“Separate and Unequal,” 50 Years Later: Taking Stock of the Kerner Report

Politicians, public servants, activists, and citizens gather to discuss a landmark report on racial inequality, 50 years on.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Kerner Commission

Last week, former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan spoke in Berkeley (at a conference jointly hosted by Cal and Johns Hopkins) about a document that turns 50 this year, although it actually has no birthday: The report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, better known as the Kerner Report. As Donovan noted, the report was released on Leap Day 1968—so there is no February 29, 2018 to mark its official anniversary. This was noted with mild amusement, but the joke of calendrical impossibility underscored a pervasive, and more literal, concern: that what occurred in 1968 cannot reoccur in 2018.

It’s worth stating, with some specificity, what actually was achieved with the report’s 1968 publication. Convened by President Johnson in order to study the deadly unrest that had broken out in several major cities, the Kerner Report grabbed attention with its surprisingly blunt (for a blue-ribbon commission) conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” No less striking was its contention, backed by hundreds of pages of expert research, that “white racism is essentially responsible” for the “civil disorders” the commission had been convened to study. That assessment was matched by an array of policy recommendations which envisioned a massive mobilization of national resources against racial inequality.

Needless to say, nothing on the scale of these recommendations followed the report’s publication. On Wednesday, some of the commission members’ aides, and its last surviving member—former U.S. Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma—were on hand to discuss the politics around its work, and they expressed lasting regret that President Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam sapped both money and political attention from his domestic priorities. But it was not only this crisis within Great Society liberalism that threatened the report; there was a surging conservative backlash against the worldview and politics it represented. As Princeton historian Julian Zelizer (who recently penned the introduction to a new edition of the report) remarked on a Tuesday evening panel, the shift from victories like the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and Fair Housing Act to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was experienced by liberals as a kind of whiplash—one that feels eerily familiar today.

The shadow of the present lingered over this discussion of the past. There is little of Nixon’s coded language in our contemporary politics of white, conservative resentment, and after decades of rightward drift in federal policy, the problems identified in the report as causes of urban unrest have, in some respects, worsened: As the Economic Policy Institute notes, the black home ownership rate is unchanged since 1968, the unemployment rate is slightly worse, and the incarceration rate has skyrocketed. While there are other areas of improvement, these facts don’t exactly indicate a serious national attempt to reckon with the report’s concerns and implement its recommendations.

The obvious and painful reality is that our current political leadership, to put it lightly, is not interested in doing much to rectify this situation. But as Harris reminded conference attendees, the civil rights movement also faced a hostile political environment and long odds, and there are signs of mobilization, both in the rise of new activist groups and in public opinion surveys.

Harris, like other conference speakers, spoke with guarded hope about creating the right political conditions—since, as he insisted, we know what needs to be done, and we know what policies would work. On this point, legal scholar john a. powell remarked that none of us can predict when a window of opportunity will open or close. By the time of the report’s release in 1968, powell noted, Johnson had given up on the kind of new domestic programs that the report called for, and he already knew he would not seek reelection. Even so, Nixon’s ascent to the presidency that fall was not inevitable: If Robert Kennedy had lived, history might have been very different. “If the past was not inevitable,” said powell, “neither is the future.”

Thinking about that remark, it was impossible not to contemplate other parallels between the politics of then and now. Had any number of historical contingencies—like the infamous Comey letter—gone differently, we might now be discussing how President Clinton’s Administration was implementing parts of the report against conservative opposition, rather than wondering how long it would be until we had a President who didn’t embrace white nationalists. The Kerner report, powell said, is obviously the road not taken. But, he insisted, “the road is still there.” That’s an important message for Americans who are seeking a commemoration and revival of the report, not merely a eulogy for it.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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