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NPR Podcast 'Throughline' Delves Into The Kerner Commission's Findings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Maybe the closest parallel to what we've seen in the protests spurred by George Floyd's death is the long hot summer of 1967. Protests swept through many American cities. Some people called them riots. Other people described them as rebellions or uprisings. President Lyndon Johnson formed a commission to try to identify the causes. For the NPR podcast Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei looked into the Kerner Commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAY IT COOL: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's bad, man. Let's go for a ride.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: For the law enforcement officer, the question of attitudes - his and those he will deal with - is of tremendous importance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUND ABDELFATAH: This is a police training film from the 1960s. It's called "Play It Cool: A Question Of Attitudes." In this scene, the narrator is breaking down an interaction between the police and a few guys hanging out next to a parked car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAY IT COOL: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDES")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: From this point of view, it looks like this - a group of young men having a little innocent fun on a street corner.

ABDELFATAH: Then a couple of police officers...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAY IT COOL: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I know they coming over here.

ABDELFATAH: ...Approach them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAY IT COOL: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDES")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The nightstick, the uniform, creates a hostile, menacing image.

ABDELFATAH: One of the officers randomly jabs one of the guys with his nightstick. The film pauses and the narrator jumps in to critique the interaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PLAY IT COOL: A QUESTION OF ATTITUDES")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Unnecessary physical contact further escalates the sense of hostility.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Get off the car? I told you the car...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I said get off the car. I don't care whose car it is. Get off the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: During the 1960s, films like this were made to encourage different approaches to police work, one more geared towards social service. Under both Kennedy and Johnson, several landmark Supreme Court cases mandated police reforms, which meant more training and more checks on police. Not everyone was happy about these reforms, especially police officers and their union reps. Aaron Bekemeyer is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard whose research focuses on the history of police unions.

AARON BEKEMEYER: Policing units are saying we're sick of all these reforms that have been going on for so long. And we really need a political project that is going to stop them and roll them back.

ABDELFATAH: Well, the chaos of the civil rights era and the uprisings in the summer of 1967 gave them that political project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGHES RUDD: The tension of Negro disillusionment is in the air and so is white anxiety.

ABDELFATAH: And police unionists also seized on that fear.

BEKEMEYER: And say, look, there are so many disruptive and threatening things going on right now, and what our job is is to protect the fabric of society from all of these various disruptive threats. We are here to protect you. And in order to do that, we need the sort of protections and funding and everything that we would achieve through police unionism to make sure that we can actually do our jobs.

ARABLOUEI: It worked. They were granted more power in cities across the country than they'd ever had before. The mood of the country was shifting in favor of police just as the Kerner Commission was preparing to release its report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In February of 1968, the Kerner Commission was ready to announce their findings. President Johnson had organized this group of politicians and leaders, 11 in total, mostly male, mostly white. Their objective - to find answers to these three questions about the racial unrest sweeping the country.

STEVE GILLON: One is, what happened. Second is, why did it happen? And third, how can we prevent it from happening again?

ARABLOUEI: That's Steve Gillon, a history professor and author of the book "Separate And Unequal: The Kerner Commission And The Unraveling Of American Liberalism."

GILLON: They hire a whole bunch of investigators, field teams, that would go into these areas where there was unrest. And these field teams would interview local residents, local leaders and elected officials.

ABDELFATAH: The commissioners had spent the past year compiling these investigations on what caused the 1967 uprisings, and the nation was eagerly anticipating the results.

ARABLOUEI: The report's proposals were big. For the time, they were deep and systemic. It proposed major changes to housing policies, urban planning, education, anti-poverty programs and policing, with a price tag ranging between thirty to a hundred billion dollars.

ABDELFATAH: A lot of these proposals aligned with President Johnson's priorities. However, at the heart of the report was something Johnson and many others did not see coming.

GILLON: The commission's belief that white racism was the cause of urban unrest.

ARABLOUEI: Here's Susan Gooden, dean of L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

SUSAN GOODEN: The Kerner Report said - and I quote - "what white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it. White institutions maintain it. And white society condones it."

ARABLOUEI: And when the report was officially released through a publisher, let's just say it did better than most novels do today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The report turned out to be a runaway bestseller. Seven hundred forty thousand copies were sold the first three weeks; more than a million are now in print.

GILLON: It made a huge splash. It was remarkable that a presidential commission got the type of attention that it got.

ABDELFATAH: But President Johnson wasn't so happy about the report's findings. Even though he had to give tepid support publicly, privately he was enraged. The main reason for his anger was the price tag and the scope of the report's recommendations.

ARABLOUEI: Things like creating 2 million jobs within three years, producing 6 million new housing units in five years and putting in place specific police reforms to curb police brutality.

GILLON: The one common denominator that united all the riots is they were all initiated either by police brutality or by someone who believes they have witnessed police brutality.

ARABLOUEI: It was clear that neither President Johnson nor Congress was going to champion most of the proposals set forth by the commission.

ABDELFATAH: In fact, following the Kerner Commission report, the police force in the United States became more powerful, not more regulated. Nixon's war on drugs gave police more leeway to arrest drug dealers and users. And many police forces began their steady process of militarization by acquiring surplus equipment and weapons from the military. And the harsh reality is that the diagnosis of the problem laid out in the Kerner Commission would be accurate in many American cities today.

INSKEEP: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, hosts of the NPR podcast Throughline, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.