Detroit Fifty Years After the Kerner Report

October 3, 2018

In the summer of 1967, a confrontation between residents of Detroit, Michigan and local police escalated to a violent riot that resulted in the summoning of the National Guard and the eventual deaths of forty-three people. Two days after the incident, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the causes of the Detroit riots and more than 150 other urban riots that had occurred in cities throughout the nation that year. In 1968, the commission released its findings, widely known as the Kerner report, and warned that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” 

In a new paper for the RSF journal’s special fiftieth anniversary issue on the Kerner report, Reynolds Farley (University of Michigan) examines the extent to which racial inequalities in the Detroit metropolitan area have been ameliorated five decades after the publication of the report. As he notes, in the lead-up to the riots of 1967, “African Americans were targeted for abuse by the police, denied opportunities for education, and unable to compete fairly in the labor market because of discrimination. Underlying these racial inequities was the denial of opportunities in the housing market.”

At the time of the riots, the Detroit metropolitan area was highly segregated, with African Americans concentrated within the city and whites living mostly in the suburban ring. Farley shows that between 1970 and today, Detroit’s suburban areas have gradually opened to African Americans. The desegregation of the suburbs was a result of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited racial discrimination in the housing market, a decline in Detroit’s suburban white population, and an increase in liberal racial attitudes among whites. “The Kerner Commission report played some role in popularizing the norm that racial discrimination in the housing market is wrong and illegal,” Farley notes. Particularly since 1990, segregation in Detroit’s suburban ring has fallen significantly.

In addition to declining residential segregation, Farley also points out that over the last fifty years, interracial marriage has become more common and blacks are more represented in prestigious occupations in the Detroit area. “Although residential integration does not necessarily mean social integration, indications are that it is occurring,” he writes.

However, despite these gains, Farley shows that African Americans are in fact further behind whites today than they were in 1967 on a number of key economic measures—such as employment and earnings—primarily due to changes in the labor market and the failure of the educational system to provide the training needed for jobs in the new economy. “Whites in the Detroit area, as a group, were better off economically than blacks at the time of the Kerner report but blacks lost much more income and wealth than whites as industrial jobs disappeared,” he writes. At the time of the publication of the Kerner report, 92 percent of blacks were employed in blue-collar and manufacturing jobs. But as a result of the 1972 OPEC crisis and the weakening of Detroit’s auto industry, these jobs declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2016. During this time period, a number of safety net programs were also reduced, exacerbating hardship among both black and white Detroit residents. As a result of these changes, Farley notes, “The urban underclass has grown in metropolitan Detroit. In 1970, only 13,000 Detroit-area African Americans lived in census tracts of concentrated poverty; in 2016, 218,000 did.”

Read the full open-access article in the RSF journal.

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