Many of the policy recommendations from the Kerner Commission remain relevant 50 years later

In 1967, young black men rioted in over 150 cities, often spurred by overly aggressive policing, not unlike the provocations of recent disturbances. The worst in 1967 were in Newark, after police beat a taxi driver for having a revoked permit, and Detroit, after 82 party-goers were arrested at a peaceful celebration for returning Vietnam War veterans, held at an unlicensed social club.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed a commission to investigate. Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner (New York City’s mayor John Lindsay was vice-chair), it issued its report 50 years ago today. Publicly available, it was a best-seller, indicting racial discrimination in housing, employment, health care, policing, education, and social services, and attributing the riots to pent-up frustration in low-income black neighborhoods. Residents’ lack of Fambition or effort did not cause these conditions: rather, “[w]hite institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it… [and is] essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

The report warned that continued racial segregation and discrimination would engender “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” So little has changed since 1968 that the report remains worth reading as a near-contemporary description of racial inequality.

Of course, not everything about race relations is unchanged. Perhaps most dramatic has been growth of the black middle class, integrated into mainstream corporate leadership, politics, universities, and professions. We’re still far from equality—affirmative action remains a necessity—but such progress was unimaginable in 1968. Today, 23 percent of young adult African Americans have bachelor’s degrees, still considerably below whites’ 42 percent but more than double the black rate 50 years ago.

In the mid-1960s, I assisted in a study of Chicago’s power elite. We identified some 4,000 policymaking positions in the non-financial corporate sector. Not one was held by an African American. The only black executives were at banks and insurance companies serving black neighborhoods. Today, any large corporation would face condemnation, perhaps litigation, if no African American had achieved executive responsibility.

In other respects, things are pretty much as dismal now as then—the commission condemned “stop and frisk” policies and equipping police with military weapons “that have no place in densely populated urban communities.” Some conditions are now worse: the “two societies” warning has been fulfilled, not only in our economic and social live, but in the racial polarization of politics exposed in the last election. It threatens the foundations of our democracy.

The commission said the nation faced three alternatives. First, continue present policies, resulting in more riots (or rebellions—the commission debated what to call them), economic decline, and the splintering of our common national identity. This is the course we have mostly followed. Second, improve black neighborhoods, what the commission called attempts to “gild the ghetto,” something we’ve half-heartedly tried with little success for the last 50 years—for example, with enterprise zones, empowerment zones, extra funding for pupils from low-income families, and charter schools. These, the commission predicted, would never get sufficient political or financial support and would confirm that separate can never be equal; they would fail to reverse our “two societies” trajectory. Or third, while doing what we can to improve conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods, we could embrace programs to integrate black families into white communities. We’d have to remove discriminatory and financial barriers that prevented African Americans from moving out of overcrowded, low-income places that lacked access to good jobs, schools with high-performing students, adequate health services, even supermarkets with fresh food. It was this alternative the Kerner Report strongly favored.

Surprisingly, the report was unanimous, even gaining support from commissioner Charles Thornton, CEO of Litton Industries, then one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. Johnson had appointed this Texas conservative to ensure modest recommendations, but even commissioners initially inclined to blame riots on “outside agitators” were radicalized by visiting black neighborhoods.

The report’s integration proposals need updating, but not much. One was a law banning discrimination in housing sales and rentals. Two months after the report’s release, horror over Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination gave President Johnson political support to pass the Fair Housing Act. But enforcement provisions waited another 20 years, and remain weak. The report suggested rent supplements for low-income families and tax credits for low-income housing developers. These were adopted—supplements are commonly termed “Section 8 vouchers” and the government now issues developer tax credits. Yet these programs now reinforce segregation because most recipients can use vouchers only in low-income neighborhoods and developers mostly use credits to build in such areas. Both programs could instead prioritize rentals and construction in integrated communities. For this to happen, we’d need to prohibit suburban zoning ordinances that bar construction of townhouses, low-rise apartments, even single family homes on modest lot sizes.

The commission called for constructing low-rise public housing on scattered sites throughout metropolitan areas. Yet shortly thereafter, after the Supreme Court prohibited placement of public housing exclusively in black neighborhoods, federal and local governments responded by ending public housing construction altogether

The commission also recommended subsidies for black homebuyers, something we’ve never seriously considered. They are needed because in the mid-twentieth century, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration unconstitutionally prohibited African Americans from purchasing affordable suburban homes, contributing to today’s overcrowding and segregation in urban black neighborhoods. Suburban property appreciation now makes those homes unaffordable to working-class families of either race. We’ll never desegregate if this historic wrong remains unremedied.

Is it too late to adopt the Kerner Commission’s third alternative? Racial polarization—the almost inevitable result of persistent residential segregation—may make it so. But perhaps re-reading the report can awaken a passion to reform what the commission didn’t hesitate to term an “apartheid” nation.

EPI is cosponsoring an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission.

A version of this piece ran in the New York Daily News.