50 Years Later: The Kerner Report Remains Relevant in the Fight for Racial Wealth Equity
As an Emerson National Hunger Fellow at RESULTS, I’ve been researching federal housing policy and its impact on racial wealth inequality in the US. Part of this work involves studying the impact of policies and initiatives implemented in the past that either alleviated or worsened the racial wealth divide. To understand this better, I took some time to reflect on the 50th Anniversary of the Kerner Report, which came out in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement and a time when the country was wrestling with its legacy of racism.
This February marked the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, a seminal publication by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, at the request of then President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Kerner Report essentially shed a light on various forms of systemic discrimination that had been levied against African Americans in the US. An instant best seller, the report was written as a response to the wave of racial turmoil that swept through the country during the early 1960s. Over 1,800 people were injured, 83 people killed and $100 million in property value destroyed as a result of riots that erupted in major cities across the US. The Kerner Report ultimately found the riots to be the result of mounting frustration with systemic discrimination and police brutality in black communities. In the report, the Commission warned that the country was sinking into division becoming, “two societies—one black and one white–separate and unequal,” and called for an end to racial discrimination along with targeted investment in African American communities to mend the chasm.
Despite its widespread notoriety, neither President Johnson nor Congress took action on the proposals detailed in Kerner Report. Amidst criticism from both sides of the aisle regarding President Johnson’s handling of race relations and the Vietnam War coupled with several major events such as the assassination of Dr. King that gripped the nation’s attention, Johnson disbanded the Commission and did not move forward with the findings of the Kerner Report.
50 years after the Kerner Commission’s work, many of the racial inequities detailed in the report remain in the US today. Since 1980, the wealth divide between whites and blacks has dramatically increased such that in 2016 the median wealth of white families was 10 times higher than that of black families. As was the case in 1968 when the Kerner Report came out, a disproportionate share of black families today live in struggling communities, where their children often attend under resourced schools and are cut off from opportunities to achieve social mobility.
How did the disparities between black and white Americans come to be?
I recently learned more about this history at the 2018 National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) Conference. At the conference, scholar Richard Rothstein delivered a keynote address on his book The Color of Law, which details the history of how US federal policies brought about racial disparities between whites and blacks largely through residential or housing segregation. During the keynote, Rothstein described how the New Deal Era polices of the 1930s provided opportunities for many white Americans to build wealth and economic prosperity while largely barring African Americans from accessing those same opportunities.
Practices such as redlining and restricted covenants that were adopted by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and later the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) under the GI Bill systematically prevented African Americans from owning homes in the newly created suburbs, thus confining them to public housing projects in inner cities, cut off from the benefits and economic opportunities their white counterparts received. As more white Americans bought homes in the suburbs with help from the FHA and the VA, major cities became more segregated by race. Further, white Americans were able to leverage the equity on their homes and other benefits provided by the FHA and VA to build wealth, while black families and communities saw their wealth stagnate or decline as jobs and economic opportunity left the cities for white suburbs. According to Rothstein, the racial wealth disparities we see today between blacks and whites are, “almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the 20th century.”
While the recommendations of the Kerner Commission were never fully implemented, there is still a case to be made for federal government to play a larger role in addressing the rising rates of wealth inequality in the US today. As April marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, this moment calls for reflection on what impact the landmark civil rights law has made in curbing racial wealth disparities and what more needs to be done at the federal level to close the gap.
Given the current state of the racial wealth divide and its historical links to housing policies, RESULTS is exploring policies that expand pathways for homeownership and other wealth building activities for communities of color in the US.