Examining Gaps In The 1968 Report That First Named White Racism As The Cause For Black Riots

Jun 4, 2020

Anti-racist activists are protesting across the country in response to police brutality against people of color, particularly black men. This latest wave began after George Floyd, a black man, died after a white former Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. An independent autopsy concluded Floyd's cause of death as "asphyxiation from sustained pressure." Floyd was in police custody for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. Many recognize that white racism and violence against black and brown people lead to this civil unrest, but what causes white violence?

Keisha Bentley-Edwards points to a report from over 50 years ago to help us understand. She is the director of the Health Equity Working Group for the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University and co-author of the paper “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? The Missing Kerner Commission Report.” The 1968 Kerner Report, commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson following 1967’s “long, hot summer” of black riots, investigated the reason for unrest and named white racism as the cause.


Bentley-Edwards points to a history of race riots in which white people assaulted black people and property left out of the report. Up until the mid-20th century, she says, the term “race riot” usually meant white violence. Host Frank Stasio talks with Bentley-Edwards about blind spots in the Kerner Report and how the country can move forward by reckoning with white violence.

The problem is that even though white racism was looked at as the root cause, black people were still seen as the problem that needed to be fixed, rather than looking at ways to eliminate white racism and systemic oppression.

Interview Highlights

On the civil unrest preceding the Kerner Report:

And so there was some confusion … about why black people were still upset and why they were letting this anger out in this way, in the context of the civil rights movement occurring [a few years earlier]. And so you had [black] people protesting high unemployment and police brutality was everywhere ... And then you had a housing crisis because housing was still segregated. You had limited housing, especially in major cities. And there was also contract housing and just a lot of exploitation on black banking. Even when it came to getting furniture, there was a lot of exploitation financially that was occurring during that time period. And that's what a lot of these uprisings were about.

On how the Kerner Report placed blame on black Americans:

There was a [perceived] problem of black people being unwilling to assimilate into mainstream or white society, and an underlying belief of social deviance as part of the core of black character — borrowing from the Moynihan report that had just came out the year prior — this idea of black family disorganization. So one of the things in our paper that we talked about as missing [from the Kerner Report] is black women. In that report, black women show up when they're talking about problems in the black family — that there are too many black families that are headed by women instead of having what you would call a “nuclear household.” And they did point out that a lot of this had to do with unemployment, underemployment and not just absent fathers. But there was still this wave of family disorganization being a black woman's problem. And that was part of the underlying issue of social deviance and failure to assimilate.

I think that this is part of a long history of black people fighting back, but also understanding that you have to keep pushing forward.

On how black progress sparked white violence:

So you have this black progress, and this perceived threat to white social status. And then what would often happen is a threshold event. Most of the time, it was a police brutality event. But other times, it was the protection of white women. Around that same time, it could be too much celebration. So when Jack Johnson won his boxing match over Jim Jeffries, in 25 cities there was white racial violence to diminish that joy ... It wasn't just the killing of people, but it was also the destroying of black institutions. You had the destroying of black banks and black hospitals, black schools, black politicians, as well as newspapers and journalism — as well as disenfranchisement and the taking away of weapons, because one of the misperceptions about African Americans is that we never fought back. And during this time period, when you had this mob violence coming to people's homes, burning up people's homes, burning up communities — folks were fighting back. They were shooting back when they were trying to defend their homestead, but because of the complicity of often the sheriffs and the government — the federal government — you couldn’t overwhelm the system.