President Lyndon B. Johnson with members of the Kerner Commission (Courtesy of Columbia Journalism Review)
President Lyndon B. Johnson with members of the Kerner Commission (Courtesy of Columbia Journalism Review)

Conditions that the Kerner Report suggested was the impetus for riots throughout many poor African-American neighborhoods during the 1960s are still present today, and a massive outcry against the state of current public policies is necessary to turn the tide, activists say.

“Systemic racism is something we don’t talk about. We need to now,” said Dr. William Barber II, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, who is also an author, preacher, professor and the chief architect of the “Forward Together Moral Movement.”

Barber’s words were in response to a new study that looked at how far America has come since the famous Kerner Report of 1968.

The 488-page study, “Healing our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” was conducted by the Milton Eisenhower Foundation in northwest D.C. and concluded that America hasn’t come very far.

“We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for nearly a decade after the Kerner Report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening,” Fred Harris, the last surviving of the Kerner Commission, said during a discussion this month at George Washington University in Northwest. “We are re-segregating our cities and our schools, condemning millions of kids to inferior education and taking away their real possibility of getting out of poverty.”

The Kerner commission was assembled by President Lyndon B. Johnson who sought to better understand the causes of racial unrest in America.

The commission produced a 176-page report that examined cultural and institutional racism, from segregated schools and neighborhoods to housing discrimination, cycles of poverty and lack of employment opportunities.

In its conclusion, the commission highlighted that it was white racism, not black anger that led to wide-scale riots in poor African-American neighborhoods.

“White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission said. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Over two days — Feb. 28 and March 1 — The Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiatives partnered with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley to host a conference titled “Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50.”

Reportedly, the Conference sought to engage attendees in reflections on ongoing racial inequality in the U.S. Speakers visited either the Hopkins site at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore or a site hosted by Berkeley in California and spoke via livestream.

University President Ronald J. Daniels, who gave the opening remarks at the conference, said it was important for the university to promote conversations about racial inequality given its position in Baltimore.

“We, along with many of our peers in higher education, need to continue to ask hard, unsettling questions of ourselves,” Daniels said. “Contemporary statistics that map Baltimore’s treatment of the African-American community continue to paint a damning picture when life expectancy in our city’s most affluent areas remains almost 15 years higher than in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In 1988, the year that courts began reversing desegregation policies, about 44 percent of black children went to majority-white schools. Now that number has dropped to 20 percent, according to the new study.

The study also shows that following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, homeownership by black Americans jumped about 6 percent. Those gains, however, were reversed between 2000 and 2015 when black ownership dropped by 6 percent, according to The Associated Press.

The study also found that in 2016, the number of people living in deep poverty — defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a household with “total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold” — was 16 percentage points higher than it was in 1975. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. children living in poverty has climbed from 15.6 percent in 1968 to 21 percent in 2017.

Further, as reported by Smithsonian.com, the Economic Policy Institute, which released its own study on the 50th anniversary of Kerner Commission’s findings, reported that in 2017 black unemployment was higher than it was in 1968, and it remained around twice the rate of white unemployment.

The rate of incarcerated individuals who are black also tripled since the 1968 report came out. And the wealth gap has also increased. Today, the median white family has 10 times the wealth of the median black family.

“The term ‘systemic racism’ implies intent for a reason,” Jamil Smith, who worked as senior national correspondent for MTV News, said in a tweet. “None of this is an accident. Not mass incarceration, nor housing discrimination or school segregation. Fifty years after the Kerner Report, we shouldn’t forget that this is all being done on purpose.”

U.S. Rep. Rohit Khanna (D-California) also lamented racial injustice.

“It’s been 50 years since the Kerner Report and racial inequality continues to harm communities of color,” Khanna said. “Now is not the time to make it even easier for banks to engage in discriminatory lending. The Bank Lobbyist Act must be rejected.”

For more information about the new report, go to https://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/2495_reg_print.html.

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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