The Kerner Commission 50 years later

The Unmet Promise of Equality

By Fred Harris and Alan Curtis
The New York Times, February 28, 2018

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

Fifty years ago, on March 1, 1968, these were the grim words of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, called the Kerner Commission after its chairman, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois.

President Lyndon Johnson had established the commission to examine the disorders and violent protests in Detroit, Newark and well over 100 other American cities during the summer of 1967, and earlier. What it found was searing. “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission concluded. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The Kerner Commission recommended “massive and sustained” investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice. Have we made progress in the last 50 years?

A Return to Segregation

In many ways, things have gotten no better — or have gotten worse — since 1968. Public schools have been re-segregating for decades.

Inequality That Would Shock the Commission’s Members

The disheartening percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty — that is, living on less than half the poverty threshold — has increased since the 1970s.

The Tragedy of Mass Incarceration

At the time of the Kerner Commission, there were about 200,000 people behind bars. Today, there are about 1.4 million. Mass incarceration has become a kind of housing policy for the poor.

Fifty Years Later, We’ve Figured Out What Works

Policies based on ideology instead of evidence. Privatization and funding cuts instead of expanding effective programs.

We’re living with the human costs of these failed approaches. The Kerner ethos — “Everyone does better when everyone does better” — has been, for many decades, supplanted by its opposite: “You’re on your own.”

Today more people oppose the immorality of poverty and rising inequality, including middle-class Americans who realize their interests are much closer to Kerner priorities than to those of the very rich.

We have the experience and knowledge to scale up what works. Now we need the “new will” that the Kerner Commission concluded was equally important.

What Doesn't Work and What Does

The Economic Playing Field

Doesn't - Reduced health care for workers and low-income Americans
Does - Insured health care through a single-payer system

Doesn't - Small, grudging increases to minimum wage
Does - Substantial increases to minimum wage

Doesn't - No new tax credits or child allowances
Does - Expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit to reduce gaps in wealth and income

Doesn't - Supply-side, trickle-down economics for the rich and corporations; enterprise zones with corporate tax breaks
Does - Demand-side, full-employment Keynesian economics for all Americans

(Use the link to view what doesn't and does work in the other categories of Jobs, Education, Housing, and the Justice System.)

Fred Harris, a former senator from Oklahoma, is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico and the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission. Alan Curtis is the president and chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation, the private-sector continuation of the 1968 Kerner Commission and the 1969 National Violence Commission. The two are the co-editors of “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.”



By Don McCanne, M.D.

There was some good news following the release of the Kerner Commission report half a century ago and that was that the nation made gains in addressing some of the social injustices described in the report. The bad news is that we have since regressed and in some ways are worse off, especially considering the negative consequences of the massive shift to greater inequality in income and wealth.

When you access the article through the link above, the tragic backsliding becomes obvious when glancing at the graphs presented.

However, there is a potential for good news in the future if we listen to the authors of this article - Fred Harris, the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission, and Alan Curtis, the chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation. In a table they show us what we have learned about what doesn't work and what does. Social justice advocates will recognize that they have organized the basics.

One category - the economic playing field - is reproduced above. Single payer advocates do not need an explanation as to why the very first item listed that does work is "insured health care through a single-payer system." But the other items in the original article are very important as well. That is why it is not enough to limit our advocacy to the one issue of single payer reform, even though that remains the mission of PNHP. We all have to work together in coalition efforts to move forward with the other policies that do work in order to achieve a more just and equitable society - one in which we all do well.

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