A Dream Deferred: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report

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By Lauren Walker (Graduate Intern, APA Office on Socioeconomic Status)

 

March 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report (1968), which investigated the causes of race riots in U.S. cities in the mid-1960s. This groundbreaking federal study raised awareness of the negative effects of segregation and discrimination on black urban communities.

 

I attended the Race & Inequality in America: Kerner Commission at 50 conference on February 27-March 1. Prominent scholars, policymakers, and advocates convened to discuss the federal report’s legacy. Panelists discussed criminal justice reform, education, employment, housing, health, and transportation. The conference was co-organized by the Economic Policy Institute, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California, Berkeley and John Hopkins’ 21st Century Cities Initiative.

 

My interest in the conference stemmed from my academic background. I was born and raised in the city of Detroit. My personal upbringing shaped my research interests in race, class and inequality. Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit the Detroit 67: Perspectives exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum (on display through 2019). The exhibition explored the major events leading up to the Detroit riot of 1967. The surge of race riots initiated a federal investigation that later became the Kerner Commission Report.

 

In the mid-1960s, many major cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West experienced rising black populations. However, black Americans’ dissatisfaction with segregation and issues with discrimination, particularly in violent police encounters, sparked race riots in urban neighborhoods across the country from Watts, CA to Newark, NJ. Detroit was among the largest and deadliest that left over 43 people dead, 1,189 people injured, and 7,200 people arrested. Nearly 1,400 buildings had been burned, and 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops had been called into service.

 

With the rioting still proceeding in Detroit, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (known as the Kerner Commission after Illinois governor Otto Kerner), on July 28, 1967 to investigate the root causes of race riots in American cities. Johnson asked the 11-member blue ribbon commission for answers to three fundamental questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”

 

The 500-page Kerner Commission Report was released on February 29, 1968. Its findings revealed that the race riots were in response to police brutality, rising black unemployment, and segregated housing and schools. The report’s most famous line warned, Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Its recommendations called for the federal government to invest in job and housing programs, reduce residential segregation in urban neighborhoods, and promote more racial diversity in local police departments. These recommendations were never fully implemented due to lack of funding and the mounting pressures of the Vietnam War.

 

While there has been racial progress fifty years later, Black Americans continue to be disadvantaged by racial inequality. Race and class have converged to produce social inequalities that were unimaginable to the Kerner Commission. Although federal laws banned overt forms of racial discrimination, many Black Americans continue to struggle with achieving economic self-sufficiency. With respect to homeownership and unemployment, the statistics are especially dire among Black Americans.

 

While the passage of fair housing laws has expanded homeownership rates among all racial groups, black families are less likely to own a home than their white counterparts. Patterns of redlining by banks and real estate agents continue to persist in U.S. metropolitan areas. The foreclosure crisis (2008-2010) also displaced millions of families across the country. Black families saw larger declines in home equity and retirement savings than any other racial group.

 

While residential segregation has modestly decreased in U.S. metropolitan areas, the cycle of urban neighborhood disinvestment continues to disproportionately harm black communities. These trends have contributed to the closing of schools, hospitals, and grocery store chains. Research has shown that food deserts are associated with the lack of access to healthier food options in poor black communities.

 

Public schools are re-segregating in poor minority neighborhoods. More than half of black students attend under-resourced, apartheid-like schools. The privatization of public schools and lack of affordable housing is pushing more black families out of their neighborhoods. According to a federal study by HUD, the homeless population increased nationally for the first time in 2017. Poverty is rising steeply in the suburbs, which tend to have less reliable public transportation and fewer comprehensive social services.

 

The criminal justice system has become more punitive with devastating consequences on poor minority communities. The rise of mass incarceration has created a large underclass of adults with felony convictions who are socioeconomically and politically excluded from full participation in mainstream institutions. The formerly incarcerated tend to suffer from poverty and mental illness as well as leave prison with crushing debt, which acts as a barrier to securing stable employment and housing.

 

The black unemployment rate continues to be twice the rate of whites—a statistic that remains unchanged from the Kerner Commission Report. Job sprawl also has changed the spatial distribution of jobs in U.S. metropolitan areas with major consequences for low-income workers. According to the Brookings Institution, black families are more geographically isolated from jobs in high job-sprawl areas regardless of region.

 

The Kerner Commission Report represented the last comprehensive federal report on improving race relations in America. University of California Berkeley law professor Joe E. Powell argued that the Kerner Commission Report tried to rectify the Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which declared that blacks, free or enslaved, could not become U.S. citizens. This ruling was overturned by the 14th Amendment (1868), but its legacy became entrenched in social norms and institutions. While racially exclusionary laws have been rescinded, this entrenchment continues today in the struggle for racial equality from attacks on affirmative action to lack of affordable housing, an issue that disproportionately impacts racial minorities.

 

The time is now for policymakers to fulfill the promise of the Kerner Commission Report. Its recommendations—massive investments in employment, education and housing in cities to reduce structural racism—were accurate, but the recommendations were ignored. Fifty years later, America has become more economically segregated by race. Current trends threaten to dismantle the hard work and sacrifice of civil rights advocates who pushed for equal access to jobs, schools, and housing. Urban social problems mentioned in the Kerner Commission Report have taken on greater urgency today. It will take a national commitment to rebuild communities that were left behind since the 1960s race riots.

 

Biography:

Lauren Walker is a Spring 2018 graduate intern in the Office on Socioeconomic Status at the American Psychological Association. She is a master’s student in sociology at George Washington University. Her research interests include social stratification/inequality, race/ethnicity, education, and urban affairs.

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