In February of 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission Report was released. The Kerner Commission was created in response to the 1967 urban Black rebellions in Detroit and Newark. The report famously stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”
Forty years later, I sat down in front of my laptop to examine the current presidential candidate’s plans to deal with the still prevailing black/white economic divide. In examining the four leading presidential candidates websites and the dozen or so issues each highlight, only once did I find an issue that incorporated the black/white racial divide. Ironically enough it was the post-racial presidential candidate Barack Obama who saw civil rights as a worthy enough topic for his website. Obama highlights the issue by mentioning income inequality, a rise in hate crimes, the suppression of minority voters, and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Obama recognizes that the racial divide still challenges this nation. The problem is that too many Americans naively see the mere fact of Obama’s candidacy as evidence of the resolution of the black/white race divide.
The Kerner Commission report recognized that the black/white race divide was largely an economic divide and proposed economic policies to meet this social problem. This policy prescription included: creating two million jobs, in both the public and private sector; fully subsidizing on-the-job training for the chronically unemployed; providing federal assistance to all schools that worked to end de facto segregation; offering federal funding for year-round compensatory education programs serving disadvantaged children; developing a uniform national welfare standard to bring everyone’s income up to the poverty line; and building six million new and renovated units of housing for low and moderate income families.
Though the Kerner report was widely discussed at the time of its release with over two million copies sold, the recommendations were at best ignored. As the African American Encyclopedia notes, Congress passed antiriot legislation rather than creating the kinds of social programs advocated in the Kerner Report.
Obama’s civil rights plan is much more modest than that of the Kerner Commission. Obama advocates strengthening civil rights enforcement, combating employment discrimination, ending racial profiling and deceptive voting practices, as well as some criminal justice reforms such as providing ex-offender support and eliminating sentence disparities. All of these are well and good but Obama’s plan fails to make the necessary investment that could economically lift African Americans, who currently earn about 57 cents on every dollar that white Americans earn, and only have about a fifteenth of the wealth of white America.
Today America still stands as a nation marked by segregated black and white societies that remain separate and unequal. A 2002 US Census Bureau report titled “Beyond Black and White” states that African Americans are still the most segregated racial group in the United States. It also highlights that whites have the strongest own-race preference when it comes to buying a home. The report further states that holding other factors constant, while Asian and Hispanic composition does not matter to Whites buying a home, black neighborhood composition does.
White Americans’ dislike of living in communities comprised of more than 10% African Americans causes a substantial decrease in demand for African Americans’ homes, which correspondingly causes an erosion in home value. At the same time, it artificially increases the demand and value of homes located in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods. With homeownership as the primary source of wealth for most Americans, the prejudice of white Americans serves to maintain the current racial wealth divide.
In 1968 there was an understanding that ending the black/white race divide was an important challenge to the nation as a whole and that it would require massive federal investment. Today, none of the presidential candidates advocate an economic development plan that will heal the nation’s centuries-old black/white divide, and only Barack Obama even highlights that the area of civil rights as one of current national priority. The report State of the Dream 2008, which I helped write, found that upper-income African-Americans are almost twice as likely as low income whites to have taken a subprime loan and that a third of black children are born into poverty. The candidates apparently don’t deem these issues as important enough to focus on during a presidential election. But they should.
This year holds much promise. Our country may well elect for the first time a woman or an African-American to the presidency. Either scenario would mark a major milestone. Yet there’s no such promise in bridging the continued racial divide. It would help all the presidential candidates and the nation as a whole to look back at the 40-year-old Kerner Commission report and see a plan that could truly bring forth the change we all could believe in.