In 1967, as riots raged across the U.S., President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled an erstwhile group of political leaders and policymakers and asked them to examine the multiple effects of segregation and to then provide recommendations on ways to effectively reduce racial and ethnic inequality — barriers to equality that threatened to unhinge the very core of America’s democratic foundation.
And on Tuesday, Feb. 27, hundreds gathered at George Washington University in Northwest to discuss the findings of a newly-released study, “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.”
The document says that not enough has been done to confront the warning of deepening poverty and inequality highlighted by the Kerner Commission 50 years ago and lists several areas where the U.S. has undergone “a lack of or reversal of progress.”
Former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, the last surviving member of the original Kerner Commission and co-editor of the new report, said while he remains optimistic, things appear bleak, particularly for a growing segment of people of color and the poor.
“Racial and ethnic inequality is growing worse – we’re re-segregating our housing and schools again,” Harris said. “There are more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse.”
According to the report, the percentage of citizens living in deep poverty, less than half of the federal poverty level, has increased since 1975. Nearly 46 percent of those living in poverty in 2016 were classified as living in deep poverty – 16 percentage points higher than in 1975.
Rep. Robert “Bobby” C. Scott said laws must be changed to protest the poor and Blacks, pointing to what he referred to “Draconian measures” that “waged a war on people instead of their alleged purpose of waging war on drugs.”
Admittedly, there has been progress, particularly as it relates to Hispanic homeownership since the Kerner Commission. However, the homeownership gap for Blacks has since grown even wider. Gains achieved for Blacks after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 have been wiped out from 2000 to 2015 as Black homeownership fell 6 percentage points, after having risen by the same percentage after the landmark legislation was enacted.
The report cites the Black homeownership decline on the disproportionate effect the subprime crisis had on African-American families. Gaps in education, housing, income levels and law enforcement have grown so wide, that Harris says the entire country and local communities have a “moral responsibility” to address them now.
Recommendations in the new study include demanding that the federal government and states advocate for more spending on early childhood education and a $15 minimum wage by 2024. It also seeks more regulatory oversight over mortgage leaders in order to prevent predatory lending, community policing that works with nonprofits in minority neighborhoods and more job training programs in an era of automation and emerging technologies.
Johnson formed the original 11-member Kerner Commission with Detroit burning in a five-day riot in 1967 which left 33 Blacks and 10 whites dead and more than 1,400 buildings destroyed by fire. More than 7,000 people would be arrested. That summer, more than 150 instances of civil unrest occurred across the U.S. Harris and other commission members traveled the country, viewing riot-torn cities and speaking with Black and Hispanic citizens and white police officers.
Unfortunately, Johnson failed to follow the commission’s recommendation that the federal government spend billions to attack structural racism in employment, education and housing after the group chose not to affirm the president’s anti-poverty initiatives. Johnson refused to engage with the members of the commission and shelved the entire report.
The new report, similar to 1968, implores media outlets to diversity and hire more Black and Latino journalists which would greatly improve their coverage of communities of color.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry praised the recent findings, saying that it clearly examines “the places we’ve gone wrong and [indicates] what we must do to live up to the promise of our country and respond at last to the alarm bell of the Kerner Report.”
But clergy leaders representing the PICO National Network, the largest coalition of faith-based groups in the nation, and the director of Howard University’s leadership and public policy center, remain critical of America’s political leaders.
“I am saddened to see the country move from the optimism of electing the first African-American president and from devising and implementing programs to address police trust, health disparities and other inequality issues to a period of turning a blind eye to bias, housing problems, the need for investment in quality education and other inequities,” said Elsie D. Scott, director of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University.
“The one sign of hope is the activism of young people who seem to have the spirit of the freedom riders to face resistance head-on and elect officials who will not be content with the status quo,” Scott said.
The Rev. Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network’s LIVE FREE campaign to end gun violence and mass incarceration, echoed Scott.
“Many of the stubborn challenges outlined in the report still remain major obstacles for a disproportionate number of Black people in this country,” he said. “We are partnering with organizations and leaders across the country to make our communities safer and ease the trauma associated with gun violence and mass incarceration but elected officials need to be partners in this effort.”