BERKELEY, Calif. (CN) – Fifty years after a landmark 1968 report identified white racism as the root cause of violent urban uprisings across the U.S., political inaction continues to thwart efforts to end racial inequality, according to former Kerner Commission members and staff.
Former Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, the Kerner Commission’s only surviving member, and three former commission staff members assessed the legacy of the commission during a bicoastal panel discussion Wednesday morning. It was part of a three-day conference hosted by the University of California Berkeley and John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“We know what needs to be done, and we know what works,” Harris said on Wednesday. “A more progressive tax system, stopping taxes and subsidies that redistribute wealth to the top, strengthening unions, raising minimum wage to a living wage, more affordable housing, housing and schools integrated by income and race.”
Harris said when it comes to racial inequities, “regression has been the trend since the 1970s.”
A new report found 50 years after the Kerner Commission’s landmark report, racial disparities persist in education, housing, employment and wages. The report, titled “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report” found black home ownership fell by nearly 6 percentage points from 2000 to 2015, due to the subprime housing crisis.
Only 20 percent of black students attend majority-white schools today, compared to 44 percent of black students in 1988. And African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty compared to whites, according to 2016 census data cited in the study.
President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967 after riots broke out in Detroit and other U.S. cities. The commission’s goal was to determine the causes of civil unrest in minority communities across the nation.
A key part of the commission’s work included field visits to urban areas where riots took place. Those visits involved walking the streets, visiting homes and businesses and speaking with residents.
Harris said he met with black militants in Cincinnati who refused to shake his hand and said they would never trust white politicians to do anything to help end racism and poverty.
The former senator, who ran for president in 1972 and 1976, said he heard a resounding theme from those he spoke with during the field visits. They wanted jobs.
He also learned that northern cities like Milwaukee could be even more segregated than those in south.
Despite the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Harris concluded that the nation was still “moving toward two societies – one white, one black, separate but not equal.”
The commission issued its report in 1968, concluding that “white racism” and “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing” were to blame for deadly riots in Detroit and other cities.
President Johnson dismissed the report, which called for investing millions of dollars in housing, employment and education at a time when the government faced tight budget constraints and mounting criticism over the Vietnam War.
Victor Palmieri, a panel member who served as deputy executive director of the Kerner Commission staff, said he understands why Johnson felt in some ways betrayed by the report and its failure to acknowledge his efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.
“Somehow or other we did not take proper account of those contributions of President Johnson,” Palmieri said.
John Koskinen, a former commission staff member who also headed the IRS from 2013 to 2017, said he doubts things would have turned out differently had Johnson not been president. Even if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963 and managed to get reelected, Koskinen said he would have faced the same set of challenges as president in 1968.
“The pressure on a president, whoever it was, to not be the one who lost southeast Asia would have been significant,” Koskinen said. “The funding problems were real.”
Today, one of the biggest issues facing minority communities is gentrification, a reversal of what occurred in the 1950s and ’60s when white people fled cities for the suburbs. Today, an influx of young, white millennials moving into historically African American and Latino neighborhoods in cities has driven up housing prices and forced many minority residents to leave their homes.
Koskinen suggested cities could freeze property taxes for people who own homes in those neighborhoods, place money in an escrow account, and collect the taxes when the house gets sold.
With today’s growing federal debt, political gridlock in Washington, and a president inclined to cut domestic spending programs, Koskinen said state and local governments must step up and lead the way with programs aimed at curtailing inequality.
“The states have been laborites over time in many ways,” Koskinen said. “Individual states are not waiting for the federal government but taking action: legalizing marijuana, dealing with immigration, how they’re going to respond to this tax bill. Instead of relying on the government with a $20 trillion in debt, it will be incumbent upon state and local governments to assert their power to make changes on a state by state and community by community basis.”