RACINE, WIS., FEB. 29 -- The warning was urgent and unambiguous: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."
Accompanying that pronouncement, issued March 1, 1968, by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, was a call to action, imbued with a grand sense of possibility. The racial chasm illustrated so graphically by the urban riots the previous summer could be bridged, the panel said, by a change in attitudes and the commitment "of the most powerful and richest nation on this earth."
Today, a group of experts on race and urban affairs, some of whom had worked on the Kerner Commission report, said that the problems the commission set out to erase two decades ago persist. While great strides have been made in some areas of race relations, the plight of poor, inner-city blacks, they concluded, is more dismal now than it was 20 years ago.
"The Kerner report warning is coming true," the group said in its update of the original report. "America is again becoming two separate societies . . . . "
Tearing the nation apart today, the new document said, are "quiet riots," in the form of unemployment, poverty, housing and school segregation and crime. "These quiet riots are not as noticeable to outsiders . . . but they are more destructive of human life than the violent riots of 20 years ago."
Much like their counterparts two decades ago, members of the group called for public job and housing programs and urged that affirmative action be enforced and the minimum wage be raised.
The panelists, organized by former Oklahoma senator Fred R. Harris (D), one of the Kerner Commission's 11 members, spent the weekend assessing the state of black America on the 20th anniversary of the landmark report. They pointed to gains, primarily the emergence of a black middle class, the election of black political leaders and the integration of police forces, newsrooms, corporate offices and other previously segregated workplaces.
But those improvements, they argued, have been overwhelmed by problems that have grown more intractable: the increasing concentration of poverty in an isolated, urban underclass from which it is increasingly difficult to escape.
Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened and difficulties previously associated with blacks now extend to many Hispanics, they said.
"We're disappointed now, 20 years after Kerner, because the country isn't as different as we thought it would be," said Roger W. Wilkins, assistant attorney general at the time of the commission report and now a professor at George Mason University.
"Even the most pessimistic observers of the social scene in the late 1960s," said University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, "probably did not foresee or anticipate the sharp increases in the rates of social dislocation and the massive breakdown of social institutions in ghetto areas."
Ironically, Wilson said, one of society's gains has created a new problem: the migration of middle-class blacks out of the inner city has left those areas without role models, economically and socially segregated and devoid of stabilizing influences, such as strong churches, schools and businesses.
The commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, got its name from its chairman, Illinois governor Otto Kerner. Its members included Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York; the late Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, and then-Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.).
The group operated in an atmosphere of national trauma, brought on by devastating riots in Detroit and other northern cities. It toured the burned-out, violence-torn communities and worked feverishly to produce a 400-page report months ahead of schedule, trying to head off what was feared would be another long, hot summer of riots.
The group assembled over the weekend met in a bucolic retreat on Lake Michigan, and there was more agreement than there was on the Kerner Commission. And this time, it was an intellectual exercise, less urgent and removed from crisis.
But for some who were here, the exercise was more sobering than their work on the presidential panel -- the sense of promise dulled by two decades of experience.
When the Kerner Commission report was released, columnist Joseph Kraft wrote: "The message it conveys charts the course for the next historic achievement in the American epic."
But the epic, charted in stacks of academic papers compiled for this conference, has unfolded with a menacing twist. While civil rights legislation and Great Society programs enabled middle- and working-class families to leave the inner cities, their departure, in combination with economic and other factors, has created urban ghettos far worse than those of the late 1960s, Wilson said.
Greg J. Duncan, program director at the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, presented evidence of another troubling development, an increase in the "persistence" of poverty, particularly among blacks. In the late 1960s, he said, about 35 percent of the urban poor were found to escape poverty the following year. But that figure is now about 25 percent, he said, an indication that the prospect of long-term poverty has increased.
In part, he said, this is a result of economic conditions, the loss of jobs available to unskilled workers, for example. But it is also due to a "deepening" of poverty. In 1970, half of those in poverty were very poor, or lived on incomes at three-quarters of the poverty line. By 1983, according to Duncan, 63 percent of the poor were living that deeply in poverty.
Such research, argued Donna Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, permits a much more sophisticated understanding of race and poverty than was possible 20 years ago.
"The problem of the Kerner Commission was that it was too focused on blacks," she said. "What we have now, it's not two worlds, one white and one black. It may be two or three worlds," including the long-term poor, the working poor and those who have escaped poverty. Minority groups and whites cross over each of those divisions, she said.
"To pretend that nothing has happened in 20 years is just dead wrong," Shalala said.
Her statement hinted at the academic debate that engaged the participants in the conference, most of them scholars who have studied the issue.
The document written by Harris and adopted by the participants recommends primarily federal action, greater spending for targeted social programs, economic development and tax reform to help the working poor.
"Most of what we tried has worked," said Harris. "We haven't tried hard enough."
One of the most controversial findings of the 1968 report was its conclusion that the exploding racial strife was the result not of a conspiracy, as many suspected, but of deeply imbedded racism.
While there was consensus here that racism still remains a critical national problem, there was less agreement over its importance.
"Racism is no longer the key issue," said Ronald Mincy, a visiting scholar at the Urban Istitute, citing the growth of the black middle class. "There is something more complex going on."
He urged that the issue be generalized beyond race, so that policy proposals be aimed at poverty and the underclass, regardless of race.
But University of Chicago professor Gary Orfield disagreed: "We can't just deal with the economic conditions. We must deal with the racial conditions in the inner cities."
The panelists, some of them carrying their dog-eared copies of the original report, were clearly proud of the work they had done 20 years ago. But the tone this weekend was not celebratory.
"There surely are a lot of people in this world who think we solved the problems in 1968," said Wilkins. "If we don't do anything here but tell people there's a lot more work to be done, we would have done something."
Official Name: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.
Background: Appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson July 27, 1967, to study urban unrest among blacks and the riots shaking American cities. Members addressed three basic questions: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?"
Conclusions: The March 1968 report identified "white racism" as the chief cause of the riots, concluding that the average American black confronted segregation, poor housing, low standards of pay and education, abuse from public officials and other forms of discrimination. Warning that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal," the commission wrote: "The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all . . . . "
Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner
New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay
Sen. Fred Harris (D-Okla.)
NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins
Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass.)
Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins
Rep. James C. Corman (D-Calif.)
Rep. William M. McCulloch (R-Ohio)
United Steelworkers President I.W. Abel
Litton Industries President Charles B. Thornton
Former Kentucky commerce commissioner Katherine G. Peden
SOURCE: Facts on File