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Alan Curtis and Fred Harris Segregation is alive and well in America's so-called land of opportunity — just ask black and Latino children

50 years after the landmark Kerner Commission report, the United States still has a long way to go.
Image: Farmville
Perhaps what is most frustrating about this integration crisis is how long it has been going on. Chris Maddaloni / CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images
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Senator Bernie Sanders thinks every American “who wants or needs" a job should be able to have one. In fact, his office says they are proposing a federal job guarantee plan that would enable all citizens to have a $15-an-hour job with health care. Sanders says the plan will help reduce racial inequality. On the other hand, some conservatives have boasted that black unemployment is at its lowest rate ever.

So who is right?

While the unemployment rate for African Americans is going down, it has remained almost twice that of whites over the last five decades years; and this does not include those who have given up on the prospect of employment, as is the case within impoverished communities. Further, one in four African Americans suffer in poverty as opposed to one in ten white Americans. Clearly, there remains a searing inequality in this so-called land of opportunity.

One in four African Americans suffer in poverty as opposed to one in ten white Americans. Clearly, there remains a searing inequality in this so-called land of opportunity.

But while proposals like Sanders’ are a good step, truly stamping out inequality will require a holistic approach that looks at all the different factors that contribute to the problem. Two of the biggest are housing and educational disparities. According to Stanford’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, less than half of black and Hispanic families live in owner-occupied housing as of 2014. For white families, that figure is 71 percent. The Center on Poverty and Inequality also reports that roughly one in six black households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, leaving them with fewer resources to devote to their children’s education, health care and other basic needs.

Perhaps what is most frustrating about this crisis is how long it has been going on. After protests in over 100 American cities in 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released a report noting that, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed the findings of the commission — known as the Kerner Commission, after its chairman, Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois. Shortly after, King was murdered.

Now 50 years later, it seems clear that America still has a long way to go — but at least we have built up much more evidence on what works. And on what doesn’t work.

The past few decades have seen an expansion of black and Latino political power, as well as an expanding middle class. Yet neo-Nazis have emerged in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, and new videos of police brutality surface seemingly every day. Zero tolerance policing against people of color has failed. Sentencing laws remain racially biased. About 200,000 people were incarcerated in 1968. In 2016, the prison industrial complex held about 1,400,000 — and they were disproportionately people of color. In many ways, mass incarceration has become our housing policy against the poor.

Image: White Women Protesting Desegregation
White housewives demonstrate against planned desegregation at William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans on December 2, 1960.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Overall child poverty and public school segregation have actually increased since the Kerner Commission. Deep poverty — which refers to people living at less than half the official poverty threshold — has increased. Income and wealth inequality has increased.

None of this has to be. But to move forward, we need to base our policy decisions on evidence, not ideology.

Supply-side economics has failed, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has chronicled. One good example of this is the way deregulation led to the Great Recession in 2007-2008. Who was most hurt by this? Minorities and the poor. By the same token, national supply side “welfare reform” in the 1990s, which was promoted as a way to decrease poverty, resulted in a 50 percent increase in extremely poor households with children from 1996 to 2011 and in 700,000 more children living in poverty.

What has been shown to work is job training linked to job placement and direct job creation. Examples of this are YouthBuild and Job Corps (an original Great Society initiative), which provided living wage jobs to high school drop-outs, former inmates and the unemployed.

When it comes to education policy, highly touted school voucher programs and charter schools have so far shown only limited results.

When it comes to education policy, highly touted school voucher programs and charter schools have so far shown only limited results. For example, the longest running American voucher experiment, in Milwaukee, has yielded minimal solid evidence of student gains. And as UCLA Professor Gary Orfield has documented, there is also substantial evidence that charter schools are even more segregated than traditional public schools.

School segregation is now — again — a huge problem in the U.S. and something that the Kerner Commission focused on. As a result, in the years following the commission, there was an increased investment in desegregation of both urban and poor rural public schools, with an emphasis on retaining talented public school teachers and improving the curriculums.

Sadly, this progress was reversed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which sharply reduced or eliminated investments in equitable funding for urban and poor rural schools and proclaimed supply side ideology without evidence to support it. Court decisions and executive branch policy also resulted in the re-segregation of schools. This trend will not be reversed without federal involvement; states with more poverty need more help. Connecticut, which has worked hard to lift up both its white students and students of color, provides a good model that should be replicated elsewhere.

Image: Children Reciting Pledge of Allegiance
Integrated third graders salute the flag at Benjamin Franklin School, on September 9, 1963. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Quality preschool access is also an important piece of this puzzle, as are community-based after school programs that can help identify at-risk students before they drop out completely.

But, again, there will be no end to school segregation if we do not also work on the problem of housing segregation. Residential segregation creates school segregation, by race and class. And such residential segregation is systemic. According to the Brookings Institute: “More than half of black or white residents in 70 of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas would need to move to a different census tract in order to integrate the metro.”

Thus, the federal government needs to comprehensively enforce, for essentially the first time, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The potential for such enforcement was at least maintained by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Urban Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, which preserved the rights of plaintiffs to challenge government or private-sector policies that have a discriminatory effect, without having to show evidence of intentional discrimination.

As with education, the federal government needs to take the lead here. Enforcing the Fair Housing Act and making sure that state and local governments actually pursue racial and economic integration will help poor whites as well as poor minorities. Low-income whites make up more than a third of the poor families that receive federal housing assistance. They also will benefit from broader access to housing in healthier communities and consequent access to better schools and improved job opportunities.

Enforcing the Fair Housing Act and making sure that state and local governments actually pursue racial and economic integration will help poor whites as well as poor minorities.

One excellent model is Montgomery County, Maryland, which requires developers to set aside units for low-income families. Through residential integration, disadvantaged students were able to access better schools and the math achievement gap between the lower income youth and their middle class peers was reduced by half between 2001 and 2007, based on a RAND Corporation evaluation. The Montgomery County findings have been reinforced by Harvard University research elsewhere. Children whose families received federal assistance to move to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college, attend better colleges and earn higher incomes than children whose families had not received the assistance.

After 50 years and little progress, we need a new national Kerner strategy. When the Reverend King was assassinated in 1968, his emerging vision was of a multiracial coalition for economic justice among the poor, the working class and the middle class. We need that coalition now, for minorities yes, but also for the approximately 18 million white Americans living in poverty, the millennials drowning in college loan debt and the formerly incarcerated unable to make a living wage.

As Robert F. Kennedy observed, quoting George Bernard Shaw, some people see things as they are and ask, “Why?” We must dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?” Rev. King asked why not. To honor his legacy and the legacies of so many who have fought for equality in America, it’s time we ask the same.

Alan Curtis is the president and chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation, the private-sector continuation of the 1968 Kerner Commission and the 1969 National Violence Commission. Fred Harris, a former senator from Oklahoma, is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico and the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission. The two are the co-authors of “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.”

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