Part II: Excerpts from the Kerner Commission and Reflections on Racial Equity Today


At a recent gathering of elected officials, I asked,

Has your community experienced a disturbance, protest, riot or rebellion that exposed divides?

They used their cell phones or laptops to cast their votes during the presentation.

The answer was surprising. Of those who participated,

  • 63 percent said yes and
  • another 11 percent chose “not yet, but the potential is there.”
  • Just over a quarter of respondents – 26 percent – said they had not yet experienced a disturbance.

With such results, city officials should ask themselves two questions:

  1. Why did this happen (especially if they experienced unrest or anticipate unrest)?
  2. How can these periods of unrest be prevented?

In what it called “First Phase Actions,” the Kerner Commission recommended cities have a grievance-response mechanism and described the characteristics that would make these mechanisms effective.

Below, find the Kerner Commission’s discussion of grievance-response mechanism, in the language of the time. Following that list of characteristics, two people who currently work to hear and address discrimination give their thoughts about the relevance of the Kerner Commission recommendations today.

Excerpt: Establishment of Effective Grievance-Response Mechanisms

We are convinced, on the record before this Commission, that the frustration reflected in the recent disorders results, in part at least, from the lack of accessible and visible means of establishing the merits of grievances against the agencies of local and state government, including but not limited to, the police. Cities and states throughout the country now have under consideration various forms of grievance-response devices. While we are not prepared to specific the form which such a mechanism should take in any particular community, there are certain criteria which should be met. These include:

  • Independence: This can be achieved by long-term appointment of the administrator, subject to City Council removal. The grievance agency should be separate from operating municipal agencies.
  • Adequate staff and funding: Exact costs will vary depending on the size and needs of the city’s population. It is most important that the agency have adequate funds and staff to discharge its responsibilities.
  • Comprehensive coverage of grievances against public agencies and authorities: General jurisdiction will facilitate access by grievants. Moreover, unlike specialized complaint agencies, such as civilian review boards, all agencies would be brought equally under public scrutiny. This should facilitate its acceptance by public officials.
  • Power to receive complaints, hold hearings, subpoena witnesses, make public recommendations for remedial action to local authorities and, in cases involving violation of the law, bring suit: These powers are the minimum necessary for the effective operation of the grievance mechanism. As we envision it, the agency’s principal power derives from its authority to investigate and make public findings and recommendations. It should, of course, have a conciliation process whereby complaints could be resolved without full investigation and processing.
  • Accessibility: In large cities, ready access to grievants may require setting up neighborhood offices in ghetto areas. In others, local resident aides could be empowered to receive complaints. It should be possible to file a grievance orally or in writing. If forms are used, they should be easily understood and widely available.
  • Participation in grievance process: Grievants should be given full opportunity to take part in all proceedings and to be represented by counsel. The should receive prompt advice of action taken; results of investigations should be made public.


Reflection on the Excerpt and How it Applies Today

The International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies (IAOHRA) is the organization that attracts local and state agencies that handle complaints about discrimination. Two IAOHRA board members recently agreed that the characteristics that Kerner identified are still as important today as they were nearly 50 years ago.

Robin Toma, IAOHRA president and long-time board member, said these agencies have evolved over time, but the primary focus is to research complaints, collect information and recommend actions or policies that address discriminatory actions.

Toma, who also is executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, said the need for agencies to protect basic human rights of all residents continues to be great. These agencies must operate with a level of autonomy, safe from politics, and have adequate funding for staff, investigations, public education and mobilization, Toma said. For example, agencies should be able to address concerns from civilians without fear that the agencies might be defunded or lose enforcement powers.

Government should see itself as a guarantor of rights,

Toma said.

The Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission was one of about 140 agencies represented at the IAOHRA conference in September 2018. Another participating agency was the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, which accepts complaints statewide.

IAOHRA board member Benjamin Earwicker, an administrator with the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, agreed that human rights agencies are still needed. In Idaho, Earwicker said he has seen an uptick in allegations of hate speech based on the person’s national origin or religion. People who are believed to be from the Middle East and those who are Hispanic have reported more incidents of hate speech in Idaho, he said.

Earwicker would like to see more collaboration with community organizations to address such incidents by perhaps developing curricula. Getting to people as early in life as possible is a key strategy in countering hate speech, he said.

Creativity is another weapon that can be used to battle discriminatory behavior. Earwicker recalled efforts in the late ’80s and ’90s to fight the presence of Neo Nazis. One strategy was to send Neo Nazi leaders a thank you note for marching through the streets because that allowed organizers to raise money through pledge drives.

Both Toma and Earwicker have heard of agencies that have been weakened or lost funding because of political reasons, but cautioned that concerns of discrimination should not become tainted for political reasons. The work of human rights agencies can improve life for everyone by protecting basic human rights.

Some questions to ponder about responding to grievances in your city

1. What are the procedures for filing and addressing grievances?
2. If your city has a commission, department or agency that hears grievances, does it have sufficient funding and staffing to complete work or meet other standards recommended by Kerner?
3. Has a reasonable response time been identified to address the grievances?
4. Does your city track grievances by how long it takes to resolve complaints?
5. Does your city track grievances by neighborhood?
6. What training has city staff received to improve their communication skills, especially with those who may have limited familiarity with city operations?
7. How has police training evolved to enable police to help residents engage and navigate city operations more effectively?
8. What emphasis is placed on training employees to be courteous, informative, culturally competent? How are those qualities identified during the interview process or evaluated during performance reviews?
9. Do key city officials have a network of community activists and leaders they meet with regularly or can call upon to increase awareness about any growing tensions?



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