Well Along Toward Separate and Unequal Societies : 20 Years Later, Kerner Panel’s Warning Has Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

<i> Gary Orfield, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, was appointed to advise the courts in the 1970s school desegregation case in Los Angeles</i>

Twenty years ago the presidential commission studying the ghetto riots of the 1960s predicted that urban America would fragment into separate and unequal societies unless two basic goals were pursued with the greatest urgency--breaking the exclusion of blacks from opportunities outside the ghetto and upgrading the collapsing inner-city communities. Its voluminous examination of the causes of the riots showed strong trends toward racial fragmentation in metropolitan America. The warning from a commission of moderate national leaders shocked the country.

Even in the great economic boom of the 1960s the Kerner Commission warned that the problems of racial inequality and polarization were rapidly intensifying. National unemployment then was one-third its rate now, but many inner-city communities were in economic depression and social collapse.

The warnings were ignored. No major new federal efforts to attack poverty or segregation were launched after the report was published in the spring of 1968. Discussions of new initiatives on civil rights and urban poverty disappeared from politics. Surveys show these issues consistently near the bottom of white priorities. Whites think that discrimination problems have been solved and that any remaining inequalities show minority failure to take advantage of opportunities. A Business Week/Harris Poll survey this year shows, for example, that 70% of whites think that “blacks have the same opportunity to live a middle-class life as whites.”


Our presidential politics also polarized on racial grounds. Four of the five elections since the Kerner report have been won by the candidate receiving virtually no black votes. All four of those elections were won by candidates with roots in suburban Southern California, where there has been a particularly fervent desire to deny the changing nature of society and to insist that government be limited to a few basic functions like building freeways and managing zoning to keep low- and moderate-income people somewhere else.

At the national level during the past two decades, one party ran on platforms appealing to white fears while the other took the minority vote for granted and avoided racial issues. The last major presidential speech on the urban race question was in 1965.

Even as the issue disappeared from politics, the underlying economic conditions deteriorated sharply. Inner cities came out of each of a series of recessions in a relatively worse position as a growing number of the old employers failed and the new jobs located elsewhere. Many riot areas were never rebuilt, and the communities around them have been in steady decline. The shutdown of industrial facilities knocked out the first step of economic mobility traditionally available to central city youth with limited education.

Housing segregation for blacks in big cities now is only slightly better. Though many fewer areas exclude blacks, the ghetto system still determines housing patterns for poor and working-class blacks as well as a substantial section of the middle class.

An Urban Institute study of 64 metropolitan areas showed that almost two-thirds of blacks lived in low-income census tracts in 1980. The overall, small increase in residential integration was caused primarily by the movement of some blacks into higher income areas. Suburbanization of middle-class blacks increased, and there was a growing income gap between blacks in cities and suburbs.

Looking closely at the 15 cities that the Kerner Commission chose for concentrated analysis, housing segregation is virtually unchanged today. Ghetto isolation has become even more extreme in several. The largest cities, older Midwest cities and cities with relatively little recent residential growth are the most segregated. Half of the U.S. black population resides in just 25 metropolitan areas. The most segregated of those areas also had the greatest racial inequality in job status, wealth and level of education.


Among blacks the segregation score for families in the $50,000-and-over range “was just as high as the score for poverty-level families,” according to a University of Michigan study.

Studies in the 1980s have found strong evidence of continuing discrimination by sales and rental agents in housing markets and of lack of mortgage financing in black, Latino and rapidly changing areas. The history of segregation continues to restrict choices and successful integration in many respects, including the limited market knowledge and fears of resistance that minority families bring into their search for housing.

Segregation has very important consequences. Housing segregation produces segregated schools and segregated schools are worse on every outcome measured. Segregated minority areas experience disinvestment of businesses and jobs and do not receive a fair share of housing finance.

The cities studied by the Kerner Commission, which contained about one-fourth of the nation’s black students, all had predominantly minority school districts by 1980. Only three of the systems had more than 40% white students left then, and most were more than three-fourths non-white. By 1980 there were very few large city systems with white majorities left, and virtually all cities were continuing to experience ongoing declines in the numbers of white students--whether or not they had any desegregation plan.

The Supreme Court’s 1974 Detroit decision, Milliken vs. Bradley, blocked desegregation of city and suburban children in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas in spite of findings by the lower federal courts that the segregation was the result of constitutional violations and the courts’ conclusion that no real desegregation remedy was possible within the overwhelmingly black central city.

According to the statistics for the school year of 1984-85, metropolitan Detroit schools are now among the nation’s most segregated. The 9% white enrollment in the school attended by the typical black student compares to 60% or more in some Southern metropolitan areas that have had city-suburban busing plans since 1971. There has been no progress in school desegregation on a national level since the Supreme Court’s decision in the Detroit case.

California’s equivalent of the Detroit decision came when the state court that was supervising the school desegregation plan in Los Angeles received reports in 1978 indicating that city-suburban desegregation would be necessary for any substantial lasting integration. The California Constitution was rapidly amended to make such a plan virtually impossible, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the change. Even the small mandatory integration plan in the city was dismantled in 1981.

Recent studies of schools in the city and suburbs of metropolitan Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Milwaukee show fundamental differences between minority and white schools; they also show extremely high relationships between the percentage of students who are minority and the percentage who are poor. Race and class are so intertwined in these schools that it makes little sense to talk about them in isolation from one another.

The relationship between race and class and achievement scores is powerful. White schools are almost always middle-class schools, and they have dramatically higher achievement levels. These statistical relationships are extremely strong. There are also clear relationships between race and dropout levels, attendance levels, college-entrance test taking and many other aspects of schooling. Most of the few significant exceptions to this in the cities studied are the magnet schools, where the race-class linkage is often broken by screening out most low-income children. In spite of the fine work of many minority educators, black and Latino schools remain radically different from white schools in ways that are extremely important in preparing students for work and college.

The increasing isolation of inner-city minority families from new centers of job growth shows that the agenda of the Kerner Commission still needs to be addressed. Two decades have moved us well along toward the creation of separate and unequal societies. In his last book, Martin Luther King Jr. asked whether we were heading toward “chaos or community,” and reflected pessimistically about what he had learned about white resistance to change in urban society. If we want a workable urban society we must reopen a discussion that has been closed for a generation.