Group Finds Scant Progress Since '67 Riots
Twenty years after a landmark report warned that American society was becoming increasingly polarized along racial lines, progress towards racial harmony and equality has been stymied and in some cases reversed, according to a group of scholars who gathered on the report's 20th anniversary to appraise its impact.
The original report by the Kerner Commission, formally known as the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, called for dramatic new efforts to address poverty, unemployment, racism, and the problems of the cities. The commission was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 in the wake of riots that had devastated black neighborhoods in many of the nation's largest cities.
Despite progress in the first decade after the report's release, the 20 scholars who gathered last week at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisc., concluded that the nation's central cities are worse off now than they were then in several respects: unemployment, poverty, social disorganization, segregation, family disintegration, housing, and school deterioration.
These "quiet riots," the scholars said, "are not as alarming or noticeable to outsiders. But they are even more destructive of human life than the violent riots of 20 years ago."
In a brief report summarizingthree-day discussion, the scholars also noted that:
"Poverty is worse now than it was 20 years ago. More people are poor--both white and nonwhite. Those who are poor are poorer. Escape from poverty is harder."
"The Kerner Report is coming true: America is again becoming two societies, one black (and, today, we can add Hispanic), one white--separate and unequal."
"There is a large and growing urban underclass in America ... [that is] more economically isolated, more socially alienated, than ever before."
Public education is not offering a route out of poverty for the underclass, the scholars said.
Poor Students 'Trapped'
"A great many black students, and very rapidly growing numbers of Hispanic students, are trapped in schools where more than half of the students drop out, where the average achievement level of those who remain is so low that there is little serious precollegiate instruction, where precollegiate courses and counselors are much less available, and which only prepare students for the least competitive colleges," Gary Orfield, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said in the report.
The scholars attributed the worsening conditions to three primary factors: a series of economic shocks, including recessions, manufacturves and closings, and a reduction in real wages; a "determined effort" to cut education, housing, job training, and other social programs; and the Reagan Administration's hostility to affirmative action and vigorous enforcement of civil-rights laws.
The new report was written by the conference's co-chairman, Fred R. Harris, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and one of the original 11 members of the Kerner Commission.--ws