50 years after Kerner and King, racism still matters

50 years after Kerner and King, racism still matters
© Getty Images

“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.” — Kerner Commission Report, 1968

Fifty years ago today, the public assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rocked our nation. Eerily similar to the title of King’s final book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, his murder sent a powerful shock wave through the soul of America; urban rebellions sprang up in over 100 cities, placing the nation at a political and social crossroads.

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s recent report, “With respect to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, America has failed to deliver any progress for African-Americans over the last five decades. In these areas, their situation either has failed to improve relative to whites or has worsened. In 2017, the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African-Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.”


But it did not have to be this way.

Fifty years ago, as cities burned from people’s rage at King’s murder, the rest of America had already dismissed and forgotten the damning and prophetic report published only a month earlier by the presidential commission and chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. Officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission identified systemic racism and poverty as the causes of the major black rebellions in Newark and Detroit the previous summer.

The report predicted that America “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”

“This deepening racial division is not inevitable,” the report concluded.

However, despite commissioning the Kerner Report, President Lyndon Johnson quickly suppressed the report’s findings when it was published in 1968. Actions such as this caused King to call America “schizophrenic” as the nation attempted to hold onto the noble ideals of freedom and equality while refusing to let go of the privileges associated with racial identity.   

None of the solutions voiced by the Kerner Commission were applied. In fact, in many ways this nation has done the opposite of the report’s recommendations. “Whereas the Kerner Commission called for ‘massive and sustained’ investment in economic, employment and education initiatives, over the last 50 years America has pursued ‘massive and sustained’ incarceration framed as ‘law and order,’ while the ‘war on drugs’ has failed,” says a new book, “Healing Our Divided Society,” co-edited by former Sen. Fred Harris, the sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission.

In our recent Economic Inclusion Reports on Baltimore, Charlotte and St. Louis — three cities impacted by protests and revolts linked to police violence and misconduct — the NAACP noted “similarities between the past economic realities of African-Americans during Reconstruction and legalized racism and the current economic realities more than 150 years after the abolishment of slavery and promise of freedom.”

For example, the mid-2000 housing crisis caused by Wall Street excesses led to trillions of dollars in bailouts and the decimation of major portions of African-American wealth — wrapped up in their foreclosed homes. This recession removed huge swaths of intergenerational wealth, and many families have yet to recover.

Our reports further detailed the continued reality that African-Americans are “still living in highly segregated communities and school districts, comprising the lowest median household income, highest unemployment rate, highest poverty rate and ongoing barriers to the creation of small businesses.” In other words, “the promise of freedom remains averted by racial discrimination.”

As leader of the oldest and largest civil rights group, I recognize the temporal connection between America’s past and present identity and the pestilent wound caused by a continuing legacy of racism. The fact that this wound continues to fester is partly reflected in the often silent progressives who still cannot grasp the stark emotional reality of what partial freedom feels like to a full human being.

Today, many of the same neighborhoods bear the scars of physical and economic injuries. Even in Baltimore, the headquarters home of the NAACP, communities still reel from the 2015 police-custody death of Freddie Gray. Other police killings such as Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, or, most recently, Stephon Clark — shot 20 times in his backyard — remind us that many in our nation still do not see us as full citizens.

In his commencement address to Oberlin College in 1965, King said: “We must face the honest fact that we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved. ... The Negro is still at the bottom of the economic ladder. He finds himself perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Millions of Negroes are still housed in unendurable slums; millions of Negroes are still forced to attend totally inadequate and substandard schools.”

The failure of our government to take up the recommendations in Kerner has contributed to an unacceptable level of systemic and structural racism, which permeates our communities and underlines Black protest and rebellion.

As we remember King and Kerner, we will do so not in solemn reflection but instead with resolve and planning to make the social and political healing America has deferred become a reality. The progress for which the members of the NAACP fight rings in harmony with the Kerner Commission’s unapologetic condemnation of white America’s failure to make democracy real for all of us.

Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP, America's largest civil rights organization. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP.