Every four years, we add an extra day to our calendars to make up for the fact that they don’t accurately reflect the movement of the planet. The Kerner Commission report was released on just such a day, fifty years ago.
Unfortunately, too little has changed since February 29, 1968. We’re still out of alignment with the reality all around us.
This report, officially called the “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” was commissioned by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the riots that rocked Detroit and other U.S. cities in the summer of 1967. The report identified the forces behind these riots with uncanny precision.
Racism, economic inequality, police violence, and media bias: these were the instrumentalities of oppression the commissioners found fifty years ago. They are still with us today.
The fact that the Kerner report still rings so true is its greatest accomplishment – and our greatest failure.
The President’s Call
President Lyndon Johnson was under pressure to do something after rioting broke out in inner cities across the United States. So, he did what politicians often do when they’re under pressure: He appointed a “bipartisan commission.” That usually creates the illusion that something is being done, while ensuring that whatever the commission eventually recommends will be bland enough to provide cover for whatever the politician wanted to do in the first place.
This time, the commissioners took their work seriously. Former senator Fred Harris is the only surviving member of the original commission, which included Republicans and Democrats, a labor leader and a business executives… and only two black members.
Activists and radicals were not welcomed. As historian Stephen M. Gillon noted,
Johnson assumed that his mainstream commission would produce a mainstream report that would endorse the broad outlines of his existing domestic agenda and insulate him from attacks both from the right and from the left.
Separate and Unequal
The Kerner report instead drew bold conclusions and proposed equally bold solutions. One sentence from the report became famous:
“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.”
The report then said: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
To create “common opportunities for all within a single society,” the report called for
a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will. (Emphasis ours.)
The report called for an end to “violence and destruction” – not only “in the streets of the ghetto,” but “in the lives of the people.” The term “structural violence” had not yet entered the American lexicon, but the report offered a litany of the harms it causes. It also emphasized the different realities experienced by white and black America, calling the 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, and white society condones it.”
White Men’s Eyes
That lack of a common understanding is an indictment of the media – then, and now. The Kerner report wrote, "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men's eyes and white perspective.”
The report adds: “(The media) have not communicated to the majority of their audience--which is white—a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.”
As Ford Foundation president Darren Walker writes in the Columbia Journalism Review, the media problems outlined in the report are still problems today.
As the report put it back in 1968: “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”
The struggles of African Americans like Eric Garner, who died at the hands of New York City police in 2014, and the kinds of daily experiences they encounter, still lie beyond the sight of most white Americans: this is testament to the truth of that statement fifty years ago.
Levels of Intensity
The authors of the Kerner Report created a taxonomy of grievances confronting black urban Americans, laying them out by “levels of intensity.” The most “intense” grievances included “police practices, unemployment and under-employment, and inadequate housing.” Other problem areas included inadequate education and “discriminatory consumer and credit practices.”
Like the other problems cited in the report, these are still grievances for Black America.
Segregation and poverty? Senator Harris recently co-wrote a report with Alan Curtis, president of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, on progress (or the lack of it) over the last fifty years. In it, Harris and Curtis conclude that “poverty has increased and so has the inequality gap between white America and Americans who are black, brown and Native American.”
In an op-ed for CNN, Harris and Curtis write:
As the nation has grown, our overall poverty rate has stubbornly remained virtually the same, while the total number of poor people has increased from 25.4 million to 40.6 million. The rate of child poverty is greater today than in 1968, and the percentage of Americans living in deep, or extreme poverty, has grown since 1975, and "welfare reform" has failed.
Inequality of income in our country has greatly worsened... Fifty-two percent of all new income in America goes to the top 1 percent. Rich people are healthier and live longer. They get a better education, and a better education produces greater inequality of income. Then, greater economic power translates into greater political power.
What about the other "grievances"? Police brutality? The Black Lives Matter movement has awakened the nation to the unpunished killings of innocent black men, women, and children by police forces across the country. Those killings continue.
Unemployment? African-American unemployment is still twice what it is for whites.
Inadequate housing? As a “snapshot” from the Economic Policy Institute noted in 2013, “Residential segregation and ongoing poverty has left African Americans in some of the least desirable housing in some of the lowest-resourced communities in America.”
The proportion of the poor population living in high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 43 percent to 54 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to a report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the number of high-poverty neighborhoods around the country rose from 13,4000 to more than 21,300.
Inadequate education? “Schools remain segregated today because neighborhoods in which they are located are segregated,” Richard Rothstein wrote in a 2013 report for the Economic Policy Institute. Rothstein adds that “raising (the educational) achievement of low-income black children requires residential integration, from which school integration can follow.”
Time for Action
The Kerner Commission proposed moving swiftly and decisively to address these problems. It proposed the creation of two million new jobs – one million in the public sector, and one million in the private sector. That kind of government expansion could lead to a massive expansion of public works and social services. It could also follow the model of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA, and create jobs in the arts and humanities.
The commission also proposed creating six million housing units, to replace substandard homes and integrate urban and suburban parts of the country.
There were 198.7 million people living in the United States when this report was written. Today there are slightly more than 326 million. These recommendations, if adjusted for population growth, would come to just under 3.3 million new jobs and nearly ten million new housing units.
The Commission also proposed voluntary reforms in the U.S. media, changes in policing and urban governance, new housing policies, and a number of other reforms.
Gillon writes that “the cost of funding the report’s proposals was far more than President Lyndon Johnson could afford to spend while fighting a billion-dollar war in Vietnam.”
The Democrats, divided over that war, failed to rally behind a progressive agenda that included the report’s recommendations. Richard Nixon won the presidency by offering a diet of false promises and racial resentment to what he called the “silent majority” of white working-class Americans.
And so, the Kerner Commission’s recommendations were never adopted. The money was there, or could have been found; After all, the nation was experiencing its greatest period of economic growth, and within the year would fulfill John F. Kennedy’s dream of sending a manned mission to the moon.
But, as Alice George wrote recently for Smithsonian magazine:
“Ultimately, going to the moon was far easier than solving the nation’s racial issues. Politically, spending billions on space travel was more saleable than striving to correct racial inequality.”
Several short months after the report was published, many of the nation’s inner cities would erupt again when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Fifty years later, the streets of our cities are quiet – for now. But the injustices remain, and time is not on anyone’s side.