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Follow up to infamous 1968 Kerner Commission finds same issues of race, poverty

In 1967, riots spread across the United States in over 100 cities. Caused by racial disharmony, anxieties over the Vietnam War, and increasing wealth inequality, the riots consumed much of the country.

The Kerner Commission found rampant inequality, characterized mostly by racial resentment and prejudice. The commission infamously concluded that the country was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

Now, fifty years later, a similar report is reviewing the findings of the Kerner Commission. Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report, co-edited by Fred Harris, the last living member of the Kerner Commission and Alan Curtis, CEO of the Milton Eisenhower Foundation.

It’d be pretty cool if I could write that Healing Our Divided Society found that we have made massive improvements as a country. Unfortunately that is very much not the case.

The report found that schools have become more segregated than the 80s and poverty threatens our basic democracy. The Washington Post reported on the findings:

“Court decisions that loosened oversight of previously de facto segregated schools resulted in a huge change: In 1988, almost half of all students of color went to majority-white schools. Today that number has plummeted to 20 percent. Poverty is such a problem, the study concluded, that if it is not mitigated, America’s very democracy is threatened.”

From The Post:

“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.”

Fred Harris, the only person on both commissions, told NPR about the frustrations over the lack of progress:

“I was 37 when I served on the (Kerner) Commission. Whoever thought that 50 years later, we’d still be talking about the same things? That’s kinda sad.”

As Vanessa Williams of The Washington Post noted, the results of the Kerner Commission saw improvement, only for the country to settle back into its old, bigoted habits.

“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.”

Harris told the Post about what we as a society need:

“We’ve got to redouble our efforts on a broad front, just like the Kerner report recommended all those years ago. 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.”

As for solutions, the report recommends basically the very opposite of our recent government policy:

“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.”

But there is some good news!

The Brookings Institution published a report on Tuesday titled The middle class is becoming race-plural, just like the rest of America, detailing the diversification of the American middle class.

As America becomes more diverse, naturally the middle class, which had been synonymous with “white people” for decades, will become more diverse:

“In 2017, for the first time, the majority of American children under 10 were black and/or brown. From a purely mathematical perspective, this implies that at some point in the not too distant future, the composition of the American middle class will begin to mirror that of American society as a whole.”

The report also pointed to the fact that many white Americans who were previously solidly in the middle class, have recently fallen out of that bracket with recession and widening income inequality:

“Second, in the context of greater economic inequality in the U.S., a recent recession, and a 2016 Presidential election outcome that highlighted the plight of low-income white Americans, there is a heightened general public awareness that some previously middle-class whites are no longer ‘middle class.'”

Black and brown people will naturally fill the gaps left behind, especially as demographics shift further towards minorities in America.

It’s incredibly discouraging to look at the Kerner Comission and compare the issues faced in 1968 to our modern American plight and realize things are largely the same. Despite the diversification of the middle class, America seems broken.

To solve, or help, the pervasive racial and poverty issues that infect our country, we’ll need progressive policies that spend government money on programs to help low-income Americans.

But at a time when we need revolutionary legislation to help our nation’s poor, the Trump administration wants to zag the opposite direction. This does not bode well.