The Hopkins 21st Century Cities Initiative partnered with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley) to host a conference titled “Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50” on Feb. 28 and March 1.
The Conference sought to engage attendees in reflections on ongoing racial inequality in the U.S. Speakers visited either the Hopkins site at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore or a site hosted by Berkeley in California and spoke via livestream.
President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Kerner Commission in 1967 in response to protests both peaceful and violent that broke out in Detroit and other cities across the country that summer. He charged the Commission with investigating the cause of the riots and suggesting solutions to prevent them from occurring again.
Just over 50 years ago, on February 29, 1968 the Commission released a report which famously warned that America was “moving towards two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” It attributed this disparity to a lack of economic opportunity in black urban neighborhoods resulting from white racism.
University President Ronald J. Daniels gave the opening remarks of the Conference. He said that it was important for the University to promote conversations about racial inequality given its position in Baltimore.
“We, along with many of our peers in higher education, need to continue to ask hard, unsettling questions of ourselves,” he said. “Contemporary statistics that map Baltimore’s treatment of the African American community continue to paint a damning picture when life expectancy in our city’s most affluent areas remains almost 15 years higher than in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
According to Daniels, the Baltimore Uprising in 2015 mirrored protests in the City from April 6 to 14 of 1968. On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers. He later died in police custody from a spinal injury after the officers ignored his repeated requests for medical attention.
Daniels said that it was important to promote these conversations so that in another 50 years, people will be able to reflect on the steps taken to build a more just society, rather than the current lack of progress.
That lack of progress in the 50 years since the Kerner report was addressed by the first panel of the Conference, titled “History, Origins, and Legacy of the Kerner Commission.”
This panel comprised: Senator Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Commission; Victor Palmieri, the deputy executive director of the Commission staff; and Jay Kriegel, who served as assistant to New York Mayor John Lindsay, the vice chairman of the Commission. John Koskinen, Lindsay’s former aide, moderated the discussion.
Harris, an Oklahoma senator at the time of the Commission, introduced a bill in the Senate to create the Commission. Ultimately, President Johnson created the Commission by executive order and appointed Harris as a member.
Fred Harris described the work of the Commission, which included exploring the black neighborhoods of 23 cities across the country and meeting with over 130 leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
He said that these meetings and their findings in cities led them to conclude that lack of economic opportunity in the highly segregated black neighborhoods contributed to racial inequality.
“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the negro — as we said in those days — can never forget is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it,” he said.
Frustrated by the current increase in unemployment due to automation and with what he called conservative political change, Harris said that progress has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed.
He said that while some improvement occurred during the Clinton and Obama administrations, the recent rise of President Donald Trump reflected a downward turn.
“Regression has been the trend since the mid-1970s,” he said. “There is still far too much excessive force by police, too often deadly force, especially against African Americans.”
Victor Palmieri said that the Commission, which comprised six Democrats and five Republicans, bridged partisan divides to produce a report that “shook the country.”
“We had people like Fred Harris and John Lindsay representing one side of the argument and on the other some very strong conservatives,” he said. “The commissioners as a whole are also heroes for the way they got together — if only that lesson could be learned in Congress.”
Harris said that he took heart in remembering that civil rights activists began during the Jim Crow era and faced “rigid segregation and harshest racism.” He added that recent polls show that “the majority of Americans” support measures to address racial inequality.
“The odds were overwhelmingly against them, but still they courageously resisted and persisted, and finally prevailed,” he said. “We can take heart from the fact that we live in a time of unprecedented growing and powerful people’s activism.”
Jay Kriegel elaborated on Lindsay’s leadership, saying that he and Harris struck a graceful balance because of their moral compass.
He said that a desire to save America’s cities united members of the Commission behind Lindsay and Harris.
“[Lindsay] had a deep, profound belief that cities were the center of civilization,” Kriegel said. “If we allowed our cities to fail, the country would not thrive. Dealing with the problem of race, dealing with the ghettos, dealing with an underclass was essential to saving and reviving the cities, and cities were essential to the future of the country.”
At another panel, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Dr. Lisa Cooper moderated a discussion regarding public health in cities, focusing on how it relates to black neighborhoods and other marginalized communities.
The panel featured Baltimore City Commissioner of Health Dr. Leana Wen, Center for Disease Control epidemiologist Robert Hahn and Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Berkeley School of Public Health Mahasin Mujahid.
Dr. Lisa Cooper said that the field of public health has grown significantly in the last 50 years and increased knowledge about health disparities and inequalities in cities. She said that while the Kerner report didn’t have a section to address public health, it touched on the same issues.
Robert Hahn said that public health is a “canary in the mines of society.”
“When a canary falls over, we have a sign that something is wrong in society. I see the trends in mortality and life expectancy as indicators of social problems that have not been addressed,” he said. “The remaining inequities that we see in health status are a consequence of remaining institutional racism that we have failed to get rid of.”
Mahasin Mujahid added that, at the time of its publication, many argued that the healthcare inequalities identified in the Kerner report were a result of people in black neighborhoods “behaving badly.”
She said that she has worked to gather empirical evidence showing the adverse effects of living in impoverished areas of cities.
“There was very little empirical work that was documenting... these environments. We know poverty is bad. That hasn’t been motivation in the past for us to do something about it,” she said. “Having limited access to healthy foods is associated with poor diet quality, higher levels of obesity.”
Leana Wen agreed that environmental factors can impact overall quality of life.
“How are children supposed to learn if they have abdominal pain from not eating? How are we supposed to have a workforce if there is untreated mental illness and drug addiction?” she said. “How can we talk about public safety without also addressing poverty and homelessness and other issues that tie to this?”
She said that in the wake of the Uprising in 2015, she focused on getting lifesaving medical care to people whose pharmacies had been looted or destroyed.
“I knew this one patient who said that by the time that she called, she couldn’t see and was nearly unconscious, and she could barely speak, and she said that she was out of her insulin and thought that the best way to keep herself from dying was to stop eating as well,” Wen said.
Junior Rachel Long attended several of the panels at the Conference. She said that she enjoyed a panel on Black Lives Matter and policing because it brought some black voices into the Conference. She said this contrasted with the panel featuring Fred Harris and the other affiliates of the Commission, all white men.
She added that she found the way Harris and his fellow panelists discussed the current presidential administration interesting.
“They kept having little jabs at [the Trump administration] and talking about how they’re not doing anything and they’re not doing their jobs,” she said. “It gave me hope that there are people out there having these discussions and doing this research and trying to make this change.”
She said the history made it important for Hopkins to promote conversations about racial inequality and that the Conference gave her hope in the midst of a divided climate.
“I was inspired by what they were talking about and how small-scale changes do make a difference,” she said. “It just reaffirmed for me: Don’t be discouraged in your ability to make change and to get involved with government.”