By Stephen Menendian & Richard Rothstein
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
“To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
In its dramatic report, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, placed the blame for the 1967 uprisings squarely on public and private racial discrimination. As the report explained, racial discrimination in housing, employment, health care, policing, education, and social services locked too many black Americans into schools, jobs, and neighborhoods that were far inferior to those enjoyed by whites. This generated pent-up frustration in low-income black neighborhoods such that all it took was an “inciting event” to unleash civil unrest.
In fact, the first incident described in the Kerner report was the shooting of a black teenager in the back by a white police officer in Tampa, setting off three days of riots. It was shades of Ferguson in 2014, or Baltimore in 2015—decades before Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were born.
Seeking to galvanize America into action, the Kerner Commission documented how government policy and private discrimination produced seg- regated living and occupational pat- terns from Reconstruction through Jim Crow. The Commission presented three alternatives: One, continue the status quo, resulting in more riots, economic decline, and the splintering of our common national identity. Two, push for policies to improve black neighborhoods and thereby narrow the gaps in income, education, housing and jobs, but without a commitment to racial integration. Expressing skepticism that “separate” could ever be “equal,” the Commission dismissed this option, explaining that even if successful, the enrichment strategy would produce a “permanently divided country.” Or three, the only possible choice for America in view of the Commission, try to improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the short run while embracing long-term programs to encourage the integration of black families into historically white communities. “Integration,” the Commission said, “is the only course which explicitly seeks to achieve a single nation rather than accepting the present movement towards a dual society.”
Is it too late to adopt the Kerner Commission’s preferred course of action? Earlier this year more than three dozen scholars, civil rights leaders, activists and policymakers joined former senator Fred Harris, the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission, at a special conference, to tackle this question.
This issue of Poverty & Race explores their answers. In addition to abridged remarks from three of the keynote speakers, this issue contains five contributions from conference presenters reflecting on both the problems and contemporary policy solutions needed to finally address the issues and themes raised by the landmark Kerner Commission report.
Race & Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission @ 50, a conference organized by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, the Economic Policy Institute, and Johns Hopkins University, took place February 27–March 1, 2018, at UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University. Conference participants envisioned what a contemporary Kerner Commission might find today, and they drafted a policy roadmap to tackle racial inequality in America over the next 50 years.
Like the Kerner report, this roadmap includes a comprehensive and wide-ranging set of recommendations to improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods while removing discriminatory and financial barriers that still prevent African Americans from moving out of overcrowded, low-income areas that lack access to good jobs, high-performing schools, adequate health services, and even supermarkets with fresh food.
Some of these recommendations are 50 years old, including calls to end “stop-and-frisk” policies, diversify local police forces, and increase residential integration while massively increasing the supply of housing subsidies for poor families. Others are new, including revisions of federal and state tax policies, proposed by Jack Boger and John Koskinen, to promote economically and racially diverse communities, as well as to protect the ability of residents of high opportunity and integrating neighborhoods to remain in those gentrifying places.
Sandra Smith draws attention to a pernicious development since the Kerner Report, the rise of mass incarceration and its unmistakable contribution to racial inequality. Dr. Leanna Wen and her colleague Narintohn Luangrath share interventions that have improved the lives of Baltimore residents while illustrating the relationship between racial inequality and health outcomes. Finally, drawing on decades of original research, Robert Sampson reminds us of the complexities we face and the vital importance of tackling both neighborhood disadvantage and racial segregation simultaneously. Just as the Kerner Commission understood, if we tackle only one or the other, we will find ourselves in the same situation five decades from now.
Most of the original Kerner Commission recommendations were quickly found to be politically unsupportable. Johnson’s Democratic coalition was severely weakened by the Vietnam War and Nixon ascended to power on a message of “law and order” that stoked racial resentment of civil rights. But Kerner Commission @ 50 conference participants hope that this time will be different. In the following pages, they explain why they think we can rebuff appeals to racial demagoguery and build a movement to advance reforms that can produce a more equitable future.
Stephen Menendian and Richard Rothstein were co-chairs of the Race & Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50 conference held February 27-March 1, 2018 at UC Berkeley and the Lewis Museum in Baltimore. For more information, including videos of the conference and the executive summary of the Kerner Commission report and its recommendations, please visit https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/kerner50