By Shaun Donovan
Former Secretary of the Department for Housing and Urban Development
The Kerner Commission report was a remarkable leap forward in at least three ways.
First, most importantly, it represented our government stating the unvarnished truth about race relations in our country. In response to three simple questions from President Johnson—What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?—the Commission leapt straight to the original sin of the American democracy—our tragic history on race. On the very first page of the report, it states, “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” This is not an activist speaking truth to power— this is a Commission appointed by the President of the United States speaking truth from power.
Second, the Commission took a leap from those three questions to a vast, comprehensive set of policy proposals. It would have been easy enough, and no doubt politically expedient, to focus on the riots in the narrow sense. But the Commission diagnosed the civil disorders as a symptom of a dangerous and long-standing disease. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, the report was a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” That prescription demanded attacking a broad range of policy areas, from policing and criminal justice reform, to employment, education, welfare, and housing.
Third, the Commission represented a leap forward in the national dialogue about the civil disorders because of the members of the Commission itself. Composed of elected and other public officials evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and drawn from states as disparate as Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, New York and California, the Commission also included the executive director of the NAACP, the president of the steelworkers union, and the founder of defense contractor Litton Industries. Just think about that for a moment—can you imagine today a bipartisan, geographically diverse Presidential Commission including the NAACP, steelworkers, and a captain of industry agreeing unanimously that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto” and recommending a comprehensive, ambitious and dramatically expensive plan to remedy the underlying causes of racial inequality and poverty?
And so this leap of imagination, this leap of faith, this leap of truth demands our attention and demands that we gather to remember and honor the work of the Kerner Commission. But we honor it best by recommitting to its vision and its prescription.
In the last fifty years, we have learned a great deal about what works, and what doesn’t, in revitalizing communities. We have moved from top-down efforts like urban renewal, or as its critics came to call it “Negro Removal,” to locally-driven strategies anchored by community development corporations working across the full range of policy areas the Commission described. While the Commission is rarely given credit, it called for this shift in its very first recommendation: “City governments need new and more vital channels of communication to the residents of the ghetto; they need to improve their capacity to respond effectively to community needs before they become community grievances; and they need to provide opportunity for meaningful involvement of ghetto residents in shaping policies and programs which affect the community.” And in a diplomatically-worded passage from their housing recommendations, they suggested “expansion and reorientation of the urban renewal program to give priority to projects directly assisting low-income households to obtain adequate housing.”
The Obama Administration honored these recommendations by building a broad set of “place-based” initiatives at the neighborhood level, such as Promise Zones and Choice Neighborhoods, that were true to the Commission’s principles. We also worked to connect these neighborhoods to jobs and education through regional strategies like Sustainable Communities and transportation Ladders of Opportunity.
But at the same time we worked to break down barriers that stop African Americans and other minorities from moving to neighborhoods of opportunity. Racial discrimination remains far too prevalent 50 years after the Commission diagnosed “pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing.” In fact, the Commission’s first housing recommendation was to “enact a comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing law to cover the sale or rental of all housing, including single-family homes.” Five weeks to the day after the Commission issued its report, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down. A week later, President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act.
At HUD, I tried to fulfill the promise of the Fair Housing Act by increasing enforcement and codifying in regulation for the first time that even when discrimination is not intentional, it is illegal if actions have a disparate impact on blacks or other protected classes. This “disparate impact” regulation won a remarkable 5-4 victory at the Supreme Court in June of 2015, but legal challenges continue, and we cannot let down our guard. Disparate Impact remains a central tool in fighting discrimination not just in housing, but all the areas the Kerner Commission outlined. And with enforcement against discrimination weakening at the federal level in all these areas, efforts at the state and local level by advocates will necessarily be the front line of this battle, at least for three more years.
In addition to stepped up enforcement against housing and other discrimination, we pursued a range of strategies to help families living in public or assisted housing or using housing vouchers be able to move to neighborhoods of opportunity. And for the first time, we gave real meaning and teeth to the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that communities that receive federal funds “affirmatively further fair housing”: that they not just fight discrimination, but actively promote racial and economic integration. Calling it “social engineering,” Secretary Carson has delayed the regulation we put in place. Had he read the Kerner Commission report, he would understand that the ghettos were a direct result of “social engineering” by HUD and other government agencies at the federal and local level. And so HUD and those agencies have a profound responsibility to make it right.
To help answer President Johnson’s second question—“why did it happen?”—the Commission devoted an entire chapter to tracing “The Formation of the Racial Ghettos.” The touchstone of this history is what has come to be known as the Great Black Migration into our cities during the first half of the 20th century—and what I will call the great white migration— out of the cities and into the suburbs.
To help answer President Johnson’s third question—“What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”— the Commission devoted an entire chapter to predicting “The Future of the Cities.” Its conclusion was sobering—“The future of these cities, and of their burgeoning Negro populations, is grim. Most new employment opportunities are being created in suburbs and outlying areas.” And of course their conclusion was right, up to a point. But 50 years later, that point has passed.
I believe we are witnessing the next great migration in our history, back into our cities, and if we don’t pay attention, the consequences for Afri- can Americans and low-income families will also be grim. This trend is not just here in the United States— around the world more than half the population now lives in urban areas. The reasons for this new migration in the United States are many—the growth of a post-industrial economy and the jobs that go with it, lower crime from demographic and other factors, urban revitalization efforts, the limits of the suburban, automobile geography, and I could go on.
I don’t want to overstate the case— neighborhoods in Detroit or Newark or other cities that burned 50 years ago could still rightly be described as ghettos today. But my point here is not a lecture on the recent history of the American city. My point is that the very clear “urban bad/suburban good” frame of the Kerner Commission report is changing. And we ignore it at our peril, because, to be provocative, the only thing worse than an urban ghetto is a suburban or rural ghetto. Look around the world: in South Africa, apartheid began with whites’ removal of blacks from the cities, and today the townships are largely not only deeply poor but geographically remote from transportation, jobs, and other levers of opportunity in ways that most poor urban neighborhoods in the United States are not. In Europe, suburban ghettos cut off from opportunity are fermenting racial and religious prejudice into radicalism. In many ways, the United States is catching up to the pattern of older cities around the world where the wealthy occupy the center and the poor are pushed to the suburbs and beyond. So what do we do about this? First, we must make a leap from the prescription of the Kerner Commission, which called for “policies which will encourage Negro movement out of central city areas,” to really understanding what makes for a neighborhood of opportunity, be it urban, rural or suburban. The important work John Powell has done to map opportunity is a perfect example, and the potential use of it by the State of California shows a way to move policy forward when the federal government is moving backward. We built on john’s work in the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, creating for the first time an opportunity index that covered the entire country. Armed with this knowledge, we can better decide how to revitalize neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and where to help low-income families move to access opportunity.
Second, we need to develop a new set of tools that focus on gentrification and the other risks faced by cities gaining jobs and population. In housing, this includes affordable housing preservation, inclusionary zoning, and displacement and eviction prevention, to name just a few.
Third, we need to develop a new set of tools that focus on the suburban and rural communities that increasingly suffer from what we always called “urban” problems. We need to start asking ourselves questions like: what does true community policing look like in the suburbs? How can we harness the revolution in ride-sharing to create low-cost micro-transit systems? What should we do with vacant shopping malls? Where will jobs come from in the Mississippi Delta and other historically poor rural areas?
My focus on the changing geography of opportunity in our country comes from my fundamental belief that where we live determines the shape of our lives, a point the Kerner Commission made brutally clear. And it comes from my personal experience growing up in New York City at a time when the Bronx was burning, when many said we were witnessing the death of the American City. A few weeks ago, walking through the South Bronx, I saw beautiful mixed-income housing where rubble had smoldered. I saw playgrounds crowded with children where wild dogs had roamed. And I saw low-income families, black and brown, desperately trying to afford staying in neighborhoods they desperately thought about leaving a few decades ago.
Of course, it isn’t just our cities that have changed in the last half-century. We elected our first black president. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued, we then elected our “first white president” too. We come together today at a moment of great peril for the national project that the Kerner Commission called us to embark on fifty years ago. That threat is real in all the policies the Trump Administration is trying to roll back, including so much of the criminal justice, health care, fair housing and community development work I’ve described today.
But that threat is also real in the assault on truth and the contest over whose history truly represents the country. A toxic brew of social media-fueled disaffection, money in politics, and other woes has brought us an age of tribalism. I think this is the other reason that the release of the Kerner Commission report on Leap Day 1968 is strangely powerful for me. As we gather to reflect on the 50th Anniversary, the actual day—February 29—has literally disappeared from the calendar. Our job, in the age of Trump, is to make sure that the Kerner Commission report does not disappear from our history.
The Commission made clear that responsibility for change lay not just on our government or our leaders. “From every American,” they said, “it will require new attitudes, new under- standing, and, above all, new will.”
So let me make this personal. I wouldn’t be here today, a white man opening a conference on race and inequality, if it wasn’t for finding the history of the civil rights movement. Starting in college with the great Martin Luther King Jr. biography Parting the Waters, and later in graduate school retracing the route of the Freedom Riders, I learned from the tragic history of race in this country that the American project is a paradox that begins with the original sin of slavery and follows a halting arc of protest and progress. I learned that only in trying to further that struggle could I do my part to give truth to the words of our founding fathers, written even as they knew all men were not equal. It was only in facing that paradox that I understood black history was American history, that black history was my history too.
If we are not going to let that history disappear, we must remember and make real the words of the Kerner Commission: “It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens-urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.”