By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, January 13, 1987
I want to express thanks to Bob Herbert of the Daily News. His fine column last week looking back at the findings of the Kerner commission report prodded me to go back, too, and see what this widely hailed study said nearly two decades ago about racism in America. The question, of course, is did we pay any attention to what it said in 1968 that we had to do, urgently, about the absence of fairness and opportunity for blacks in our society.
Several of our leaders, because of a number of recent racial incidents of high visibility, including the death of a black man in Howard Beach — have suddenly rediscovered that racism is still thriving in our midst. Some of these leaders have become born-again after years of either passively ignoring ghetto problems or actively playing to white fears, fostering polarization and contributing to black frustration and bitterness.
And some of the rediscoverers have even recommended the appointment of another Kerner-type commissioner, which, you’ll recall, was set up by President Lyndon Johnson in the aftermath of the racial riots in several American cities in the summer of 1967.
Maybe we do need another Kerner commission to try once again to galvanize the nation’s attention, but the first one was extremely thorough and told us pretty much all the hard truths in its 581-page report. And it’s very important, as we look at some of those truths and recommendations, that they were formulated not by radicals or extremists but by 11 people, led by Otto Kerner, then governor of Illinois, who could best be described as members of the country’s moderate establishment.
Here are some excerpts:
“This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
“This deepening racial division is not inevitable…Choice is still possible…[It] will require a commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this Earth.”
“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.”
We know now that the Kerner proposals — on education, jobs, housing, health care, opportunity mechanisms, attitude changes — were mostly ignored. This is why the report sounds so fresh, so much like 1986 rather than 1968.
For example, on jobs: “Even more important perhaps than [exceedingly high] unemployment is the related problem of the undesirable nature of many jobs open to Negroes. Negro workers are concentrated in the lowest-skilled and lowest-paying occupations. These jobs often involve substandard wages, great instability and uncertainty of tenure, extremely low status in the eyes of both employer and employee, little or no chance for meaningful advancement and unpleasant or exhausting duties.”
About high crime rates in racial ghettos: “Most of these crimes are committed by a small minority of the residents, and the principal victims are the residents themselves…Because most middle-class Americans live in [more crime-free] neighborhoods, they have little comprehension of the sense of insecurity that characterizes the ghetto resident.”
On health: “The residents of the racial ghetto are significantly less healthy than most other Americans. They suffer from higher mortality rates, higher incidence of major diseases and lower availability and utilization of medical services. They also experience higher admission rates to mental hospitals.”
The Kerner commission said that since our cities were the crucibles for attacking these problems, our mayors were critical to the process. New Yorkers can listen to what the report said about the “need for the personal qualities of strong democratic leadership” from “the urban mayor” and think about whether this city has had such leadership.
“It is in large part his [the mayor’s] role now to create a sense of commitment and concern for the problems of the ghetto community and to set the tone for the entire relationship between the institutions of city government and all the citizenry. Part of [his] task is to interpret the problems of the ghetto community to the citizenry at large and to generate channels of communications between Negro and white leadership outside of government…
“This is now the decisive role for the urban mayor. As leader and mediator, he must involve all those groups — employers, news media, unions, financial institutions and others — which only together can bridge the chasm now separating the racial ghetto from the community. His goal, in effect, must be to develop a new working concept of democracy within the city.”
Perhaps we should forget about setting up a new commission and just keep reprinting the old report.