Racism Won’t Be Solved by Yet Another Blue-Ribbon ReportBreaking News
tags: racism, police brutality
On january 29, 1943, Robert Hall was seized from his home in Baker County, Georgia. Three white police officers, charging Hall with the theft of a tire, drove him to the county courthouse. When they arrived, officers pulled him from the squad car and pummeled him with their fists and a two-pound baton for nearly 30 minutes. Hall fell unconscious. The officers dragged him feetfirst through the street to a cell inside the jailhouse where he would lay dying.
Four years later, when a panel established by President Harry Truman submitted a 178-page report on America’s civil-rights failings, the document included Hall’s story in a lengthy section on police brutality. “There is evidence of lawless police action against whites and Negroes alike, but the dominant pattern is that of race prejudice,” the committee wrote. “Negroes have been shot, supposedly in self-defense, under circumstances indicating, at best, unsatisfactory police work in the handling of criminals, and, at worst, a callous willingness to kill.” The report changed nothing.
The current demonstrations against police brutality will end. They always do. When the crowds go home, politicians will resume their defensive crouch. They will call for reform—never again!—and form commissions. Some of these commissions may even be “blue ribbon.” These commissions will issue reports and the politicians will claim to have done something. But another commission won’t tell us anything we don’t already know.
When Lyndon B. Johnson walked into the White House on July 27, 1967, two decades after Truman’s commission released its report, the nation was on fire. It had been 15 days since police in Newark, New Jersey, yanked John Smith, a black taxi driver, from his cab after he steered around a double-parked police car. Two officers beat Smith before taking him to the Fourth Precinct station, where a crowd gathered to protest his arrest. Newark was the site of one of 159 so-called race riots around the country that summer. Johnson told staff that he wanted to deliver a national address to announce the creation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—which would come to be known as the Kerner Commission. At that point, a commission had not been seriously discussed in the White House, but eight hours later, the panel contained a slew of esteemed public officials and businessmen—some of whom had no idea they were members of the group. Led by Otto Kerner Jr., the governor of Illinois, the commission was charged with examining what led to the uprisings, explaining why they happened, and recommending ways to prevent them in the future.
By February 1968, the commission released its final report on the “powerful ingredients” that had led to the unrest of the previous summer. “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II,” the commission stated. Despite progressive legislative victories such as the Brown v. Board of Education decision, America’s schools and public spaces remained segregated. The police had “come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression,” the document continued. As a salve, the commission recommended creating thousands upon thousands of public-service jobs, investing billions in programs to alleviate housing segregation, and reforming the police. The recommendations were largely ignored.
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