Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has announced plans to appoint a commission to study the three days of racial protest, violence and vandalism that attracted national attention in April. While Luken is trying to demonstrate his concern and commitment by appointing the commission, it has precisely the opposite message for those of us familiar with the historic patterns of racial uprisings and their aftermaths.
Appointing commissions has been the standard response to urban violence. These “blue-ribbon” bodies are appointed with great fanfare. They invariably conclude that our nation needs to attend to lingering and multiplying racial disparities to help “fix” the problem. Then, their conclusions are resolutely ignored.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson impaneled the Kerner Commission (named for the chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) to investigate the causes of the urban riots that exploded in nearly 100 cities during that “long hot summer.” When the commission interviewed Kenneth Clark, a psychologist and author known for his expertise on racial matters, he explained that he had just read a report written after the 1919 Chicago race riot. “It is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot,” Clark said. “The same analyses, the same recommendations, the same inaction.”
His comments were incorporated into the commission’s conclusions, which read in part: “In practically every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964, abrasive relationships between police and Negroes and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, tension and ultimately, disorder.”
And this was written before violent uprisings in Miami in 1980 and 1989, both sparked by police killings of unarmed motorists; before the 1992 “Rodney King riots” in Los Angeles; before another Florida city, St. Petersburg, erupted in 1996 after cops killed an unarmed 18-year-old motorist who had been stopped for speeding.
Militant protests organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton probably pre-empted a conflagration in New York in 1999, after four white cops killed unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets, and again after they were found innocent a year later by an upstate New York jury. Chicago teetered on an angry edge after several unarmed black youths were killed and assaulted by the city’s notoriously brutal police force over a period of months beginning in late 1998; an aggressive campaign of protest marches may have headed-off more violent reactions there as well.
There is no shortage of suggestions for how to better the situation. Echoing previous reports and foreshadowing those to come, the Kerner Commission urged the government to invest heavily in job training, education and housing for black Americans, or we would “make permanent the division of our country into two societies.”
But no sustained effort has been made to seriously address the problems identified in the scores of commission reports. Places like New York and Chicago remain tinderboxes – as do many other urban areas of the country. (And not so urban: Last year, Louisville, Kentucky came very close to a Cincinnati-style flare-up after police killed an unarmed black youth.) In fact, most American cities with a significant black population are just a police assault away from a major disturbance.
Since the country’s first organized forces of police were the slave patrols, blacks and cops have a long history of antagonism. The contemporary war on drugs has badly exacerbated that rocky relationship. Drug commerce is often the sole, and surely the most lucrative, employment option for increasing numbers of undereducated black youths. By targeting this population in the drug war, we have amassed the world’s largest population of prisoners.
We don’t need more commissions to “fix” these problems. We need to end the war against black youth.