The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years after the Kerner Commission, a new report cites some of the same concerns about race and poverty

An entire block of buildings on Detroit’s West Side was destroyed by fire on July 24, 1967, at the intersection of Linwood, right, and Pingree streets after rioters firebombed the gas station, right, and the fire spread to other buildings. (AP)

When dozens of urban areas across the country erupted in flames in the late 1960s, a commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson concluded that pervasive poverty and racism were major causes of the unrest.

Fifty years later, those twin conditions are again causing friction in American society, say the authors of a new report, who include the last living member of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The report calls for a commitment by political leaders to large-scale social spending at a time when the administration of President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress are preparing for drastic cuts to programs for low-income families and individuals.

“Healing our Divided Society,” a report to be released Tuesday by the Eisenhower Foundation, acknowledges strides in closing the economic, social and political gaps between racial groups in America. The African American and Hispanic middle classes have grown significantly, and the United States elected and reelected a black man as president.

But since the late 1960s, the percentage of American children living in poverty has increased, income inequality and the wealth gap have widened, and segregation has crept back into schools and neighborhoods.

“Racial and ethnic inequality is still with us. It’s a real problem and it is worsening,” said Fred Harris, a former senator and member of the panel that came to be known as the Kerner Commission, named for its chairman, Otto Kerner Jr., a Democrat who was then governor of Illinois.

“We’ve got to redouble our efforts on a broad front, just like the Kerner report recommended all those years ago,” Harris said, citing increased job training, funding for public schools and a livable wage for workers. “Organizing around those kinds of issues and the basic principle of equality and equality of opportunity can and must be done. What’s happening in the country is bad for all of us. Doing something about it is good for all of us.”

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has not reviewed the new report, but he rejected the notion of more government spending on the poor.

“Since the Kerner Commission, the United States has spent roughly $27 trillion dollars on aid to poor people,” he said. “Last year alone we spent $200 billion on cash, food and housing for low-income families with children.”

Instead of massive social spending, Rector argued for reducing legal and illegal immigration, which he said would free up jobs for low-skilled U.S. workers, school vouchers so that poor families can escape failing public schools, and work requirements for people who receive public benefits.

The Kerner report, released March 1, 1968, was praised by activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but was met with skepticism from some political leaders, including Johnson. Harris said Johnson believed that the riots were started purposely by radical African American activists. Johnson also didn’t think it gave him enough credit for his efforts to push for passage of civil rights legislation and his War on Poverty initiative.

Still, the report states that in the decade after the riots, the country saw marked improvements in the economic and social conditions in communities of color because of federal investments.

Alan Curtis, president and CEO of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, which has continued to study, fund and advocate efforts cited in the original Kerner report, said those programs worked, but he acknowledged that the current leadership in Washington is not inclined to agree.

Instead, he said, what is needed is a “new will” among the American public to demand that government leaders reinvest in spending for job training, public schools and anti-poverty programs.

The new report says that supply-side economics, including tax cuts such as those recently enacted, do not lead to trickle-down economic improvements for people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Instead, infrastructure spending to create jobs and programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit have helped lift families out of poverty. The report also calls for increases in the minimum wage, pay equity for women, and providing more work permits and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“We know what works. If we can organize, form coalitions to create new will, we can scale up to what we know works,” Curtis said.

The foundation is planning to host forums across the country to discuss the report and its recommendations. The first will be held Tuesday at George Washington University.