America, Here’s Our Chance for a Do-Over: The Kerner Report and the Nixon Presidency
It’s not often we have a chance for a do-over, a chance to right history’s wrongs. Like the proverbial Hollywood movie where the character gets a chance to go back in time and fix a seminal mistake (i.e., Mr. Destiny, The Family Man, See You Yesterday, etc.), our country now has that chance. Not technically to rewrite history, but to take stock at a similar inflection point and make the right decisions this time (or, at least, less problematic ones).
The Kerner Report
In 1968, America was at a boiling point. The country had been plagued by mass protests and riots in several major cities, mainly Los Angeles in 1965, Chicago in 1966 and Newark in 1967. How were we to move forward? We had a blueprint. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a commission, headed by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, to analyze the deeper causes and look for possible remedies. The Kerner Report was released in February 1968. As James Clyde Sellman noted, the commission concluded that
urban violence reflected profound frustration of inner-city blacks and that racism was deeply embedded in American society. The report’s most famous passage warned that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The commission marshaled evidence on an array of problems that fell with particular severity on African Americans, including not only overt discrimination but also chronic poverty, high unemployment, poor schools, inadequate housing, lack of access to health care, and systematic police bias and brutality.
The report recommended sweeping federal initiatives directed at improving educational and employment opportunities, housing, and public services in black urban neighborhoods and called for a “national system of income supplementation.”
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”¹
Unfortunately, President Johnson ignored the report and its recommendations. King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated later that year. In a brutally prescient tie to our current situation, 1968 even had its own pandemic, the Hong Kong flu, which emerged in the U.S. by the end of the year and eventually killed 100,000 Americans. Most importantly, Richard Nixon was elected that fall.
Sharp Right Turn
We know what happened next. After Nixon was elected, the Republican Party succumbed completely to the Southern Strategy, eventually featuring the iconic imagery of Ronald Reagan and the behind-the-scenes machinations of Lee Atwater. (Like our current President, Reagan launched his campaign near a deeply symbolic site of historic carnage, near the Philadelphia, MS site where three civil rights workers had been slain in 1964. He used the dog-whistle of “states’ rights,” preaching to white Southerners still embittered about the intrusion of federal civil rights legislation.)
The turning of the tide resulted in the mass incarceration of black men, masquerading as the War on Drugs, which resuscitated the age-old ailments that plagued black people in the U.S. during slavery and Jim Crow: devastated communities, broken families and police forces run amok. And that’s not even delving into what a basic threat to our democracy Nixon was. What if those burglars at the Watergate Hotel hadn’t been caught? What if Nixon was able to keep engaging in his dirty tricks unabated?
But it didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t have to elect Nixon and affirm his calling for law & order. (Wouldn’t it be nice if Law & Order was just a TV show and not a dog whistle?) We didn’t have to equate black people demonstrating for their rights with a threat to the “Silent Majority” (that’s dog-whistle for white people). We didn’t have to view civil rights campaigns as a zero-sum game — the false belief that if historically oppressed groups were a little less oppressed then other Americans would be more oppressed, as if oppression was a seesaw.
A Second Chance
For many of us, the version of American history as presented in high school textbooks was as follows: Lincoln freed the slaves, MLK ended racism and everything is fine now, as exemplified by the Presidential election of Barack Obama. But discarding these rose-colored lenses reveals that there was a backward step after the Civil Rights movement. The election of Richard Nixon and the enabling of the Southern Strategy was a big part of this. For those of us who wished that we could go back in time and do it over: here is our chance!
Please don’t re-elect Richard Nixon 2.0. We already know what happened when we elected the original. We’ve seen this movie before. This time around, let’s do this the right way, and avoid the dog-whistling “law & order” President who doesn’t believe the law applies to himself. And while we’re at it, let’s revisit the Kerner Report (or at least a short summary of it) and take it seriously this time.
¹ Source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1999 edition), Kerner Report entry by James Clyde Sellman.