The Kerner Commission Report Turns 50

Just finished re-reading an op ed, “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” in the New York Times on March 1.  It’s co-author is Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, tasked by President Johnson with examining the roots and suggesting reforms for the 1967 urban riots that afflicted Detroit, Newark and over 100 other cities.  Published on March 1, 1968, it began with the ominous warning, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -separate and unequal (moving toward?  What were the previous 300+ years of slavery and segregation about?).   LBJ, beleaguered by the Vietnam War, battered by domestic unrest and soon to abandon his reelection effort, largely ignored and shelved the report.  Yet it sold over two million copies, sparked some national debate and is fondly remembered by liberal historians and pundits.

The Commission concluded that “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” which it created and maintained and called for “massive and sustained” investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and prevent future riots.   Fifty years later, the authors find:

Re-segregation: The percentage of students in highly segregated (90% minority) schools declined by approximately 50% from 1968-88, then reverted to the mean following the ending of court mandated integration orders.  Today’s schools are as segregated or worse today than they were in 1968.   The biggest offenders are the Democratic states, led by New York (65% of black students in highly segregated schools), followed by Illinois (61%), Maryland (53%) and New Jersey (50%).  The most segregated region in the country is the Northeast (51%), followed by Mid West (43%), South and West (34% each).  So, it seems, in liberal “Blue” states, “Black Lives Matter,” so long as they don’t live and attend school in white neighborhoods!

Shocking Inequality: Since 1968, the number of Americans living in extreme poverty (less than 50% of the official poverty line) has increased substantially,  while the overall poverty rate remains basically unchanged.  The rich have grown much richer – the top 1% get 52% of all new income and controls over 80% of national wealth – a huge increase since 1968.  Black median household income is 60% of whites, but whites own 10 times more wealth.  CEO pay has exploded, from 24 times the average worker in 1968 to nearly 300 times today.

Mass Incarceration: Around 200,000 people were behind bars in federal, state and local facilities in 1968; today the number is 1.4 million, the highest incarceration rate in the world.  African Americans are jailed at a rate 7 times higher than whites, especially for drug offenses, though blacks and whites use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate.  The article states “Mass incarceration has become a new kind of housing policy for the poor” (and mentally ill).  Given the lack of affordable housing and subsidies for the poor (fewer than 1/5 of those eligible receive assistance) this is an understandable, though shockingly expensive and inefficient, alternative.

Do What Works: Harris and Curtis say we have learned much about what works and doesn’t in fighting poverty and inequality over the past 50 years, and could reach the Kerner Commission’s goals if only we had the political will (world’s rarest commodity) to  embrace its guiding ethos of “Everyone does better when everyone does better” (i.e. the common good) rather than the neoliberal creed, “You’re on your own” (individual selfishness).   A litany of liberal policy remedies follow: universal, single payer health coverage; significantly raising the minimum wage and EITC; strengthening labor unions and job training; actively pursuing racial integration (unclear how); fully funding public schools; housing subsidies for all eligible; enforce fair housing laws; community based policing and alternative sentencing for non violent crimes, among others.

A wonderful menu of New Deal/Great Society programs and, as a liberal Democrat, I endorse them all!  Yet we live in a country that inexplicably elected Donald Trump president, with a Republican majority in the House, Senate and two thirds of state legislatures.  None of this will fly in the current political climate, which I don’t expect to change radically in the foreseeable future (though one never knows).  We need an anti-poverty, pro equality plan that can appeal to large numbers across the political spectrum.  Does anyone have the slightest clue what that would look like?



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