An Enduring Error

A half-century later, the Kerner Report’s fame overshadows its mistaken analysis of urban riots and blindness to racial progress.

Fifty-one years ago, in July 1967, in response to an explosion of rioting in poor black urban neighborhoods around the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson created a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, to be headed by Illinois governor Otto Kerner. The Kerner Commission issued its report seven months later, on February 29, 1968, in what would be the peak year for such disturbances—289, by one tally. From 1964 to 1972, a staggering total of 752 riots occurred, resulting in 228 deaths, 12,741 injuries, 69,099 arrests, and 15,835 incidents of arson.

Most government reports gain brief notice and then languish on a shelf, never again to be examined, except perhaps by historians. The Kerner Report, by contrast, sold more than 2 million copies, putting it on bestseller lists. More important, it became a liberal policy guide, advocating government programs to provide services to the urban poor, police reforms (including an end to white male–only hiring), and billions of dollars in housing programs to end residential segregation.