In 1963, James Baldwin warned the world that inattention to racial oppression in America would result in the nation’s destruction. In order to “end the racial nightmare,” bold steps would need to be taken and, in a now-classic Baldwin summation, the author predicted that, “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!”
The following year, civil unrest—usually instigated by police violence against or confrontations with Black people—sprouted across the nation, including in Harlem, Rochester, New York and Philadelphia. In 1965, Watts, a predominantly Black, low-income neighborhood in Los Angeles, erupted in now-legendary fashion. The “long hot summer” of 1967 saw over 150 incidents of violent unrest throughout the country, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to form the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Johnson charged the commission, chaired by then-Illinois governor Otto Kernner, with answering three basic questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
The commission’s report, released 50 years ago on February 29 and popularly known as the Kerner Commission Report, concluded that the unrest was a product of a wide range of racial and economic injustices ranging from inadequate schools and housing, to poverty-wage jobs and discriminatory treatment from police and the criminal justice system. In the words of the report, which was published as a paperback, “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
The authors of the report pointed out that the disorder did not erupt as the result of any single incident, but was the result of a pattern of antagonizing incidents over time that occurred within the context of already aggrieved and suffering communities.
The report’s prescription to prevent further unrest included large-scale investments in housing, education and employment—fairly obvious and common-sense prescriptions for communities in need of reconstruction. In fact, the United States had already showed that it was up to such a task just 20 years prior in the form of the Marshall Plan, which was employed to rebuild western Europe after WWII. In today’s dollars, the U.S. invested over $130 billion in aid to European countries from 1948 to 1951, which helped jump start a massive economic recovery.
But—presumably because it seemed too expensive and too politically unpalatable—Johnson ignored the commission’s warning that the country must “mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” and determined that nothing resembling a Marshall Plan would be tried at home.
Almost three decades later, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros issued a similar warning to then-president Bill Clinton. In a leaked confidential memo written in 1995, Cisneros pleaded with his boss to enact a coherent, large-scale investment in urban communities. “The cities are hurting badly,” he wrote, “and as a nation we’ll pay the consequences for many years; we are running out of time; there is always room in the budget for presidential priorities of reasonable size, and we do not have enough to stand on in the cities.” It was just three years after the explosive unrest in L.A. following the Rodney King verdict. Cisneros continued, “We can be caught flat-footed by the violent outbreaks which will stem from the anger in the cities.”
On the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, our feet are as flat as ever. Rather than heed the commission’s call for large, targeted investments to remedy the conditions that lead to unrest, we have made large, targeted investments in trying to control and punish the victims of those conditions. After the report was published and read by more than a million people, the U.S. swiftly embarked on an unprecedented and dramatic expansion of its prison system.
President Richard Nixon was the first to declare the “war on drugs,” but the big investments came during the Reagan and Clinton years. The drug war, mandatory minimum sentencing and a “tough on crime” litmus test for national and local politicians has delivered us the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the U.S. spends $182 billion a year on prisons, courts and policing. If we went back to pre-drug war incarceration levels, we’d have an extra $145 billion a year for an urban Marshall Plan.
The fact is that it has never been about the money. Our government always finds money for the things it truly values. With trillions of dollars already in cash reserves, corporate America just received a trillion dollars in tax cuts; meanwhile, the White House has just proposed a budget that boosts military spending, cuts federal safety nets like Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps by $1.8 trillion, and adds $7 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years.
Economists tell us that we are currently near “full employment,” but millions of those jobs do not provide a living wage. Contrary to popular belief, most people receiving welfare also work. Add to this the fact that the financial crisis of 2008 disproportionately wiped out Black and Latinx wealth (White wealth grew from 10 to 13 times that of Blacks and from 8 to 10 times that of Latinxs by the end of the recession), and it becomes clear that we are going in the wrong direction. Perhaps the most ominous sign of our future fate is the fact that, as of 2016, the poverty rate for Black and Latinx children—those who will carry the matches in the upcoming years—was 30 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
Within the context of this ongoing racialized economic crisis, the inner city remains a tinderbox. Countless incidents of police brutality and the murder of unarmed Black people captured on video coupled with the agonizing footage of fathers and mothers being torn from their families and deported to countries they hardly know, provide a constant stream of sparks that could light a full-fledged fire at any moment.
The fact that the Kerner Report could just as easily have been written today as it was 50 years ago confirms what protestors, rioters and those numbed into silence already know: poor Black and Brown people continue to be seen by mainstream America as unworthy of grace, care or basic dignity. Whether it was Detroit in 1967, Los Angeles in 1992, or Ferguson in 2015, the fundamental conditions remain unchanged. We already know the cost associated with maintaining the status quo because we’re living it. In the words of the report: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”
And so, we wait for the final fire.
Rev. Michael McBride is director of urban strategies and the Live Free campaign at PICO National Network, the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the United States. The nonpartisan organization works with 1,000 religious congregations in more than 200 cities and towns through its 45 local and state federations.
Dr. Antonio Cediel is campaign manager of urban ttrategies at PICO National Network.