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Separate and unequal: Kerner Report addressed racism 50 years ago, but problems remain today

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

“Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”  Fifty years after these words summarized the 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Report), several commentators have lately been asking how much progress has occurred since its appearance.    

For example, an April 11 editorial in The Christian Century entitled “Still separate and unequal” cited “a sobering fact: by some measures the divide between black Americans and white Americans is as great now as in 1968, and in some cases even greater. Black people continue to be unemployed at roughly twice the rate of whites. Rates of home ownership have barely changed, and the income gap between the races is about the same. The percentage of African Americans in prison has tripled since 1968.”

The editorial acknowledges areas of progress in education, career opportunities and political participation, seen most dramatically in the election of President Obama, several governors, members of congress, etc. But the conditions that led to the report persist.

And what were those conditions? To be specific, the cause was the civil disorders or urban riots that kept occurring in the 60s — Harlem, Jersey City and Philadelphia in 1964; Los Angeles Watts in 1965; 43 cities in the summer of 1966; and then the explosions in Detroit and Newark in 1967. President Johnson, who appointed no less than twenty commissions during his five years in office, appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s claim that the riots arose from communist plots. 

The blue-ribbon commission was a distinguished bipartisan group that would have been expected to take a moderate stance. Its only two black members were Republican Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Roy Wilkins, the NAACP’s executive director.  Not one more militant black-power advocate was included, and neither of these representatives of the establishment was expected to push an insurgent agenda.   

What the commission produced surprised President Johnson, who was so chagrined that he canceled a ceremony scheduled to announce and laud it and tried to ignore it. He felt it didn’t give enough credit to his Great Society programs.

It also surprised insurgent black leader H. Rap Brown, who was in a Louisiana jail for inciting a crowd. He wrote: “The members of the commission should be put in jail under $100,000 bail each because they’re saying essentially what I have been saying.”

The report was not to be ignored; it sold almost a million copies in two weeks (a month after Dr. King’s assassination).

What happened to cause such a bombshell?  What happened first of all was that the commission visited the riot-torn cities and paid attention to what they saw and heard about substandard schools, high unemployment, concentrated poverty, poor sanitation, police regarded as an “occupying force,” instances of police brutality as igniters of disorder, inadequate health care, insufficient and inadequate government services, deep disillusionment and seething anger. (Critics have pointed out that it ignored sex and gender violence because these were not seen as racially targeted.)

The commission learned to question some popular analyses. “The riff-raff theory” charged misfit outsiders with fomenting the unrest, but it turned out that rioters were educated, long-term residents. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s theory that single-mother families and other failings of communities of color were the root problem seemed to be “blaming the victim,” when the structural obstacles posed by white racism were the primary cause of urban unrest. They decided to tell it straight believing that white society would respond if it got the message.

If white racism was the cause of urban unrest, the ghetto was its Exhibit A. Stated the report:  “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White society created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” Institutional and systemic racism was the culprit.

The policy recommendations of the commission flagged investment in better quality education, health care, job training, housing and income support. And Great Society programs did make a difference. The poverty rate for both black and white Americans dropped markedly during the 60s, but in the decades after 1968, government programs to reduce inequalities in health, education, and economic opportunity lost support from political leadership. 

The commissioners believed that our nation, when confronted with the “two separate and unequal nations” paradigm, would rise to the challenge of finding common cause between the two nations.

Former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, the lone survivor of the commission, recalls that the commissioners were convinced that “Everyone does better when everyone does better.”  Now the idea that the fates of inner-city African-Americans and those of their fellow citizens are inextricably tied up with each other, according to The Atlantic’s Justin Driver, “sounds lamentably alien.”

So, what has transpired since 1968 to reinforce disillusionment despite the progress that has been made? The list grows: the racially disproportionate mass incarceration brought about by the War on Drugs, the repeated instances of disorder growing out of instances of police brutality in Ferguson and Baltimore and elsewhere, the crisis in public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods,  the punishing of poor people with fines beyond their means to pay for minor offenses, the resurgence of white nationalism, residential resegregation, militarized police–community relations, gentrification that pushed poor African-Americans into the inner ring of suburbs or homelessness, and the much lamented polarization that afflicts our national life. 

The Kerner Report dared to name the problem in 1968. Fifty years later, who can say that the commissioners’ mission has been accomplished?