The Rationality of Violence: The Kerner Commission and the Riots of 1967

Separate and Unequal provides a riveting account of a crucial moment in US history. It offers a penetrating insight into the manner in which good intentions and just causes necessarily confront the mechanisms of governmental bureaucracy.

Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism
Steven M. Gillon
Basic Books
Mar 2018

In the summer of 1967 President Lyndon Baines Johnson found himself in the midst of a mounting crisis. One city after another was erupting in violence as a result of the ever-deepening fissures deriving from the relentless erosion of any semblance of healthy or even stable race relations in urban environments. These uprisings began a few years earlier; the July 1964 Harlem riots sparked racial unrest in Rochester and in August Philadelphia found itself mired in turmoil. In 1965 the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles broke into a firestorm when police stopped a 21-year-old black driver for a traffic violation. He resisted arrest and within an hour chaos ensued, replete with arson, looting, and chants of “Burn, baby burn!” In the end, 34 were dead and roughly 4,000 under arrest; the area suffered over $45 million in property damage.

The story in Newark was similar. On July 12, 1967 the police arrested John Smith, an African American taxi driver. Accounts differ as to precisely what followed. He purportedly resisted arrest and punched a policeman in the face; according to Smith, he was viciously assaulted by the officers. Smith was then dragged forcefully to the Fourth Precinct, which lay across the street from the Hayes Homes, a housing project. False rumors circulated that the police had killed Smith and the area exploded in violence. On the second day of rioting, the governor of New Jersey dispatched state troopers and the National Guard to quell the spreading disturbance. In the end, 23 people were dead and over 1,000 injured.

Riots broke out in several other cities across the country. The most notorious uprising was on July 23rd in Detroit, which quickly became national news and caused panic throughout the nation. Police raided five illegal after-hours clubs catering to black clientele. The crowd outside one of the most famous of these clubs began throwing rocks, breaking windows, and looting stores. At first, the police did nothing, which only inspired freer expression of outrage. The National Guard was again deployed; they were not properly trained for such an event and were clearly unnerved. Snipers proliferated around the city, putting the guardsmen on high alert. When someone lit a cigarette near a window in a building, the Guard mistook it for sniper fire and shot a .50-caliber machine-gun from a tank toward the flash. A four-year-old was killed in the blast. In the end 43 were dead and over 2,000 buildings were razed to the ground. By the end of July, roughly 70 cities had suffered rioting.

LBJ was stunned and personally wounded. “What do they want?,” he petulantly asked; “I’m giving them boom times and more good legislation than anybody else did, and what do they do? Attack and sneer.” After his landslide victory in 1964 against Barry Goldwater, Johnson felt he had a mandate to push through his social reforms, dubbed the Great Society program. He managed to produce around 200 major pieces of legislation, including the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). When the rioting continued unabated, indeed increased, as the decade progressed, Johnson felt that his efforts went unappreciated; in the place of expected gratitude, he received rebuke and scorn. Furthermore, the Vietnam war hung around the president’s neck like an albatross and the rising opposition within government to his war expenditures were grinding his social program spending to a halt. In 1967 Johnson already felt besieged and the enthusiasm of 1964 and 1965 was waning. More to the point, despite the marked social gains, the daily lives of black citizens remained ghettoized, impoverished, and bleak. In a more reflective mood he acknowledged the justifiable frustration on the part of urban blacks and provided a more realistic explanation of the outbreaks of violent protest: “When someone is kept as a slave there is a minimum of trouble. As suppressed people begin to rise from prejudice and discrimination there is naturally going to be more problems.”


The question then became: what was Johnson to do about this crisis? The Republicans were already exploiting white fear of racial unrest to bolster their “law and order” platform and they made major gains in the 1966 midterm elections. The administration was under attack from both sides: many liberals wanted out of the war, many conservatives demanded a harder line on the enforcement of domestic tranquility (with all of the inherent paradoxes involved in enforced tranquility going unremarked). Johnson needed to look like he was doing something while avoiding the hornet’s nest of direct involvement. He couldn’t ignore the problem but neither could he risk wading in with another expensive piece of legislation; he feared he didn’t have sufficient support in Congress. So, the president took a relatively non-committal course of action: he appointed a presidential commission. Since the days of Herbert Hoover, presidents have employed commissions to look into social and legal concerns. This gambit held several advantages: it appeared to be decisive action while it largely foisted the burden of responsibility on others; the commission could be composed of members of opposing parties, thus making their proposals somewhat more likely to be accepted by a divided Congress; it placed the president in the role of critic and judge rather than the far more exposed role of the deviser of a strategy; it appealed to the public veneration of expert knowledge as the basis of social policy.

Johnson appointed his eleven-member bipartisan commission under the direction of chairman Otto Kerner, the Democratic Illinois governor, and promised to provide them with generous financial and political support. He waxed enthusiastic over their potential to come to grips with the vexing racial problems of the day, declaring victory more or less before the work had begun. He very soon came to not only lose faith in the project, but to actively resent it. He cut its funding and hoped it would simply collapse without delivering the report the commission was established in order to produce.

In his new book, Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, Steven M. Gillon documents Johnson’s attempt to resolve the pressing domestic dilemma of racism and racial violence by designating the work to the Kerner Commission as well as his subsequent attempts to undermine the commission. Gillon provides a fascinating narrative of that committee’s formation and efforts to confront this seemingly impenetrable problem, what might be considered the “original sin” of the United States. The topic may not seem to be all that promising for a historical study designed for non-specialist readers; one can easily imagine a chronicle of committee meetings, many of which involve the editing of a governmental report, might devolve onto the depths of tedium. History books for a wider public tend to be concerned with events rather than ideas. Aside from the opening descriptions of the riots themselves, there are precious few events to be found here.

Gillon, however, brings his readers into the heart of the discussions both inside the committee meetings and in the less reserved contexts outside of those meetings. From the beginning we see that the project was fraught with obstacles to overcome (including the outsized personalities of some of those involved), continually got derailed by office politics and behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and nearly imploded owing to starkly differing views on the committee’s proper purview and the proper conceptual category within which to understand the issue. Was the committee supposed to issue a report outlining the causes of the riots or a report suggesting concrete solutions to the racial unrest? Since the riots were clearly related to larger social issues (housing, education, welfare), how far did the committee’s reach extend? Crucially, what is the nature of the problem itself: are the riots a rational mode of violence (all other avenues seeking redress of the racial imbalance having failed) or are they an irrational response to poverty—understandable perhaps, but still a matter of irresponsibly disrupting law and order?


Trikosko, Marion S., photographer – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ds.08051. (Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

Separate and Unequal provides a riveting account of a crucial moment in US history. It offers a penetrating insight into the manner in which good intentions and just causes necessarily confront the mechanisms of governmental bureaucracy. We might lament the sluggish progress of governmental action but to an extent it is built into the system; indeed, it is sluggishness that partly vouchsafes stability. Gillon’s book reveals the workings of bureaucracy with an immediacy that helps clarify the difficulties faced by any progressive agenda. Gillon sees this moment as a lost opportunity that led to the “unraveling of American liberalism”. While I share neither his pessimism regarding current liberalism nor his sanguinity with respect to the liberalism of 1967, I agree that the Kerner Commission’s history and the report they produced provide plenty of material that could serve to instruct our thinking about race, government, and society today. The Kerner Commission confronted the foundational contradiction that lays at the heart of United States society: the much-touted “land of the free” developed out of, and continues to operate on the basis of, a rank inequality—or more bluntly (and more devastatingly) a rank inequality of access to the material, social, and institutional resources that vouchsafe the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

H. Rap Brown once declared: “See, it’s no in-between: you’re either free or you’re a slave. There’s no such thing as a second-class citizen. That’s like telling me you can be a little bit pregnant.” As long as certain groups of people are denied access to the opportunities granted to other groups, those subordinate groups are not truly free and they are not truly members of the democracy. The very notion of a democracy (in whatever diluted form it holds in a representative republic such as the US) depends on equal access among all citizens. Conceptually, this is fairly easily understood and typically not a real point of contention (even those fairly comfortable with de facto inequality tout a firm belief in “equality of access”); operationally, the amelioration (and even adequate detection or evaluation) of an inequality of access presents a host of thorny problems—far more than the Kerner Commission could hope to resolve during its all-too-brief existence.

Gillon’s narrative presents myriad opportunities for further consideration, raises issues that ought to be of central concern to us always (one is tempted to say “in these troubled times” but when it comes to race relations in the US, there are no untroubled times), and illuminates the complexities that are involved in confronting the conundrum of race and equality. In what follows, I would like to follow up on one particular thread in Gillon’s book that I found both deeply fascinating and deeply troubling: is there a rational justification for violence?

The appointees of the Kerner Commission agreed on rather few things—and even with respect to those points of agreement, individual members of the commission understood them in differing ways. Perhaps surprisingly, the members did agree that the root cause of the riots was “white racism”. The report included a passage that reads: “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” (xii). The passage articulates a far subtler view of systemic racism than may first appear to be the case. Note the shift in the subject from the level of individuals (“white Americans” and “the Negro“) to collective entities (“white institutions,” and “white society“). White people as individuals fail to comprehend the effects (and often, even the existence) of racism; moreover, racism is primarily caused not by particular acts of individuals (that would be individual racism, not systemic) but rather by institutions and society as a collective force.

This has significant ramifications for how we understand the role of racism and violence as a reaction to it. First, it addresses the argument against systemic racism often put forward by mouthpieces for the right (I’m thinking specifically of figures such as Ben Shapiro, but also others like Jordan Peterson; although I do not consider the latter to be a mouthpiece for the right, his ideas are touted by many on the right). This argument generally boils down to a few components: 1. there are plenty of white people who are not racist in thought or deed; 2. there are plenty of people of color who do not seem to be suffering the effects of racism (judging by their success in the world), in part because; 3. there is no longer de jure racism in the country (indeed, there are anti-discrimination laws on the books) so therefore; 4. there is an equality of opportunity for all; 5. only individuals and not groups can be held accountable (that is, are responsible agents) and all of this culminates in the conclusion that; 6. the de facto inequities among the races involve the characteristics (learned or genetic) of those races (relative intelligence, ambition, work ethic, family structures, etc.).


Leffler, Warren K.,, photographer. D.C. riot. April ’68. Aftermath 1968 Apr. 8. 1 (Wikimedia Commons)

It is far too easy (and common) to display a knee-jerk reaction against an argument that basically blames poverty on the impoverished, and I would agree with Shapiro’s mantra that “facts don’t care about your feelings”. The problem is that, aside from point 3, there are no easily verifiable facts to be found here. Still, the crux of the issue, it seems to me, lies with point 5: can there be such a thing as collective guilt? Peterson frames his concern with this notion succinctly: “The idea that you can target an ethnic group with a collective crime, regardless of the specific innocence or guilt of the constituent elements of that group, there is absolutely nothing that is more racist than that.” Hence, white people aren’t the racists; insofar as liberals tout the notion of continuing white supremacy and white guilt, whites are the victims of racism. Now, to be fair, Peterson soon modifies the point: “The idea of collectively held guilt, at the level of the individual, as a legal or philosophical principle is dangerous.”

There are a few things to consider here. First, note that in his modification, Peterson adds a crucial element: here he seems to declare that it is wrong (among other things) to punish an individual for the guilt of the collective group. Fair enough but I am unaware of any legal action being taken against an individual (that is “at the level of the individual”) owing to a concern with systemic racism (and no, affirmative action doesn’t count insofar as that is at the level of the group, even though—like all things at the level of the group, individuals are affected; we shall return to this point at the end). Even among those who hold to a notion of persistent white supremacy in the US, I am aware of no one who actually holds that John the local dentist ought to be jailed for police brutality against people of color.

Second, Peterson appears to be committing a category error (although I’m certain he thinks he is evading one). Historians (at least since Plutarch) have long recognized a complicated relationship between the acts and responsibilities of an individual and the acts and responsibilities of a group. It is not enough to say that the act of the group is simply the sum total of the acts of the currently living constituent members of that group. Groups have a history and a relatively stable identity that far transcends the lives and beliefs of any constituent individual. Just like we don’t release Frank the Serial Killer into the world because, after all, he hasn’t killed anyone lately, we can’t merely excuse the historical legacy of US racism even if we were to imagine that absolutely no one currently living were a racist. At the level of the group redressing wrongs involves a larger time-span, and the sociological studies concerning the racial wealth gap are rather difficult to dismiss through mere recourse to personal responsibility.

Now certain people (Shapiro among them) treat this as an all-or-nothing issue. One is either fully responsible for what one does and only what one actually does or one is not responsible in any way for anything. As Stanley Cavell once quipped: “This is not serious, but it is meant.” Yes, as individual agents we are the primary site of responsibility for the things we do; but it is abundantly evident with even a moment’s thought that we are thrown into a world not of our choosing, have a series of advantages and disadvantages that accrued before our birth (owing to genetics, parents, level of family wealth, location, etc.) that we did not earn (one way or the other), and are historically situated beings that must deal with the legacy of our national past and our global predicament. And yes, as Shapiro has stated, this applies to everyone but not in the same way. And again, we risk carelessly slipping from levels of thought here: from the group to the individual level and back again. The problem here is not that we need keep the levels segregated, but rather figuring out how to legitimately move from one to the other without category error.

In fact, the individual and the group, as well as their respective forms of guilt, are inextricably intertwined. Our crimes are only crimes with respect to society; many crimes are simply markers of a failure to live up to our role in society. Jaywalking (to take a simple and relatively minor case) isn’t a crime because it is inherently wrong to cross in the middle of a street; it is an offense because it endangers others around us—it is bad for the group. The legal system may have several provisions in place to protect the rights of the individual, but those protections are in service of the functional whole, the group. After all, the primary purpose of the law is the self-preservation of society. Progress generally comes from the enactment of new law, not the enforcement of the old (with some notable and fascinating exceptions).

In short, guilt may not operate in the same manner on the collective level as it does on the individual level but that does not justify dismissing the notion that a collective group can be guilty. Moreover, the term guilt conceptually links to “debt” (indeed the etymology of the word may tie it to an Old English term for “to pay for” just as the German word Schuld means both “guilt” and “debt”); to be guilty is not merely to be in a position where one should “feel bad” but rather to be in the debt of another. I find it hard to argue against the notion that the legacy of slavery invokes a national debt. How that debt is to be repaid is a complicated issue but complication does not justify dismissal.

There is no such thing as a second-class citizen and if one group is ghettoized, isolated in a relatively impoverished setting, sealed off from the rest of society, they are being forced (through historical precedent and disadvantage if not through active effort) into a position of subordination. The question then becomes: if the law is society’s mechanism of self-preservation and if one group is held at a structural and historical disadvantage, then what is to be done to redress the imbalance, what is to be done to correct this structural violence? The term “structural violence” is associated with the sociologist Johan Galtung and refers to a social structure doing harm to a group by preventing them from attaining basic needs—among which I would include proper education, reasonable employment, an equitable opportunity to avoid poverty, etc. Of course, violence often begets violence and one of the more surprising points of debate over the riots within the Kerner Commission was whether or not the violence of the riots could be considered rational—with many of the members agreeing that it indeed was a rational reaction to the state of deprivation in the urban ghetto.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much discussion (or at least none that Gillon represented in Separate and Unequal) of what precisely was meant by “rational”. It is, of course, not a simple matter of definition. We often take “rational” to mean the best approach to a goal; in other words, the rational is the optimal means to a desired end. But this should be unsatisfactory on many levels. As a simple example, consider Jake finding himself in an argument he can’t win so he simply cries out “You all are picking on me” incessantly. Now this may be his best choice to achieve his desire (getting out of the encounter without appearing to have lost based on his inadequate argumentation) but we would hardly call it rational behavior.

Reason often is set in an implicit dichotomy with emotion. Whereas emotion carries a charge of urgency and immediacy (I am upset right this second and act in the heat of emotion), reason is thought to be dispassionate, stands at a remove from the situation it assesses. Reason offers a measured response in contradistinction to the immoderation of emotion. In this sense, it is difficult to imagine that a rioter destroying his own neighborhood (remember in Detroit, entire blocks of the ghetto were nearly leveled), destroying property, looting, shooting at police, is behaving in a non-emotional, removed fashion, serving his own best interest. Thus, how can the violence of the riots be considered rational?

But perhaps we again have a category error at work here; perhaps this is a confusion of levels. Alex throwing the trashcan through the window of a shop where his friend works and burning the buildings where his neighbors reside is not behaving in a rational manner. Alex was not acting with forethought concerning the optimal means to achieve his desired end (presuming, of course, that this desired end is, on some level, a redress of the structural violence performed by ghettoization). In fact, one of the things the commission established quite early on was that there was no evidence that these riots were premeditated (that is, there was no conspiracy, as LBJ wanted to believe). If these acts were the spontaneous eruption of naked, raw emotion, then by definition they would appear to be the height of irrationality. At the level of the individual, the 1967 riots were not rational.

But is it possible that at the level of the group, matters take on a different hue? One of the most rehearsed responses to the question of the rationality of violence is that violence involved in self-defense is rationally justified. Is it possible to consider the group as acting in self-defense against a regime that impoverishes, disenfranchises, and subordinates them? C.G. Jung (a favorite of Peterson’s) wrote in his Answer to Job that “just as there is a secret tie between the wound and the weapon, so the affect corresponds to the violence of the deed that caused it” [translated by R.F.C. Hull (Princeton University Press, 2002), 4]. Could the affective response giving rise to the riots be rational insofar as it corresponds to the structural violence the law inflicts upon the ghetto? Can the riots be justified rationally at the level of the group even though all of the individual constituent acts must be held as irrational at the level of the individual?

There is no point pretending that I am offering a simple solution—or even any solution, really— to the dilemma of systemic racism, collective guilt, and rational violence. To expect a solution in a relatively short essay would be ludicrous; my only goal here is to make a small gesture toward a conceptualization of the problem. Nothing in what I have written (to my mind) justifies or excuses the acts of any of the rioters as individuals, even if it is an attempt to see the legitimacy of the riots as a whole as a reasonable expression of the frustration arising from inequity. The problem (again, to my mind) with the recourse to the argument that responsibility is only to be understood at the level of the individual is that it pretends that social inequity gets washed out in the calculus of advantages and disadvantages naturally involved in any life. We can all point to cases of people with seemingly every advantage failing and obverse cases of people in horrible situations “making good”. The question is not whether an individual can feasibly succeed in an unjust society (de facto if not de jure) but whether the pernicious shadow of a racist past continues to make that success inordinately difficult in comparison to others within that society—again, there is no such thing as a second-class citizen.

Adjusting group dynamics requires time, patience, and planning. But it also requires recognition of what is at stake—that the claim to collective guilt does not vilify the constituent members of that collective as individuals, nor does the claim to the rational violence of the group expatiate the sins and acts of aggression of the individuals involved in the riot. Riots are not a solution to society’s ills and only in the most outlandish militant rhetoric does one claim them to be. They are, however, a sign of the wound inflicted on part of that society by the stultifying structures of the past that we must continually strive to extirpate. Looking back to a thwarted proposal for coming to grips with that racist past (a past that lingers in present unease and inequity), as embodied in the Kerner Commission report, may provide a model (however imperfect, however incomplete) of grappling with the ineluctable entanglement of the individual and the group. If the US is indeed to be the “land of the free”, it has to ensure that the full spectrum of freedom is not reserved for one group over another. No one is free if that purported freedom depends on the subordination of another.

RATING 6 / 10