Were the 1960s race riots “self-defeating”?

In his speech commemorating the great civil rights march of 1963, President Obama asserted that “the anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.” However, as I argued here, serious black rioting preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King and was not connected with any other assassination.

There’s another dubious claim in Obama’s account: it’s questionable whether the black rioting of the 1960s was self-defeating.

In 1967, almost a year before King’s assassination, President Johnson established a commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, to investigate the causes of the wave of race riots. He formed the commission while the massive Detroit riot was still underway.

The Kerner Commission issued its report in February 1967 (still before the King assassination). It became an instant best-seller.

The report blamed the riots on white racism and lack of opportunity for blacks. As Stephan Thernstrom has noted, it failed “to confront the question of why liberal Detroit blew up while Birmingham and other Southern cities — where conditions for blacks were infinitely worse — did not.” It also failed to explain why the riots occur “didn’t occur in the 1930s, when prevailing white racial attitudes were far more barbaric than they were in the 1960s.”

The Kerner Commission recommended large-scale government intervention aimed at improving the economic and living conditions of blacks. These included huge expenditures in housing programs to break up patterns of segregation, the hiring of significant numbers of blacks by police departments, and new government programs to provide services to blacks.

President Johnson did not embrace the Kerner Commission report, and some of its major recommendations were never implemented. However, during the Nixon administration the government imposed quota hiring in certain precincts of the construction industry (e.g., the Revised Philadelphia Plan). Meanwhile, colleges and universities took the Kerner report to heart as they ramped up preferential admissions policies. Similarly, urban police departments significantly increased black hiring and promotion, sometimes relaxing standards to accomplish this.

Most of these practices probably would have emerged without the race riots. But you can make a good case that the riots accelerated the process.

It’s far from clear, therefore, that the black rioting of 1960s was “self-defeating” on balance, although I don’t fault Obama for spinning it that way.