We were once blunt about the origins of the American ghetto. A national panel of experts — two senators, a mayor and a governor among them — studied the country's segregated cities at the request of the president and concluded that pervasive white racism and official policy were to blame.
The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better remembered as the "Kerner Commission," published its findings in 1968 in a sweeping and brutally honest document: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto," it concluded. "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The Kerner Report has had a second life this spring. Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, re-emerged as the man who foresaw Baltimore. Then his warnings were cited by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a significant ruling last month upholding the power of the Fair Housing Act to ban housing policies that harm minorities. That law, Kennedy wrote, "must play an important part in avoiding the Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that '[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.'"
What's most striking about the Kerner Report today, though, is that it reads like a document that could never be written in 2015. At a time when a black president's much milder mentions of race routinely ignite outrage, it's hard to imagine a modern government commission acknowledging that white society created and condoned segregated ghettos that still remain with us today.
"No way that report gets written today," says civil-rights lawyer Craig Gurian in an e-mail. "There simply isn't the political will. That's true in respect to most structural issues of racial separation; it is especially true when it comes to giving an unblinking description of what it means for members of a minority group to remain concentrated within the only neighborhoods within which those groups were permitted to live in the decades following World War II."
As a sign of today's more fragile political will, President Obama himself has not publicly championed the historic rules — or the need for them — that his administration announced this week targeting segregation.
Another sign: Far from addressing the enduring consequences of past racism, we are only now getting around to tackling symbols of it, like the Confederate flag.
So how is it possible that we could have a more candid public debate about the role of race in shaping communities and restricting opportunity in 1968 than in 2015? To be fair, Lyndon Johnson, who commissioned the Kerner Report, then promptly ignored all of its findings. But the report also became, as the New York Times later put it, a "best seller," selling nearly 2 million copies.
Part of what has changed since then is no doubt that memory has receded. The practices and policies that created poor black neighborhoods — redlining, blockbusting, urban renewal, and federally subsidized white flight — were much more immediate in the 1960s. The problem isn't that those practices remain ubiquitous (although they have not entirely disappeared), but that their effects endure. And that is the thing worth remembering.
"I do think we have forgotten some of the history and the structures government put in place that really created these disparities," says Debby Goldberg, a special project director at the National Fair Housing Alliance.
Black family wealth is a fraction of white wealth in America today, a pattern that descends directly from the era when blacks could not obtain mortgages. Blacks remain heavily segregated, as Gurian suggests, in the same neighborhoods where they were segregated 50 years ago because housing policies made it incredibly hard to leave them.
Conversations about these places, though, seldom begin in the past.
"If you think about Baltimore – this is just what kills me about Ferguson and Baltimore – [people] start out the conversation about this black neighborhood, and nobody ever questions why it’s black, isolated and poor," says Christine Klepper, the executive director of a Chicago non-profit that tries to place low-income families in better neighborhoods. "It’s like they forget step one: It shouldn’t be there in the first place."
As memory of this past has faded, the notion that we've become a color-blind society has increasingly emerged in its place, seeded in part by court rulings that have rolled back affirmative-action policies, or protections of the Voting Rights Act.
"That may have seeped down into the consciousness of the people," suggests Alexander Polikoff, a civil-rights lawyer in Chicago who for years fought HUD over the segregation of public housing there. "'We’re past that race stuff, that’s why we had the Civil Rights movement, and look we have an African-American president.' Our consciousness has been subtly changed."
A second-order conviction has taken root: That, in a world of now-equal opportunity, hard work explains wealth, while laziness accounts for its absence. A Pew survey last year revealed that a third of Americans (and half of Republicans) believe the poor have become that way for lack of effort. If you believe this, then there's little room for the cumulative burdens — or advantages — of history to explain outcomes.
When effort is everything, then the compounding effects of intergenerational poverty (or wealth) don't matter. Where you live doesn't matter. Race doesn't matter. In fact, to suggest that it still does threatens the faith some people hold that everything they have, they earned.
If the Kerner Report couldn't be published today, at least there's this: Some people — including a Supreme Court justice — are still quoting it.