Since the shooting and killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson by a police officer and other tragic incidents between African Americans and police in face-to-face encounters and the subsequent protests, a national dialogue on race relations has begun once again.
It is definitely necessary. But, unfortunately this dialogue at all levels seems to be a limited one focused primarily on assessing problems between police and African Americans and recommending actions such as more community policing, better training, and body cameras for the police.
Those actions may improve the performance of police in poor African American neighborhoods in urban areas. They will do little to nothing, however, to address the underlying conditions that precipitate the economic and social distress and feelings of hopelessness in those communities.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the recent well publicized and sad episodes have made the invisible visible.
They have many more Americans looking at and examining the tip of the iceberg. But, too few are recognizing that it is what’s below the water line that threatens the fundamental concepts of equal opportunity for all and the promise of the American dream.
We want to look at what is below that water line today for African Americans residing in impoverished areas. Before doing so, we want to look back to the response to the significant racial disturbances and disorder in several major American cities between 1964 and 1967.
On July 28, 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, to investigate those disruptions.
The Kerner Commission, as it became known, wasted no time. It delivered its Report (Kerner Report) on February 29, 1968 – a mere seven months after it began its inquiry. The Commission also didn’t white wash its findings.
In fact, it did just the opposite. It pointed an accusatory finger at the white establishment.
In The Introduction to its Report the Commission observed that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
It went on to assert, “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.”
The Kerner Report set forth a number of specific recommendations to address the causes and prevent the future eruption of racial discontent, disorder and disturbances. The general remedies it proposed are summarized below:
- The enactment of special programs in the areas of housing, education, employment and welfare to eliminate discrimination and to provide greatly expanded opportunities for ghetto residents
- Improvement in channels of communications between ghetto residents and government officials, including effective grievance mechanisms.
- Expansion of the opportunities for ghetto residents to participate in all phases of decision-making.
- Improved police protection in ghetto communities and improved police practices relative to the treatment of black citizens.
- Improvement in the training of police so as to achieve better control of incidents which could lead to future disorder, and the refrainment from the indiscriminate and excessive use of police force. (“The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks.”).
In 1970, approximately two years after the Kerner Report, was issued, The Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois convened an Assembly to assess what progress had been made on those recommendations. (Ed Crego participated in that Assembly.)
The output from the Assembly was presented in The Kerner Report Revisited. In the Report of the Assembly the participants concluded that “…during the past two years black people in Illinois have gained very little relative to white people in such areas as employment, education and housing.”
Because of this, the Assembly participants “…strongly urged that this state and the nation be put on a ‘crisis’ footing which includes making a major commitment of resources for implementing the Report’s recommendations.”
The “crisis footing” was never established and major resources were not committed. It is impossible to determine what such a commitment might have done to improve race relations over the nearly one-half a century since the Kerner Commission presented its “call to action.” It is possible to assess the results from the lack of such a commitment.
Consider the following selected facts on the socio-economic conditions of African Americans.
At the national level:
- In 2013, the median wealth of white households was 13 times higher than the median wealth of black households. ($141,900 to $12,700)
- In 2011, the gap between the median household income of white households and black households was $27,415.
- In 2013, the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.4 percent and 6.7 percent for whites.
- In 2012, the home mortgage denial rate for applicants with strong credit was 40 percent for black candidates and just over 10 percent for white candidates.
- In 2012, with each 10 percent increase of non-white students in a school, school spending per pupil decreased by $75.
Drilling down to the more local level:
- Inner cities are especially problematic. For example, in 2010, the primarily black neighborhood of Englewood compared to Chicago as a whole as follows: per capita income: $11,993 vs. $27,148; households below poverty level: 42.2 percent vs. 18.7 percent, and unemployed 21.3 percent vs 11.1 percent.
- Between 2008 and 2012, in suburbs such as Ferguson, “within the nation’s largest 100 metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line more than doubled.”
- Based upon 2005 -2009 data, affluent blacks (those in households with incomes of`$75,000 or more) live in poorer neighborhoods more often than affluent whites – 13.9 percent vs. 8.9 percent.
These are dismal and highly disappointing statistics that highlight the current racial inequality. That’s not to say there has not been any progress for African Americans.
President Obama made that point, as it relates to police — minority relations, in a recent interview for BET where he stated, “If you talk to your parents, your grandparents, they’ll tell you things are better. The reason it’s important to understand that progress has been made is that it then gives us hope we can make even more progress.”
We agree with the President’s perspective. Some progress has been made.
But, one question is whether enough has been made. We believe not.
The answer lies in the tale of the tape. The numbers across the board on the measures set out in the Kerner Report could not be considering winning ones on any reasonable person’s scorecard.
The second and more important question is can we as a nation make more progress on race relations over the next decade or so. No one can answer that question definitively.
But it is difficult to project much progress given the present context which is characterized by government gridlock, political partisanship, mistrust of our major institutions, diminished citizen optimism, heightened individualism, increased inequality, and less overall concern for those in tough socio-economic circumstances.
Given these conditions, these will be extraordinarily tough times in which to effectuate change on race relations. President Obama told a group of young African American activists meeting with him in the Oval Office so in early December stating that change is “hard and incremental.”
We concur that change will not be easy or come in one fell swoop. On the other hand, we recognize that adequate forward progress will require an ambitious rather than a timid agenda.
That agenda must be a multi-pronged one of sufficient scope and reach to make a true difference for those African Americans living in distress. It needs to adhere to the three basic principles spelled out in the Kerner Report:
- To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems;
- To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance;
- To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society
Those were sound principles in 1968. They are even more valid in 2014.
As the nation has struggled with issues such as the deportation of immigrants and the “torturing” of terrorists, President Obama has proclaimed “this is not who we are as Americans.” The manner in which we address race relations now and in the future will prove who we are.
Time Magazine named “The Ebola Fighters” as its Person of the Year for 2014.
Those “fighters” included Americans who proved who we are and what we can be.
They were doctors, nurses, medical professionals and other volunteers who heard the call to action and demonstrated courage and a concern that transcended race, religion and region to combat a deadly disease. They set the example for winning the battle to improve race relations here in the United States.
We realize that Americans are not a unified group of the same mind or inclination on race relations. But, we are absolutely convinced that the majority of Americans want a democracy and society that is fair and promotes equal opportunity for all.
As long as that is the case, we will have citizens and leaders like the Ebola fighters with the resolve to work diligently and collaboratively to make things substantively and substantially better in terms of race relations.
We are not fool hardy enough to believe that victory will come overnight. But, it will come.
As we said in the closing chapter of our most recent book, “It may not be this year. It may take till the end of this decade – and possibly even longer. Eventually, it will be done because time is on the side of those with the patience, persistence and principles to work the pivot points to make America work again.”
The Kerner Report provides the principles for working the race relations pivot point. They should be embraced and used to construct a meaningful improvement agenda for the 21st century. Successful implementation of that agenda will move us one step closer to that “more perfect union” envisioned by our founders and further away from becoming the “two societies” described by the Kerner Commission.