“The point of a race-riot commission…is for the government that appoints it to appear to be doing something, while actually doing nothing”

White mob violence against black people and their homes and businesses was the far more common variety of race riot, from the first rising of the K.K.K., after the Civil War, through the second, in 1915. And so the earliest twentieth-century commissions charged with investigating “race riots” reported on the riots of white mobs, beginning with the massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, in which, following labor unrest, as many as three thousand white men roamed the city, attacking, killing, and lynching black people, and burning their homes. Wells wrote that as many as a hundred and fifty men were killed, while police officers and National Guardsmen either looked on or joined in. Similar riots took place in 1919, in twenty-six cities, and the governor of Illinois appointed an interracial commission to investigate. “This is a tribunal constituted to get the facts and interpret them and to find a way out,” he said.

The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, composed of six whites and six blacks, who engaged the work of as many as twenty-two whites and fifteen blacks, heard nearly two hundred witnesses, and, in 1922, published a seven-hundred-page report, with photographs, maps, and color plates: “The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot.” It paid particular attention to racial antipathy: “Many white Americans, while technically recognizing Negroes as citizens, cannot bring themselves to feel that they should participate in government as freely as other citizens.” Much of the report traces how the Great Migration brought large numbers of blacks from the Jim Crow South to Chicago, where they faced discrimination in housing and employment, and persecution at the hands of local police and the criminal-justice system:

The testimony of court officials before the Commission and its investigations indicate that Negroes are more commonly arrested, subjected to police identification, and convicted than white offenders, that on similar evidence they are generally held and convicted on more serious charges, and that they are given longer sentences. . . . These practices and tendencies are not only unfair to Negroes, but weaken the machinery of justice and, when taken with the greater inability of Negroes to pay fines in addition to or in lieu of terms in jail, produce misleading statistics of Negro crime.

Very little came of the report.

In Detroit in 1943, after a riot left twenty-five blacks and nine whites dead and led to the arrest of nearly two thousand people, Michigan’s governor appointed the commissioner of police and the attorney general to a panel that concluded, without conducting much of an investigation, that responsibility for the riots lay with black leaders, and defended the police, whom many had blamed for the violence. A separate, independent commission, led by Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the N.A.A.C.P., conducted interviews, hired private detectives, and produced a report titled “The Gestapo in Detroit.” The group called for a grand jury, arguing that “much of the blood spilled in the Detroit riot is on the hands of the Detroit police department.” No further investigation took place, and no material reforms were implemented.

That’s what usually happens. In a 1977 study, “Commission Politics: The Processing of Racial Crisis in America,” Michael Lipsky and David J. Olson reported that, between 1917 and 1943, at least twenty-one commissions were appointed to investigate race riots, and, however sincerely their members might have been interested in structural change, none of the commissions led to any. The point of a race-riot commission, Lipsky and Olson argue, is for the government that appoints it to appear to be doing something, while actually doing nothing.

Jill Lepore, “The Riot Report”, The New Yorker (22 June 2020), 25.