Almost 50 years ago, an 11-member panel convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson investigated the causes of the 1960s urban riots and proposed intervention strategies for the federal government to transform American society into a real cosmopolitan canopy that included and protected all minorities as full citizens. This panel issued their findings in the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights” otherwise known as the Kerner Commission Report, which ominously declared that America was heading toward a form of domestic unrest far more incendiary and costly than the scorched urban terrains that Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, Chicago’s Division Street, Newark’s Springfield Avenue and Detroit’s Rosa Park Boulevard were in the late 1960s. Specifically, the panel concluded that three principal factors caused increasing frustrations in African American communities: white racism, police brutality and segregated settlement patterns.
As such, the Kerner Commission panel called for police diversity recruitment efforts, anti-poverty measures, as well as job readiness and vocational training programs that would further the upward mobility for those trapped in urban ghettos — ideally leading to better social integration in the workforce including police departments and all white residential settlements. Additionally, this report urged greater concentration of law enforcement into urban slums for surveillance and to stamp out potential unrest almost instantly. The militarization of police departments, to be sure, is a post-9/11 phenomenon, but the concentration of police in African American communities was signaled by the Kerner Commission Report. Despite the more positive recommendations of this 426-page report, which sold over two million copies, racism flourishes, segregated residential patterns persist, and the racist lens through which both black and white police officers interpret African Americans has caused the ubiquitous shootings of unarmed citizens of color.
Almost 50 years forward, the Department of Justice investigative report of the Ferguson Police Department reveals the haunting and failed measures taken by the federal government post-Kerner Commission. This investigative report concluded that a systematic and unlawful practice abounds in the Ferguson Police Department constituted first by an entrenched racism and second by an avaricious and pecuniary legal method to exploit African Americans. The Ferguson Police Department’s racist culture violated the 1st, 4th and 14th amendment of the United States Constitution as well as other civil rights laws afforded as protections for African American citizens.
Sadly, people of color across the country are subjected to excessive uses of force on a daily basis. We are becoming a society where distrust reflected in the dispositions of law-abiding community members toward police is so great that the misguided urban dictum “don’t snitch” has become an obsolete wedge. There is no profit to gain from hiding the fact that the earnest manner in which protesters collected in American streets against Michael Brown’s homicide was fueled by injustices at the hands of police officers endured and/or witnessed across the country. Vindicated, many protesters, including my students at Morgan State University, now muse: “What would a Department of Justice investigation reveal if it investigated all police agencies across America?”
As an African American and former police officer, I found Darren Wilson’s justification for shooting the unarmed Michael Brown, who was in fact was fleeing contact, to be highly problematic — almost predacious. The Department of Justice determined not to charge Officer Wilson because there was no evidence available to prove a racially motivated animus or intent to violate Brown’s civil rights. Stated differently, any officer’s subjective interpretation is unimpeachable as long that officer, black or white, maintains he or she was acting under “the color of law” and facing a perceived threat when utilizing deadly force. How do we reconcile a report that finds a culture, a systemic pattern of racism deeply ingrained into the mindset and practices of a police department, but fail to indict the actions of an officer, whose behavior was, according to Brown’s companion, consistent with the report’s findings of aggressive treatment of African Americans ?
American citizens are faced with similar questions of the Kerner Commission. Specifically, how do we reverse our splintered nation — one black, one white, separate, hostile and unequal? How might the government intervene to make our society more inclusive?
Let me be clear in offering one solution mentioned in the Kerner Commission Report: Desegregate racially entrenched residential patterns that characterize all of American society, but do so in ways that do not displace working and low-income poor.
Kalfani N. Ture is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Morgan State University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.