Sometimes being a historian makes you crazy. You can’t shake the feeling that you’re the prophet on the corner holding a sign shouting, “Repent! The end is near!” The rate, tone, and language in which history repeats itself is astounding. Last week, Missouri governor Jay Nixon announced the formation of a “Ferguson Commission to Address Inequality” after the ongoing protests over the shooting of Michael Brown, the Ferguson teen who was killed in August by a white police officer. I couldn’t shake the déjà vu feeling that said to my generation, my parents’ generation, and my grandparents’ generation, haven’t we seen this before?The rate, tone, and language in which history repeats itself is astounding.
A commission studying the racial inequality in Ferguson is not the first of its kind. In America, we’ve been holding commissions on race fueled riots for the last 100 years. The first occurred in the summer of 1919, when the Chicago Commission on Race Relations put together an investigative committee after the city broke into riots over the drowning of Eugene Williams, a black teenager stoned by white youth for wading into the unofficially segregated waters of Lake Michigan. Ever since, riots and unrest have produced report after report. Some are less notable, such as Harlem’s 1934 and 1943 riots when New York City mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia appointed famed black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier to head the commission to understand the root causes of the unrest. In 1965, there was “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” better known as the Moynihan Report, written by Daniel P. Moynihan, a sociologist and later US senator who built off of Frazier’s work in the 1930s.
Perhaps, most famous was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission of 1967. Led by Illinois governor Otto Kerner Jr., to help understand the riots of Watts (1965) Chicago (1966), and Newark (1967). One clearly exacerbated individual testified to the commission: “I must again in candor say—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.” The report went on to become a bestseller and famously stated, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Within a month of the Kerner report’s release, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and more than 100 cities across the country exploded in riots. The moment was lost.
Indeed, history shows us that once a report is completed, political leaders also begin to wash their hands. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times published a story on the 25th anniversary of the Watts riots. When Harold Horowitz, the commission’s deputy general counsel and former UCLA vice chancellor was asked about the results from the McCone’s Commission on the Watts Riots, he responded, “No, I didn’t follow up in a personal way what the outcome would be.” He added, “I have not gone back to Watts for 20 years. Like other people, I just went on to other things.” He admitted that his sentiments were “troubling,” but stops there. Another former commissioner Marlen E. Neumann remarked, “That was 25 years ago… I remember it, but I don’t know if much has happened. I hear there have been some changes, but I really wouldn’t know because right after the commission disbanded, I left Los Angeles. I haven’t been back to Watts, since.” Two years after this article, Los Angeles erupted in riots again, this time over the Rodney King verdict.
Like the commissioners who came before him, Nixon said in a press conference that the “Ferguson Commission will include leaders in business, public safety, education as well as ‘ordinary citizens’ who will investigate issues of poverty, law enforcement and education in the St. Louis suburb and provide policy recommendations.”
That’s nice, but unnecessary.
How many people does it take to tell us what we already know about the devastation of chronic unemployment, economic inequality, racial profiling, mass incarceration, poor education, voter disenfranchisement, discriminatory hiring practices, or white flight? A commission won’t change the fact that the pervading belief suggests: White people commit crimes, but black people are criminals. This commission won’t examine the moments leading to Brown’s death and it will more than likely not try to understand the egregious militarized police response ordered by the governor.
Most people believe that mass incarceration and police brutality is wrong. We can all see how chronic unemployment or voter discrimination is problematic, and maybe even a few of us will even concede that such marginalization among communities of color is profitable. But understanding that something is wrong is the easy part. By now, we know that deciding to make structural changes to the system is not a matter of resources, but of will.For effective change to occur, Americans are going to have to reimagine how they foresee the world they want to live in—not just examine its problems.
For effective change to occur, Americans are going to have to reimagine how they foresee the world they want to live in—not just examine its problems. Today, I find myself even questioning the method of marches and protests. We can no longer recycle the old troupes of commissions or marches. And no, the revolution will not be tweeted.
I get it: In some ways, a commission is like forgiveness. It’s a weak symbolic step at saying “we tried,” with no intention of actually implementing the changes necessary. My fear is that Ferguson will become like all the other missed opportunities for America to reconcile its painful past. It will become a report, maybe even a bestselling report, but it will not bring change.
For academics, Ferguson will become a teachable moment, a conference, or even an edited collection of essays, but this will not bring change either. And when these 15 minutes of infamy have passed, we historians will go back to our street corners with our “Repent!” signs—because as long as we continue to repeat ourselves, the end of structural racism is nowhere near.