Kerner Commission report offers journalists a roadmap to cover equity

By Jon Funabiki

When the Kerner Commission investigated racial strife in the United States, the members warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Furthermore, the commission excoriated journalists for ignoring African Americans’ complaints about police abuse, inferior schools and segregated housing.

The commission stung U.S. journalists with this attack:

“The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance are seldom conveyed.”

That was 50 years ago. The Kerner Commission was a blue-ribbon panel of prominent civic leaders appointed by President Johnson to investigate the problems that led to a series of riots—many called them “rebellions”—that burst out in cities across the country during the 1960s.

In recent weeks there have been many events and campaigns to observe the Kerner Commission’s 50th anniversary. I was honored to be asked to speak at one such event, “Represent! Forging a New Future for Journalism and Media Diversity,” sponsored by the Ford Foundation at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on March 5. Detroit was one of the hardest hit of the cities—43 people died (most at the hands of law enforcement) and 1,189 were injured during five days of rioting in the summer of 1967.

Despite some gains, what’s unmistakable is that the problems of the ‘60s continue today, and they affect not only African Americans, but other people of color and immigrants: The Black Lives Matter movement symbolizes the state of police bias; the nation’s schools are more segregated than ever; the wealth gap separating whites and blacks is growing ever larger; and gentrification pressures conspire to push many poor and working-class families of color out of their neighborhoods.

The Kerner Commission’s criticisms helped to touch off campaigns to bring diversity to America’s newsrooms. Newspapers and television stations came under pressure to hire more journalists of color. Professional organizations formed to provide support for black, Latino, Asian and Native American reporters. There were training initiatives, such as the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and the Multicultural Management Program at the University of Missouri. In newsrooms across the country, editors and reporters learned how to cover community stories.

Unfortunately, many news organizations have lost interest in these programs as they struggle with other challenges, including the struggle to find new revenue streams and to defend themselves against President Trump’s declaration that journalists are the “enemy of the people.”

At the Ford Foundation event, many of the speakers, including myself, argued that the news media could be more successful today if they double-downed on diversity, rather than ignored it. A national poll commissioned by the foundation found that most Americans believe that “greater diversity among reporters and editors would improve the news.” Tellingly, perhaps, this statement drew greater support (67-71%) from people of color in the poll, than from whites (50%).

Just as the Kerner Commission identified the root causes of the urban riots of the 1960s, Renaissance Journalism urges journalists to expose and explain the systemic causes of today’s economic and social inequalities. These problems don’t just happen, they are created when governments and schools adopt policies, banks and businesses make decisions, and police and others condone discriminatory actions. In the Bay Area Media Collaborative, we’ve asked journalists to untangle the root causes of the region’s housing crisis. In the Equity Reporting Project, education reporters showed how public education often fails to meet the needs of students of color, the poor and others.

Chapter 2—“Patterns of Disorder”—of the Kerner Commission report provides journalists with solid guidance about where they should look for these issues. The commissioners conducted surveys, meetings and interviews in 20 cities across the country, and they observed that “in almost all of the cities surveyed, we found the same major grievance topics among Negro communities …”

These topics became known as the 12 “grievances” that fueled the riots. Re-reading the list 50 years later, I’m struck by how much the grievances apply today:

1) Police practices
2) Unemployment and underemployment
3) Inadequate housing
4) Inadequate education
5) Poor recreation facilities and programs
6) Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms
7) Disrespectful white attitudes
8) Discriminatory administration of justice
9) Inadequacy of Federal programs
10) Inadequacy of municipal services
11) Discriminatory consumer and civil practices
12) Inadequate welfare programs

In Renaissance Journalism’s initiative, the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, journalists used this list to measure how far Detroit has progressed since the 1967 riots.

For me, the Kerner Commission’s 12 grievances offer a road map for how journalists can cover equity and social justice issues today.