- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008


Forty years ago today, the Kerner Commission famously warned that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” To survey the American landscape on this anniversary is to realize that this diagnosis, though imperfect, was more correct than many conservatives give it credit for; that the commission’s remedies, which centered upon massive government intervention on behalf of the economic interests of black Americans, were mostly failures where they were tried; and that, in fits and starts, progress in American race relations, including improvement in black Americans’ economic circumstances, has indeed occurred over these four decades despite this commission’s grim prognosis.

Nominally, the Kerner Commission delivered what became the post-Great Society consensus for much of the American left on the subject of the United States’ racial problems. But it was more than that. Created by President Lyndon B. Johnson and named for its head, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, the commission concluded that “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture that has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” It argued that white racism had deprived blacks of economic opportunity and thus created the conditions for the inner-city riots that would strike more than 250 other American cities by the end of 1968. In total, the riots caused nearly 300 deaths, 8,000 injuries and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage over four years. The losses were felt in the destruction of some of urban America’s leading black middle-class neighborhoods. Washington’s worst losses came just one month after the report’s issuance — upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Many conservatives get hung up on the question of whether white racism is the central driver of black economic insecurity, so they miss the commission’s lasting value. It was a major executive-branch acknowledgement that racism in America exists, and matters. The commission’s merits in this regard should not be discounted on account of other flaws. Its contribution here stands among great executive actions in service of equal protection and racial equality, the highlights of which include the Emancipation Proclamation, President Truman’s desegregation of the military and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The recommendations are another matter. The Kerner Commission called for massive government intervention to remedy black Americans’ economic ills without much attention for the design of these programs, the incentives they create and their consequences. Recommendations included the creation of 2 million jobs, 1 million in the government, the other million in the private sector, to “absorb the hard-core unemployed.” The commission called for vigorous new pursuit of forced school integration; greatly expanded welfare programs; new job training programs; the financing of more federal housing, and more. The authors, who included leading liberals such as New York Mayor John Lindsay as well as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Massachusetts Republican Sen. Edward Brooke, delivered what LBJ received as an implicit rebuke of his Great Society efforts. The Kerner standard became much of the American left’s: “It was the sense that African-Americans were so damaged that what they needed was not help making it into society, but a respite from society; in effect, they should be pensioned off,” as author Fred Siegel has aptly put it. Today, this is called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Time has exposed government programs to be often as much the problem as the solution. The experience with welfare reform in the 1990s is the most prominent such example. Abolishing or radically reforming programs intended to help the poor and working class, stripping these programs of their perverse incentives, often proves to be the best remedy of all.

In the decades since the Kerner Commission, economic data on black Americans shows progress — mixed progress, to be sure, but progress nonetheless. We say “mixed” because a bifurcation of black Americans into essentially two income groups has occurred. One is headed upward and is doing comparatively well. The other remains at the bottom.

It is worth noting at this point another influential Johnson administration document, the Moynihan Report. New York’s future Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan, (then at the Labor Department) was excoriated as racist for noting that the disintegration of the black family is a driver of many social ills. The late Moynihan’s work has been vindicated. Broken families are the best predictor of a range of social ills.

Interestingly, the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, which gives the country a “D” for progress in meeting the commission’s goals, notes that black poverty has dropped from 34 percent to 25 percent as it levels a mostly negative judgment — not counting the upward movement in the definition of poverty today over the poverty of 40 years ago.

There has not been nearly enough progress, certainly not as much as people of goodwill hoped for. But, this imperfect society has moved measurably away, albeit unevenly, from a history that indisputedly consisted of “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Today’s greatest danger is of three societies — one black, one white, one Hispanic — and it is these divisions which threaten our national unity in ways that those who understand the Kerner Commission appreciate.

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