University professors Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Imani Perry, and Julian Zelizer gathered on Wednesday to discuss the 1968 Kerner Report — a Johnson-era federal document analyzing race riots occurring across the country — and the ways in which its findings and recommendations are still relevant today.
Glaude, chair of the University’s department for African American Studies and professor of Religion and African American Studies, said that of all the Kerner Commission recommendations, the ones focused on policing — more so than those pertaining to education and housing—are the ones that persist in today’s political climate.
The underlying causes of the 1960s riots, such as institutional racism and police brutality, are still prevalent in America today, Glaude added.
“We are constantly limiting the expression of our values, and the scope of our politics, because we are afraid of triggering racism — which is in fact an explicit acknowledgement that it exists and that we want to leave it alone, that we want to navigate it rather than uproot it,” he said.
Imani Perry, University professor of African American Studies, focused on four central points of the Kerner Report: how we historicize riot rebellion, how we situate the document in the midst of a complicated history, the way we talk about the historical pivot to the Black Power movement, and the issues identified by the report that we are still facing.
She discussed her transition from focusing on the intent of historical documents such as the Kerner Report to focusing on their real-world function regardless of their often idealistic purposes.
“I find myself called to think about the function of these reports in American life,” Perry said. “What’s their mechanism? And that doesn’t hinge on the question of intent.”
Julian Zelizer, professor of History and Public Affairs, focused on the historical implications of the document in his comments.
The report demonstrated the limits of liberalism during the time period, but still served the important role of sparking a dialogue on race and riots, Zelizer said.
“Even with all the limits and all the flaws, [the report] stimulates a conversation about race that I can’t imagine happening today,” he said.
All three speakers discussed the ways that findings brought up in the Kerner Report apply to modern issues of race.
“Ferguson. Milwaukee. Baltimore. Charlotte. These things happen right here, right now. They are extraordinary moments that in a condensed way account for all the things that are laid out in the Kerner Report,” Glaude said.
The problem with current policies designed to solve issues of racism is that many do not directly address the persistence of employment discrimination and housing discrimination, Perry added.
“All these forms of exclusion exist and yet the interventionist imagination is still focused on how to make black people better,” she said.
Glaude also commented on how the Kerner Report’s discussion of policing issues as a root cause of racial unrest still applies today.
“The current frame of speaking to and addressing police brutality is, in some circles, entirely too narrow,” he said. “Unless we begin to talk about decriminalization in a number of ways, unless we begin to insist on decriminalizing poverty, we will find ourselves in this place.”
Questions to the speakers dealt with the limits of liberalism today, how police brutality exacerbated riots, what direction the 2016 election will take, and what has improved in race relations since the 1960s.
“I think the big takeaway is how far America has shifted to the right. All the conclusions arrived at [in the Kerner Report] are things no mainstream politician would say for fear of backlash,” Nicky Steidel ’18 said after the talk. Steidel is pursuing a concentration in African American Studies.
“It’s interesting to hear interdisciplinary discussion on a topic like that, especially given its relevance,” Sebi Devlin-Foltz GS said.The lecture, titled “The 1968 Historic Study: ‘The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders’ — And Its Importance Today,” was held at 4:30 p.m. in Robertson Hall. It was co-sponsored by The Wilson School, the Princeton University Press, and the University’s African American Studies Department.