Study Shows Little Change Since Kerner Commission Reported on Racism 50 Years Ago

An update to the landmark study finds there is now more poverty and segregation in America

Scene from the 1967 Detroit riot. Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo

Half a century ago, a special commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson was tasked to better understand the causes of racial unrest in the nation. The result was the landmark 176-page report, “The America of Racism." Better known as the “Kerner Report,” the massive undertaking—done by National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Otto Kerner, then-governor of Illinois—examined cultural and institutional racism in the United States, from segregated schools and neighborhoods to housing discrimination, cycles of poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

As's Alice George reports, the historic study came to the conclusion that it was white racism, not black anger that had led to the wide-scale riots that had broken out in poor African-American neighborhoods throughout the country. “White society,” the panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Now, a new study called “Healing our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report” by the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, which has continued the Kerner commission’s work, returns to the study to look at how far the U.S. has come since Kerner’s day. As Karen Grigsby Bates at NPR reports, this week, in a 488-page book, the study concluded that we haven’t come very far at all.

“We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for nearly a decade after the Kerner Report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening. We are resegregating our cities and our schools, condemning millions of kids to inferior education and taking away their real possibility of getting out of poverty,” Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, said during a talk at George Washington University on Tuesday.

Statistics tell the story. In 1988 about 44 percent of black children went to majority-white schools. But that was also the same year that courts began reversing desegregation policies. Now that number has dropped to 20 percent. There are other sobering statistics. As the AP points out, the study shows that following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, home ownership by black Americans jumped around 6 percent. Those gains, however, reversed between 2000 and 2015 when black ownership dropped by 6 percent.

The study also found that in 2016, the number of people living in deep poverty—defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a household with “total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold”—was 16 percentage points higher than it was in 1975. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. children living in poverty has climbed from 15.6 percent in 1968 to 21 percent in 2017.

The Economic Policy Institute, which released its own study on the 50th anniversary of Kerner Commission’s findings, reports that in 2017 black unemployment was higher than it was in 1968, and it remained around twice the rate of white unemployment. The rate of incarcerated individuals who are black also tripled since the 1968 report came out. And the wealth gap has also increased. Today, the median white family has 10 times the wealth of the median black family.

All of this means the conditions that the Kerner Report suggested led to the frustration that poured out in riots throughout many poor African-American neighborhoods during the 1960s, are still present today.

Back when the Kerner Report was released, it was, in fact, more or less ignored by the Johnson administration. The president reportedly felt the commission did not give him enough credit for his Great Society programs. Additionally, as Julian Zelizer argues in the Atlantic, the study was politically toxic. "The report made recommendations for massive investments in employment, education, and housing that Johnson knew would never move through Congress," Zelizer writes.

While the government did not address it, the study nevertheless became a paperback bestseller, setting off new conversations in the public around race, poverty and inequality with its conclusion that "[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” 

The 2018 report wants to open that conversation up again. As Harris tells Bates of NPR, he was 37 years old back when he worked on the Kerner Report. "Whoever thought that 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things," he says. "That's kinda sad."

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