It is cold comfort that the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman has reignited a necessary discussion of racial injustice. Widespread uprisings and protests of this kind have not been seen in the United States for over half a century.
We already know the steps needed to prevent more police murders of African Americans and to rectify the daily injustices that result from institutional racism. Much of the necessary analysis was provided by a prominent US government commission more than 50 years ago. The 1968 Kerner report analysed the “long hot summer” of 1967 that saw violent uprisings by poor African Americans in Detroit, Newark and dozens of other American cities, most of which were sparked by an incident of police brutality. The protests and riots of the mid-to-late 1960s are the closest historical precedent to what we are witnessing today.
The report was far from perfect: it failed to truly grapple with police brutality or the lawless violence that police and National Guardsman inflicted in suppressing the 1967 uprisings. But it remains remarkable how far a bipartisan commission of establishment American leaders were willing to go. It condemned “white racism”, whose effects had hardly been fully redressed by recent civil rights legislation, and which it saw as the root cause of the long, hot summer. Far from simple rioting, the report recognised, these uprisings were a protest against the injustice embodied in the poverty and segregation that structured daily lives in lower-class urban African-American communities.
The Kerner commission warned what would happen if the United States did not take drastic action, particularly by committing billions of dollars to improve employment, education and other social services. But though the report became a surprise bestseller, it had little impact on public policy. President Lyndon Johnson, mired in the disastrous Vietnam War and annoyed that the commissioners had not simply praised his prior reforms, refused to even acknowledge the report. And most white Americans didn’t really want to hear what it had to say.
Kenneth Clark had warned the Kerner commission that throughout US history its leaders had repeatedly failed to address the root causes of racial violence
Kenneth Clark, a leading African-American intellectual, had warned the Kerner commission that throughout US history its leaders had repeatedly failed to address the root causes of racial violence: “I read the report . . . of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it was as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ‘43, the report of the McCone committee on the Watts riot . . . [I]t is the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
Obviously, some things have changed since the days of the Kerner report. Handheld video devices allow citizens to record police violence in a way unthinkable 50 years ago. And police violence against African Americans has escalated in the past half-century. The report proposed a redistribution of resources, but the US took a different path involving the mass incarceration of lower-class African Americans and the escalation of police surveillance. The advent of “broken windows” policing since the 1970s entails the daily harassment of citizens in African-American neighbourhoods that would hardly be tolerated anywhere else in the US and which leads to the kinds of confrontations that led to George Floyd’s murder.
Protest against injustice
No positive solutions will come from the white supremacist Donald Trump, who tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. As in the 1960s, conservatives will focus all their attention on looting and rioting while failing to acknowledge that these are the inevitable result of injustice. They will portray these as simple criminal acts while failing to see that, no matter how destructive or ill-advised, they are a form of protest against injustice.
No positive solutions will come from the white supremacist Donald Trump, who tweeted, `when the looting starts, the shooting starts'
Democrats, like presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, will at least acknowledge to some extent the underlying racial injustice. But we should be sceptical that they will act on their words. After all, the report that Barack Obama commissioned after the 2014 murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, produced the “same inaction” that Kenneth Clark warned of in the wake of the long, hot summer of 1967.
National action is only conceivable with a Democrat in the White House in 2021. But only a mass movement of the kind that we are witnessing on the streets today can force leaders to do what is necessary. If we want to stop future police murders, we need radical action that will redistribute power and resources as the Kerner report suggested and put an end to the mass incarceration and over-policing that have escalated since that report was published.
Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott associate professor in American history at TCD