In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the causes of the more than 150 urban riots sweeping cities throughout the nation. 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.” Volume 4, Issue 6 of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, edited by political scientist Susan Gooden (Virginia Commonwealth University) and economist Samuel Myers (University of Minnesota), revisits the Kerner report’s conclusions and recommendations on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. How far have we come? What worked and what didn’t? How does the Kerner report help us understand racial disparities in the twenty-first century?
Articles in the issue examine the extent to which the recommendations in the Kerner report contributed to policy changes and improvements in the social and economic well-being of urban residents. In their introduction,Gooden and Myers analyze changes in socioeconomic inequality between whites and blacks over the last five decades. They find that while the black poverty rate has declined and black educational attainment has increased, disparities still remain. Additionally, the income gap and disparities in unemployment between blacks and whites remain virtually unchanged. Rick Loessberg and John Koskinen similarly note the persistence of these disparities, but also show that some of the Kerner report’s recommendations were adopted at local levels and have provided the foundation for increased racial diversity in media, law enforcement reforms, and public housing desegregation.
Other contributors study the urban areas that were sites of the riots. Reynolds Farley shows that in Detroit, residential segregation has declined and interracial marriage has increased over the last fifty years. However, on key economic measures such as income and wealth, African Americans have fallen even further behind whites than they were in 1967 due to dramatic changes in Detroit’s labor market. In their study of wealth inequality in Los Angeles, Melany De La Cruz-Viesca and coauthors show that much of the wealth gap between blacks and whites is due to disparities in home ownership, a subject neglected in the Kerner report. Marcus Casey and Bradley Hardy study the evolution of African American neighborhoods since the Kerner report and find that neighborhoods directly affected by riots in the 1960s still remain among the most economically disadvantaged today.
The Kerner report endures as a classic touchstone in the nation’s search for a path toward equality. Together, the articles in this issue demonstrate the long-term influence of the report and show where further progress is needed to close the racial divide.