Opinion: 50 years after Kerner, we’re still divided

“Hip” is out, “woke” is in.

“Black power” is out, “Black Lives Matter” is in.

“White flight” is out, “gentrification” is in.

Changes in our social and political conditions are revealed in our social and political vocabulary. Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released its final report, known as the Kerner Report, which famously declared our nation to be “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

As gloomy as that declaration sounded at the time, it sounds almost too optimistic or too pessimistic 50 years later, depending on your point of view.

The doubling of the black middle class since the mid-1960s and the election of an African-American president do not signal the arrival of utopia, but they are not insignificant matters either. Even as the Kerner Report — named for the commission’s chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner — was being written, Johnson-era civil rights reforms were opening doors of opportunity for a new black middle class.

For example, the percentage of students attending college who are black increased from 10 percent to 15 percent between 1976 and 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while the percentage of students attending college who are white fell from 84 to 60 percent.

Yet tragic gaps persist. Last year the number of black children living in poverty overtook the number of poor white children for the first time since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking the number in 1974, the Pew Research Center reported, even as white children outnumber black children in this country by 3-to-1.

Black men were more than five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

Black progress today must be assessed in light of President Donald Trump’s surprisingly successful appeal to mostly white working-class and middle-class anxieties in economically uncertain times.

But in some ways the Kerner Report not only failed to close the gap but actually widened the growing racial divide that it described, as the panel’s last surviving member, former Democratic Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, told my Chicago Tribune columnist colleague Mary Schmich. “My dad was a small farmer, third-grade education,” Harris said. “He loved me, but the way he heard the Kerner Report was, ‘Mr. Harris, out of the goodness of your heart you ought to pay more taxes to help poor black people rioting in Detroit.’ My dad’s attitude was: ‘To hell with that, I’m paying too much tax already and I’m not rioting.’ “

That attitude echoed throughout the “white backlash” that fueled Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s renegade populist campaign in the 1960s.

The Kerner Report’s emphasis on racism as the principal cause of urban unrest opened a new divide between those who saw the riots as a law enforcement issue and those who viewed it as a poverty and police brutality issue.

That divide also persists today, colorizing a variety of issues along lines of race, whether the racial issue is appropriate or not. Recall, for example, how the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, which victimized mostly nonwhite communities, was treated as a law enforcement issue and led to a mass incarceration crisis. By contrast, the more recent opioid crisis, which disproportionately plagues poor white communities, has been treated as a public health problem.

In fact, the heartbreak of drug abuse is both a public health and law enforcement problem that crosses racial lines. Fifty years after Kerner, we need to remember an old saying from the civil rights era: We came here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

Writes for Tribune Content Agency.

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