To call the 1960s a tumultuous time in America would be a gross understatement. From the Vietnam War to the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy, it was a decade that, in many ways, would serve as a turning point for the nation. Change was in the air as the civil rights movement finally began pushing the dial forward on injustices long ignored.
But racism continued to back against each stride made. People were angry, and their rage spilled into the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Newark in major riots in the years 1965, 1966, and 1967
This series of uprisings led President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to establish National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — also known as the Kerner Commission — with identifying the source of discontent and preventing it from happening again.
In 1968 the 11-member commission revealed its findings, coming to the bleak conclusion that Black rage in America was largely the result of poverty, white supremacy and ongoing systematic oppression. At the heart of the report, they found that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Perhaps the most brutally frank examination of racial strife of its time, the report also explained that “Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”
Making a poignant point that “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Outlining a list of potential programs, the commission sought to “undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that dominates the ghetto and weakens our society.”
Armed with this information, President Johnson made a decision that would set America on a course that, years later, it’s yet to correct. He decided to do nothing, rejecting the report that would go on to become a national bestseller. A little more than month after its release, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would spark even more riots as the cities across America went up in flames.
Thirty years later the Eisenhower Foundation would observe the anniversary of the Kerner Report with an examination of their own, releasing the Millenium Breach as a means of identifying just how much progress had been made since then. While admitting that some strides had been made, including the election of more Black elected officials and a rising high school graduation rate, it also found that “Over the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. tripled the number of prison cells and simultaneously reduced housing appropriations for the poor by over 80 percent.”
They also revealed that “In the early 1990s, 1 of 4 young African-American men was in prison, on probation, or on parole. By the late 1990s, 1 of 3 young African-American men was in prison, on probation, or on parole.”
Now, the fiftieth anniversary of the Kerner Report has reignited the discussion, with many now realizing just how wrong Johnson was. According to Morgan State University professor Dr. Jared Bell, “By the time it was published in the mainstream press today, 50 years ago, he realized that its conclusions stood against everything he himself and his political class stood for.”
Bell added, “So he tried to squash it and ignore it and downplay it, despite its very provocative conclusions. As its most famous statement said, we were headed as a nation towards two separate societies: one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
And that’s exactly what happened, resulting in a society that, despite gains made in areas like education, still favors white Americans over African-Americans with the same educational background, one with a racial income gap that has grown and housing and voter discrimination that remain in place.
According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, “The substantial progress in educational attainment of African Americans has been accompanied by significant absolute improvements in wages, incomes, wealth, and health since 1968. But black workers still make only 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be in poverty as whites, and the median white family has almost 10 times as much wealth as the median black family.”
And that’s not all. “With respect to homeownership, unemployment, and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation has either failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened.”
It’s a harsh reality that former Democratic Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission, described as “Racial and ethnic inequality is growing worse. We’re resegregating our housing and schools again. There are far more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse.”
Harris recently served as an editor on a newly released study titled “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” which echoed the same sentiment.
Speaking with NPR, Harris said, “I was 37 when I served on the [Kerner] Commission. Whoever thought that 50 years later, we’d still be talking about the same things? That’s kinda sad.”