Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

We Need a New Kerner Commission

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

We Need a New Kerner Commission

Article excerpt

TOO MANY cities were aflame with racial discord as protesters took to the streets. Police seemed confused. So were politicians. But then the president stepped forward and started posing some simple, yet deeply poignant questions.

This was not President Obama. It was Lyndon Johnson in 1967, asking "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"

Half a century ago, America faced a series of racial problems that still echo today. Too many cities had become prison-like bastions of poor, non-white residents, with far too many people out of work or stuck in low-wage menial jobs and living in neighborhoods controlled by drug dealers and other criminals.

With few political figures venturing into this disheartening landscape, it was left to the police -- untrained, overwhelmed and uniformly white -- to impose some sense of order. And in far too many cases, the police and the residents may as well have been from different solar systems.

Bottles and rocks

That volatile alchemy soon exploded. From Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood in 1965 to Newark's Central Ward in 1967, race relations quickly became a matter of bottles and rocks thrown at police in response to alleged police brutality and stores looted and burned as a statement of anger.

Just as daunting, the nation - and, indeed, most leading political figures -- seemed at a loss for answers. So President Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which quickly became known as the "Kerner Commission" after its chairman, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois.

It's time to bring back a 21st century version of that Kerner Commission.

The Kerner Commission was not perfect - that needs to be acknowledged. But the commission's report, issued in February 1968 as a 426-page book that quickly became a best-seller, contained this foreboding prediction: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."

How true.

The commission began its work with those three initial questions asked by President Johnson: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?"

Long-simmering anger

In some ways, the first two questions were easy to answer. The urban riots were easy to see in all their carnage and fire. Why they took place was slightly more complicated, but not impossibly so. Most of the riots were sparked by a confrontation between residents and police, then fueled by long-simmering anger over poverty and racial prejudice.

The third question, however, was vexing for the Kerner Commission at the time and continues to be challenging today. What can be done to prevent future riots?

Certainly, the most recent racial discord, from Ferguson, Mo., last summer to Baltimore last week, underscores the fact that solutions are deeply complicated. …

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