. “We are not even suggesting that institutions or existing systems intend to be racist.”

In 2018, a study co-edited by Kerner Commission member Fred Harris followed up on the status of communities examined in the 1968 report. The findings were grim. The new study found that poverty in many of those places had actually increased, as had school segregation, while the inequality gap between white Americans and black, brown and Native Americans had widened.

The original Kerner Commission may have foreseen this outcome. The report’s conclusion quoted the testimony of psychologist Kenneth Clark. Clark – whose famous doll tests were cited in Brown v. Board of Education – reminded the panel of the many previous commissions assembled to study incidents of racial unrest: Chicago in 1919, Harlem in 1935 and 1943, Los Angeles in 1965.

Testifying before the Kerner Commission, Clark said, was a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” experience: He watched the same images flickering past, sat listening to the same analysis and the same recommendations – and it all culminated, finally, in the same inaction. The commissioners quoted his words:

“It is time now to end the destruction and the violence.”


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