Fifty years after the riots that shook America, has anything changed?

Julian Zelizer, CNN Political Analyst | 7/12/2017, 5:22 p.m.
On the hot summer night on of July 12, 1967, two white policemen in Newark, New Jersey, arrested an African-American ...
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When the Detroit riots ended, the nation was stunned by what had occurred in this turbulent month. The promise of civil rights progress seemed to have fallen apart.

Soon after the Kerner Commission produced its shocking report, Richard Nixon was elected President and national politics moved in a more conservative direction. Rather than focusing on reforming our criminal justice system to achieve racial justice, the nation focused on President Nixon's call to "law and order"-- which entailed more punitive policies and sentencing, the militarization of local police forces, and the expansion of the carceral system.

The fiftieth anniversary of these riots is a troubling reminder of the distance that we have not traveled as a nation since the 1960s. Some of the same problems that were evident when violence shook the streets of Newark remain with us today.

It would be wrong to say that the nation has not made any improvements since July of 1967. There have been reforms to policing, public attitudes about race have changed, and the growth of African-American representation has changed the political dynamics surrounding these issues.

In recent years, these issues received renewed attention when citizens used their smartphones to capture videos of police engaging in violent and lethal behavior against African-American men. The videos spawned the most robust civil rights movement that we have seen in decades with Black Lives Matter, which put criminal justice front and center on the national agenda. Toward the end of President Obama's term there was even evidence that a bipartisan coalition was taking form to push for legislation addressing this problem.

But after the movement built momentum, national politics once again moved in a different direction with the election of President Trump. The problems exposed with the images from Ferguson, Staten Island, Cincinnati and elsewhere have not been addressed. The recent court decisions that freed several police officers involved in the shooting of African-Americans offered further evidence for many civil rights advocates that the final years of the Obama presidency did not bring as much progress as they hoped they would.

Like Richard Nixon, President Trump pushed the national debate about policing in a very different direction. He expressed little sympathy for civil rights advocates and has been vocal about the need to provide full and unquestioning support for existing police and carceral institutions. There is little evidence that reform efforts at the local level are making any headway, either, as was evident with the recent decisions on police incidents that occurred.

As a result, we still live with many of the conditions that afflicted African-Americans fifty years ago. The Kerner Commission warned that if we did not take action the situation would only deteriorate and anger would continue to explode into violence. Policymakers and elected officials might want to take a look back at what the report had to say about the outbursts in Newark and Detroit, for their findings are still extremely relevant in our current era.