- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In this presidential election year, the nation’s priorities are being examined by all of the candidates. Republicans and Democrats alike should re-examine the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 to see what this blueprint for restoration of urban communities recommended.

In 1967, some of the worst riots in our nation’s history erupted and lasted for eight days. Riots erupted in the inner cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Cincinnati, Newark and Milwaukee. Detroit and Newark were the worst hit with 43 persons killed in Detroit and 27 in Newark. With a nation desperately looking for answers, then-President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11365 on July 29, 1967 that created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Led by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, its daunting task was to find out the root causes of the civil disorders and to recommend solutions.

The Kerner Commission’s findings were bold and dire: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The bold conclusion that “white racism” was the root cause of these inequalities was a giant step at the time. It provoked a national discussion on race and poverty, and its final report sold some 2 million copies.

The commission called for bold reforms in improved educational opportunities, social services, housing, and economic development in the areas hardest hit by the riots. The commission also recommended breaking up the concentrated poverty in inner cities by dispersing the poor population to other areas in some of the 6 million housing units it recommended for low- and moderate-income families along with the 2 million public- and private-sector jobs as well as job training for the chronically unemployed. Year-round compensatory education for poor children, income supplements, a guaranteed minimum income for those unable to work and federal supplements to schools that worked to end de facto segregation rounded out the list.

This federal investment in the nation’s most vulnerable citizens was roundly debated at the time, and some even called it a “moral code” to live by if our society was to get rid of its racial problem. Despite the bold, pull-no-punches conclusions of the Kerner Report, not a lot changed for the poorest of the poor. Perhaps there was not enough political will. Fighting poverty with a broad structural approach was no more fashionable than now. Instead of the broad restructuring called for by the report, band-aid solutions were resorted to as new national priorities emerged.

If we fast forward to the present, a large black-white divide still exists, especially among the poor who are still locked into segregated housing with low-paying jobs or no jobs at all. This presidential campaign season is the best time ever to ask all the candidates how they will attempt to erase these staggering inequities. The poor need to hear more than “I feel your pain,” for in actuality this is untrue. Few can truly know what it is like for poor parents, who want the same for their children as others, to be unable to provide for their needs. Tax cuts for the wealthy take a long time to reach their pockets.

In the presidential race, John Edwards was the only candidate to run on a clear-cut plank that placed the elimination of poverty as the top priority. Sen. Barack Obama has called for addressing civil rights enforcement, hate crimes, employment discrimination, racial profiling, deceptive voting practices, crime recidivism and sentencing disparities.

Sen. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama have turned their attention to some of the priorities set by Mr. Edwards. To his credit, Mr. Edwards fought the good fight to restore to the nation’s consciousness the fact that the poor also have rights. At a time when the nation’s billionaires are increasing rapidly, there are no real solutions being offered to bring the so-called permanent underclass out of its misery. The divisions between the poor and non-poor are sharper now than in 1968 when the Kerner Commission issued its report.

Today’s civil disorders are rampant unemployment, crime, inferior housing and staggering problems in the inferior schools in which children are expected to learn. Poverty is as or perhaps more concentrated in inner cities than forty years ago.

Last year, the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation established a new Kerner Commission that travelled to six cities, including Detroit and Newark, to re-examine the status of race and poverty in those cities. Poverty reduction, according to Alan Curtis, president of the foundation, is a key priority. But how do you get America to do that?” Mr. Curtis asked. “We often hear it’s difficult to improve conditions because there is no political will. We’re going to spend a lot of time asking, okay, how do you change political will?” That is the issue we should address with the presidential contenders.

Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and author, served as a member of the District of Columbia Financial Control Board and interim president of Howard University.


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