Michael Lipsky

Michael Lipsky, a political scientist, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. He is the co-author of Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America.


Recent Articles

Why the Kerner Commission Didn't Move the Needle on Racial Justice

Five decades after President Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate the roots of racial discrimination and violence in urban America, remarkably little has changed. That’s the conclusion of a new book co-authored by former Senator Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the commission. Organized in the wake of deadly riots in more than 100 cities in 1967, the commission offered a grim assessment of the stark inequality, police brutality, and endemic discrimination fueling racial violence. “We are moving toward two societies,” the commission warned, “one black, one white, separate and unequal.” On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, Senator Harris writes that the United States has largely failed to confront those issues head on.

We may be disappointed, but we should not be surprised. Appointing commissions to study the causes of racial violence was the standard American response to racial turmoil in the 20th century—typically with limited results. Starting with the riots in East St. Louis in 1917 through the Harlem riots of 1943, at least 21 commissions were appointed in the United States to make recommendations to prevent the recurrence of riots. In the 1960s, at least 13 riot commissions were appointed to respond to race-related civil unrest.

The best of these reports provided fair pictures of endemic racial biases and disparities. None proved to be a blueprint resulting in progress.

The Kerner Report was unique only because it raised the profile of racial unrest to the national level. But it wasn’t unique for long. Three months after it was released in February 1968, riots sparked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (as well as the shock of the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy) prompted Johnson to once again appoint a commission to investigate.

Interracial violence has taken various forms over the years—whites attack black communities, blacks respond to police violence, for example. But despite this variation in the forms of interracial conflict, appointing commissions to study riots has been the norm. To what end?

The primary purpose of riot commissions, as David J. Olson and I concluded in our book Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America (1977), has been to allow political leaders to give the appearance of responding to crises without having to make any consequential decision in the heat of the moment. The commissions, comprised of high-status individuals with strong ties to existing institutions, instead report some time later, when the immediate crisis has cooled and normal political processes can prevail. In short, political leaders buy time. 

The Kerner Commission differed from other riot commissions not only because its scope was national rather than local, but also because its report was soon followed by the riots that occurred after Dr. King’s death, in a sense continuing the urgency underlying the origins of the report. 

As has been widely reported, President Johnson was disappointed that the Kerner Commission did not give more credit to his domestic policy agenda. And it’s possible that the president’s embrace of the report might have led to greater progress on the report’s recommendations. 

A reading of the history of riot commissions in America, however, would temper this conclusion.  Riot commissions have typically functioned to dampen demand for change and restore the status quo. However well-intentioned, the Kerner Commission was hardly an exception.

Devolving Federal Programs to the States Means Cutting Them

On Tuesday, the Pew Center on the States released a summary of the differences between the presidential candidates on key issues affecting the states . The summary reflects Governor Romney’s preference for devolving to the states responsibility for critical policy matters. Among other things he would replace the Affordable Care Act with state plans, and convert Medicaid and federal job training programs into block grants. The proposal to devolve programs to the states has a certain resonance in American political rhetoric. States are famously “laboratories of democracy,” as Justice Brandeis once wrote and Gov. Romney reminded his audience in the first presidential debate. There’s a measure of truth to this homily, but it should be understood in context. When issues are bubbling to the surface or when Federal lawmakers are conflicted, states can indeed show the way, as they did with child labor laws and labor protections. More recently, states have been bolder...

Redeeming Public Remedy

Private enterprise produces employment, wages, and wealth, but our public structures are what facilitate the conduct of business, providing the framework necessary for markets to thrive. Key public systems also help protect people against the risks of a free-market economy and provide the infrastructure for economic opportunity such as public- and higher-education systems, tasks that are beyond the purview of any individual. Although the balance between market forces and government institutions and regulations varies over time and place, the notion that public structures and market enterprises work together to generate the common good is virtually a definition of an advanced industrial nation. Yet for the last several decades, the country has reverted to a premise more like Adam Smith's -- that the public interest is nothing but the sum of private interests; that government is not a partner in prosperity but antithetical to it. From this point of view, government's activities should...

Under the Radar

The news from Washington is filled with debates about safeguarding Americans' Social Security, proposals to make tax cuts permanent, and sweeping federal budget reductions in a time of looming deficits. In the meantime, the 50 states, various territories, and close to 90,000 counties, cities, towns, and other local jurisdictions struggle with their own concrete budgetary challenges. As critical as current federal-level issues are, those confronting state and local governments may have even more immediate effects on people's lives. It is state and local governments that sponsor schools, public universities, and community colleges; maintain highways; secure public safety; and administer most courts. They dispatch inspectors to ensure public health and to see that nursing homes and industrial facilities are up to code. They oversee insurance, utilities, and other vital industries. They uphold standards for physicians, dentists, psychologists, engineers, and other professions...

The War at Home

Once upon a time, the war at home meant frugality and sacrifice. Our parents or grandparents collected string and made balls of tinfoil, one gum wrapper at a time. They accepted rationing and went each week to the grocer with coupons for butter, meat, and sugar. They took all sorts of jobs to serve the American industrial machine. They spent memorable years discharging shared patriotic duty. What does the war at home look like today? The messages are confusing. There is no call for personal frugality. On the contrary, Americans are urged to buy, to travel, and to entertain themselves. Much sport has been made of such appeals, but they may be rooted in concern for workers who lose their jobs when personal consumption falls. No such rationale explains the conspicuous silence on energy consumption. Despite the concern about dependence on foreign oil, our leaders do not ask us to drive less, turn down the heat, or purchase fuel-conserving vehicles. Sacrifice helps to structure meaning...