Fifty years ago this week, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that was organized by Lyndon B. Johnson released the Kerner Commission Report, named for its chairman, Otto Kerner Jr. It attempted to answer three questions in the wake of intense racial riots and unrest that had swept through the country: What happened? Why did it happen? And:What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
The report noted that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Commission members concluded that this division was the result of failed government housing, the lack of decent education and social-service policies and the narrative that had been created by mainstream media who reported the news while looking out from a “white man’s eyes and a white perspective.”
They suggested that the main cause for urban violence was white racism and that white America needed to fully and completely shoulder most of the responsibility for the rioting and rebellion that was happening across the country. In 1967 alone, more than 1,800 (mostly black) people had been injured, and 83 people had been killed. The property damages were valued at upwards of $100 million in over 120 cities.
The Kerner Report outlined some broad solutions to promoting racial integration — on top of the laws that took effect a few years earlier: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination and prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodation; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
Specifically, the commission called for the creation of more jobs and job training programs, the establishment of decent housing and increased financial aid to black communities.
Johnson rejected the report because it did not praise his anti-poverty program, but conversations started taking place across the country as some black and white communities tried to work together to find solutions to bridge the divide. And, 30 years later, in 1998, the Eisenhower Foundation commissioned a follow-up report. The news was not good.
It found that there was more poverty in America; that it was “deeper, blacker and browner than before”; and that it was more concentrated in cities, which had become “America’s poorhouses.” Even with all of the conversations and policies, the laws and the direct intervention, America was still a racially and economically divided nation.
Since then, America elected the nation’s first black president (twice). We’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the impact of the work many of us have done to help create a more diverse, open, accountable and inclusive society.
We’ve also seen the election of a president who actively works against us. Despite the protests and marches and ongoing pushback against him, with every decision, tweet or comment that he makes, Donald Trump encourages a world that is more white, more racist, more classist, more exclusive, more misogynistic and more frightening.
America is still clearly a divided nation. This is not a startling revelation. It is a simply a fact. So it’s no wonder that a new report released this week, "Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report," says “there are far more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse."
This latest report — which included input from black people, Latinos, Native Americans and women — concludes that since 1968 the country has not only had a widening gap in poverty but there has been a noted and concentrated lack of, or reversal of, progress. In other words, the lines of division are getting worse.
Its authors also offered suggestions, similar in scope to the ones that were offered in 1968:
- Spending more money on early childhood education;
- Increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2024,
- Adding more regulatory oversight over mortgages to prevent predatory lending;
- Establishing community policing that works in concert with nonprofits in inner-city communities;
- And adding more job training programs in an era of automation and emerging technologies.
They also called on the mainstream media to hire more people of color to cover and report the news, particularly in the communities of color.
So, 50 years after the Kerner Report, the country is worse off, but the solutions, the way to turn the tide, have not changed.
My hope is that this time, we will not let those in power forget. We will not let them dismiss the report. And we will not let them continue to move us farther away from where we want to be: one nation, one society, inclusive, diverse and equal.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.”