What the 1968 Kerner Commission can teach us

Criminologist and statistician Richard Berk, who worked on the report as a graduate student, explains the systemic racism and poverty found to underlie violent unrest in the 1960s and where COVID-19 and the economy fit today.

Historic image of police storming a storefront in 1967 during a riot in Detroit.
President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to identify the genesis of the violence in the 1960s that killed 43 in Detroit and 26 in Newark. Pictured here, soldiers in a Newark storefront. (Image: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

On Feb. 29, 1968, the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known informally as the Kerner Commission, reported on the underlying causes for unrest happening in Chicago, Cleveland, and other major cities across the country. Systemic racism, inequality, and injustice were to blame, the report stated. 

Just seven months prior, in July 1967, President Lyndon Johnson had formed the commission to better understand what exactly was happening and why and to make recommendations about preventing future occurrences. Input to the commission was to take two forms: testimony from outside stakeholders and experts, and social science research, which eventually became the supplemental studies to the Kerner Commission.

“Social scientists were brought in to collect data so the report would be fact-based,” says Penn’s Richard Berk, who was then a sociology doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and is today a professor of criminology and statistics. “There were about 20 graduate students who were tasked with this work. I was one of them.” 

Following the death of George Floyd this past May, Black Lives Matter protests—most of them peaceful—erupted in large cities and small towns across the United States, even amidst a pandemic. It’s clear, Berk says, that more than 50 years after the Kerner Commission report, many of the same issues still plague this country. He explains that and more to Penn Today

A person standing at the foot of a set of outdoor stairs, with a brick wall behind and fencing atop the stairs.
Richard Berk, professor of criminology and statistics. (Image: Eric Sucar)

What spurred the need for the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders?

Starting in 1965 and for several years, there were major incidences of unrest in Newark, New Jersey, Chicago, Cleveland, and other places. In response, Lyndon Johnson formed a commission. It was put together, as these things usually are, with about a dozen well-known dignitaries, but the real work was to be done primarily by hired staff and a variety of volunteer social scientists. I was a graduate student who was encouraged by my mentor, Peter Rossi, to volunteer. There was an important role for statistically sound social science in such a volatile political setting. Facts mattered then, too.

What was your role exactly?

I worked as a research assistant on the supplemental studies. I was responsible for significant portions of the data analysis and the writing, for which I was made a co-author. The supplemental studies became a remarkable document of several hundred pages with lots of data and conclusions, so the commission wouldn’t just shoot from the hip but would accurately represent what was known. It was an evenhanded, fact-based report, and we had a feeling that something good might come of it. 

What exactly did the report say about the root cause of the violent protests?

Johnson was expecting something that was much more measured and focused on law enforcement. But the commission came out with a stinging indictment that the problem was massive inequality and blatant injustice fueled by systematic racism. That, in turn, generated resentment that was a backdrop for the unrest. There were, to be sure, police incidents that were pretty grisly, but they were just a match; the fuel was already laid. The report said it was time for the country to wake up and do something about systemic racism and inequality. 

And yet we struggle with the same challenges a half-century later. Why?

It’s remarkable, in the worst sense of the word. Sadly, the report was prescient. Much of what was said is still relevant. Unfortunately, after the report came out, Nixon was elected. He brought with him a law-and-order regime, and the report was either ignored or forgotten. And yes, here we are today, though it’s not surprising. We knew what triggered it before. Those basic circumstances haven’t changed. The whole thing is a replay. There’s this general feeling that we’ve already done this and, look, nothing has changed. But COVID-19 and the economy have made things still worse.

Can you expand on what you mean in terms of the pandemic and the economy?

There are several things going on. Social media has amplified the role of information and misinformation, while also becoming a vital tool for political organizing. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected African American and Latino communities. The pandemic has not just highlighted earlier grievances but made them worse. We have an economy in freefall, which has exacerbated problems that already existed. And just think about our national leaders. In 1967, Lyndon Johnson was president, Ramsey Clark was attorney general, and Mike Mansfield was Senate majority leader. That’s a wholly different flavor of politician than we currently have at the national level. They had their difficulties, too, and nobody’s perfect, but certainly the framing was very different. 

Although the problems that triggered the Kerner Commission still exist and, as you mentioned, have worsened in some cases, are you hopeful that real change might come soon?

My glimmer of hope is that, insofar as a lot of this can be tied to the current political scene at the national level and some state levels, too, we can change that political scene. Maybe if we do that, there will be meaningful structural change. After this got started last time, the backlash gave us Richard Nixon. Let’s hope that this time, we can do much better. But meaningful structural change still will take decades.

Richard Berk is a professor in the Department of Criminology in the School of Arts & Sciences and the Department of Statistics in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.