A photo of MLK, Lyndon Johnson and other politicians surrounding the Kerner Report

History Matters

Can We Ever Reconcile Racism?

It's been 50 years since the government published the Kerner Report, its first official investigation into systemic racism, and we're worse off now than we've ever been.

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“Two societies, one white, one black—separate and unequal.”

This is the most famous, damning conclusion of the Kerner Report, published 50 years ago on February 29, 1968. The report was published in the aftermath of riots that rocked 172 American cities every summer between 1964 and 1967 in response to racism made manifest in police brutality, urban decay, and widespread destruction.

After violence tore through America, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders known for short as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr. LBJ wanted answers to three questions, he said in a July 1967 announcement: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

Of the institutions that remain that were in existence when these questions were posed, only a few continue to do the work that the Kerner Report would ask the nation to keep up. The American Society of News Editors is one of them. ASNE has been conducting a newsroom diversity survey since 1978.

Here, in its 40th year, is a fantastic Google News Lab Interactive that shows that while 19 percent of news organizations have lost racial diversity between 2001 and 2017, 44 percent have gained some. The graphic also breaks out gender and racial parity in news organization leadership. Those are the best numbers.

The bleaker ones show the steady, persistent gap between the representation of minority journalists in newsrooms (around 16.6 percent in 2017) and our population in the country (the U.S. Census estimated minorities to make up 38 percent of the nation in 2014). These are the numbers that tell the hard truth about our nation’s fraught relationship with race and racism and the long shadow prejudice casts over our democracy. And they don’t even begin to address the double-bind Black women find themselves in–whether working in the newsroom, or being left out of reporting altogether.

I first learned about the Kerner Report several years ago as a former newspaper journalist. I worked in newsrooms in Texas, Washington State, and California for a decade between 2000 and 2011. During that time, I was often one of just a few Black people working as a full-time journalist, usually the only woman, and certainly one of the youngest.

Being a Black woman newspaper reporter for a decade was one of the great gifts of my life but it was also grueling emotional labor. I would show up to do my job with my credentials around my neck,  my notebook out, my pen in hand, and still be directed to a door in the back for the help.

If I was talking to other Black people for a story about Black things, I felt confident and I knew that I could make their worlds make sense to so many who had never seen them, like when I wrote my first front-page story for the San Francisco Chronicle about Black death in East Oakland’s flatlands. But my white mentors warned me not to get pigeonholed. They told me to expand my horizons, to write about everything. So I wrote about the ballet, speed dating, about the children of women prisoners, and so many other things.

But the Black experience was and is my heart. It is what I know. It is also the American experience.

Just because I believed it and I knew there were other people who believed it didn’t mean that I could wedge my humanity into the papers or onto the front pages when no Black children were dead. That’s one of the main reasons I ended up leaving journalism.

What’s striking about the Kerner Report is that there is a refreshing absence of earnestness or equivocation. It is, in fact, surprisingly clear-sighted for the nation’s only real comprehensive governmental reckoning with white supremacy, white terrorism and their impact on Black lives. It feels oddly tone-deaf, by the way, in such a vastly different time, when there are so many different racial combinations and categories to merely focus on Black and white problems. But at the heart of xenophobia and almost all of the other biases that other races and ethnicities face, you’ll find that the stench of anti-black sentiment wafts onto everyone else. The root and heart of American racism is reflected in America’s treatment of Black people and provides an education on the treatment of every other Other.

This passage from the Kerner Report, like many others, could have been published this week:

Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” That racism, the report goes on to say, manifests itself in pervasive discrimination and segregation in education, employment and housing; in white divestment from urban areas or “white exodus” leaving blacks with “unmet human needs.

It continues with this: “A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.”

I read this and thought immediately of Charlottesville and Heather Heyer.

When I left newspapers to freelance in 2012, I wrote about media portrayals of Black youth murdered by police or, in the case of Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch person. I wrote about the impact of damaging portrayals of Asian Americans in the media and the very narrow ways in which media have continued over the decades to write about Native Americans.

While I was working in newsrooms, I was not able to see how these things operated together or as part of a structural, historical problem. But outside of it, I could start to piece together where media had gone wrong. I also became curious about where the modern conversation about diversity even started.

The Kerner Report marked the first time in modern U.S. history that government officials acknowledged media bias that favored white narratives and disadvantaged blacks to the detriment of all of American society by underscoring how lazy, biased journalists in unrepresentative newsrooms took the word of “beleaguered” officials in American cities to publish inaccurate figures that gave distorted impressions about the impact of riots on cities, leading to more damage.

There are, unfortunately, too many examples in modern media to provide a comprehensive account of the ways that we have devolved since the Kerner Report. One example is the failure of media to accurately contextualize the rise in domestic extremist terrorism at the hands of white supremacist mass shooters like Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina, as a serious threat to national security on the same scale as an external threat posed by foreign nationals, Black or Brown people. In a January 2018 report, the Anti-Defamation League reported that between 2008 and 2017, white supremacists were responsible for 71 percent of all domestic terrorism-linked deaths.

Another example of this lack of progress is the way that Black victims of police-involved shootings are often criminalized in death. Immediately after Michael Brown’s death, the New York Times inserted a line in a story about him high in the story saying that “he was no angel,” as if that would explain why police left the boy’s body uncovered in the street after he’d been shot to traumatize the city of Ferguson, Missouri, even further.

The secondary finding of the Kerner Report was more far-reaching and resonant, and is the finding that all media still have not appropriately dealt with.

By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This may be understandable, but it is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.

This rings true today in what stories make front page news and what stories are completely ignored or never break through.

Recently, the New York Times devoted an entire op-ed section to conservatives, in addition to running a highly controversial news feature on a neo-Nazi that seemed to suggest the nation’s former paper of record is pandering to white nationalists in order to win favor with President Trump’s base, if not the president himself. In the meantime, stories like the spate of four Black lesbians who were brutally murdered in late December, go unreported. These intersectional blind spots also lead to actual inaccuracies in reporting in an era when most journalists are so overwhelmed they will simply aggregate news from social media instead of interviewing primary sources themselves. A prime example of this was early reporting on the #MeToo movement that threatened to erase Tarana Burke until Black women on social media corrected reports that Alyssa Milano was the originator of a movement that began with Tarana over a decade ago.

With very few exceptions—the work of ProPublica and NPR on investigating disproportionate Black maternal death rates is one—media in general ignore stories of consequence that impact Black women.

We need more than just a new Kerner Report, but a new system of assessing what journalism means in both a functioning democracy and a dysfunctional one.

The media still write and report from the standpoint of a white man’s world. Black Lives Matter was a chant for a different time; now talking about flyover country like the only people who live there are racist white nationalists is the only way to make headlines, get clicks and, apparently, make your way to the op-ed section of the New York Times, unless you want to write about your identity in relation to whiteness and/or racism.

Traditional media outlets are right now letting the complaints of their audiences who complain about the indifference of white America, who rally against sympathetic portrayals of white supremacists or neo-nazis or people who simply are white terrorists without hoods, uncloaked, go unheard or unreconciled. When I called the New York Times to cancel my subscription after the latest sympathetic profile of a neo-Nazi published and I’d had enough, the woman I spoke to asked me why and I mentioned the article. She said, “A lot of people have been calling about that piece.” Then she said she was sorry to see me go and she wondered if I wouldn’t reconsider if she offered me the holiday rate which was half off. I declined.

The most common refrain in American traditional or legacy media is one of objectivity. But how can any outlet be truly equitable if it’s not representative of the increasingly diverse world that it covers? Even if it is a lie, what objectivity offers legacy media is a cape for referring to any Other as advocating, as being subjective and therefore guided not by logic or facts, but by feelings – as if feelings, passion, experience are not enough; or are somehow incomplete.

The reality is that a better, more perfect union of these ideals exists in the middle. If media will not be more intentional about checking their privileges, inviting in new, representative voices and more, then the least they could do is be honest and transparent about why they have decided to make the editorial choices they make—before their audiences start to complain, instead of after.

Fifty years after the Kerner Report, technology is the new riot, the seemingly benign disruptor. We are but a couple of generations removed from witnessing the assassination of our icons past and present either because they were gunned down to make a statement for all of history or because they were fatigued but couldn’t stop marching/fighting/protesting/organizing or social determinants of health or they smoked to calm their nerves because of microaggressions or aggressions-aggressions or some combination of all of these.

Is it any wonder, then, that we have made our fights virtual, where we cannot be sprayed or shot or taken into cells and captured? We are, after all, a people invested in our own survival.

What is also true about the internet, and about technology, is that the formerly powerless have used it to harness social capital, to organize, to empower, to give themselves a voice and a platform. They are not in need of intermediaries. We are not in need of intermediaries. We are our own best thing.

This anniversary also marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. That was almost a decade before I was born and yet I feel as though I know, having grown up on his words — not just the ones about dreams, but the ones about undelivered promissory notes and the poor and benevolent racism — that his death was the culmination of the kind of revolts that came the year before and the birth of unleashing an extreme something else. The end of nonviolence. The end of not killing four little girls or spitting in the faces of pioneers desegregating schools. The death of MLK and the publication of the Kerner Report suggested we needed a guide to lead us forward on race and we would not have one.

What came next was Black Power and hyper-surveillance for Black people. The more we affirmed our personhood the stronger the resistance as it was defined then became. And the report acknowledged that we needed a unified story, a media that told a story as diverse as our country. We tried all the things: reports, committees, efforts, recruiting and mentoring. They failed.

They kept failing.

There is no logic behind our failure to change how we look at blackness or anti-blackness—from 168 to today—except that we have failed to reckon with what the past has shown us about what it means to let things we don’t understand lie in abject neglect.

White uprisings now, we are told, are not as bad, not as prevalent, not as dangerous. They are not being normalized, this is simply objectivity at work. But we know what is true, which is what we feel and what we know: This is an overcorrection for the years we spent being comfortable with the promise of a black president.

The summer that prompted the Commission that produced this profound report, its authors wrote, offered a sight that was not pleasant. “We have seen in our cities a chain reaction of racial violence,” they wrote. “If we are heedless, none of us shall escape the consequences.”

That is as true now as it was then.

The aims of the Kerner Report were to move us closer to equality. We are now farther apart from one another than ever. The only way to get closer is to find common ground, perhaps in person or via virtual town halls. To remember that in the end, like it or not, we have more in common with one another than we have differences. Another thing that is absolutely true about the Kerner Report is that if we don’t heed the truth in this, none of us will be able to escape the consequences.

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