Fifty years later, what the Kerner report tells us about race in Chicago today

Warren K. Leffler / United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division

President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Kerner Commission in 1967 to investigate the causes of “race riots” that were taking place in cities across the country.

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders

One would be forgiven for assuming this sentence was written in 2018 rather than in 1968, as part of what is generally known as the Kerner report.

Following the so-called 1967 “race riots” that began in Newark and Detroit and spread throughout the country, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the commission to understand the racial tensions that unfolded during that long, hot summer, as well as how those tensions might be resolved to prevent future unrest. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the report’s release.

Chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, the commission compiled and analyzed volumes of information on cities across the U.S. It found that race colored virtually every socioeconomic and quality of life measure available. Perhaps most importantly, however, the commission placed the responsibility for racial inequality squarely on “white society,” telling white Americans what black Americans already knew: “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Fifty years later, the findings from the Kerner report remain all too familiar. Compiling data on housing, employment, education, criminal justice, and health, the Institute of Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago issued a report recently that mapped out the conditions of the three largest racial and ethnic groups in Chicago today. A Tale of Three Cities: State of Racial Justice in Chicago Report found persistent, pervasive and consequential inequity on almost all key indicators.  Many of the racial dynamics in Chicago in 2018 are all too similar to those of 1968.

What has changed over the past half-century? As captured in the title, one major change is that there are now three Chicago’s, not just two. On average, white, African American and Latino Chicagoans live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, and have vastly different life experiences.

Looking at black-white inequity, segregation levels remain extremely high, and even affluent black households are as likely as poor ones to be segregated from white households. Black workers continue to be paid less than equally qualified whites, with the typical white family earning $81,702 per year compared to only $36,720 for the typical black family. And blacks experience qualitatively different relationships with key social institutions like the police department. Blacks are, for example, four times more likely than whites to be searched by police during a vehicular stop, even though whites are twice as likely to be in possession of illegal contraband.

Examining Latino-white inequity, the data show that approximately one-third of Latino households possess either zero or negative net worth compared to only 15 percent of white households. About half of all Latino workers do not earn a living wage, defined as at least $15 per hour, compared to only 15 percent of white workers. Nearly nine of every 10 Latino students in Chicago Public Schools attend schools where 75 percent or more of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. And in terms of healthcare coverage, Latinos have an uninsured rate that is twice the rate of whites.

Going beyond documenting inequities, the Kerner commission concluded its report with 73 pages of policy recommendations meant to close the opportunity gap, including massive job programs, investments in high-poverty areas, empowerment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prevent labor force discrimination, racial integration and equality of schooling, and expansion in the benefits and coverage of social security programs. In the years since, few of these recommendations have been implemented.

Some might argue that the lack of action is because the laws, practices, and policies that have harmed black and Latino families have benefited others. When we look at the accumulation of wealth through housing, for instance, the historic policies implemented by the federal government to facilitate a massive expansion in homeownership were a major facilitator of upward mobility – but only for white families. These inequitable policies and practices are not old news. Today, discriminatory mortgage and lending markets persist, with equally credit-worthy black and Latino homeowners, on average, paying more for mortgages. Those homes, still too often in segregated neighborhoods, appreciate at a slower rate compared to homes in white areas.

Last Spring the Metropolitan Planning Council published an important report, The Cost of Segregation, demonstrating clearly that we all lose when racial inequity is allowed to persist unabated. The Kerner Report tried to make this point 50 years ago. But it also demonstrated that some of us are suffering far more than others.

Perhaps anticipating that politicians would not be interested in genuine racial change, the Kerner commission ended its report with quotes from social scientist Kenneth Clark’s expert testimony. These words are as relevant today as they were in 1968:

“I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot…. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission – it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland – with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

So how might Chicagoans move ahead? A starting point begins with rekindling the spirit of the Kerner report, of facing head-on the problems that confront our city. Racial injustice in housing, education, health and other important areas are inextricably related and need to be remedied through a comprehensive and protracted strategy. Only a policy agenda that is well-funded and explicitly focused on racial equity has the potential to spark real change.

With the upcoming gubernatorial election, voters in Illinois have the opportunity to demand more from state leadership. Currently, none of the candidates on either side have offered a comprehensive plan for racial equity. As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner report, we should be reminded of the urgent need to address racial inequity and demand that public leaders do more.

The UIC Great Cities Institute is hosting a full week of events marking the 50th anniversary of the release of the Kerner report from Feb. 26 through March 2, 2018, including a panel discussion on Thursday, March 1, featuring keynote speaker Dr. Fred Harris, the last surviving original member of the Kerner Commission.