Racism haunts ex-se­na­tor

Nearly 50 years after study of causes of deadly ri­ots, for­mer law­maker says he re­mains hope­ful

The Expositor (Brantford) - - WORLD NEWS - RUS­SELL CON­TR­ERAS Washington Post,


COR­RALES, N.M. — Nearly 50 years after the Kerner Com­mis­sion stud­ied the causes of deadly ri­ots in Amer­ica’s cities, its last sur­viv­ing mem­ber says he re­mains haunted that its rec­om­men­da­tions on U.S. race re­la­tions and poverty were never adopted.

But for­mer U.S. se­na­tor Fred Har­ris of Ok­la­homa also said he’s hope­ful those ideas will be em­braced one day, and he’s en­cour­aged by Black Lives Mat­ter and other so­cial move­ments.

The 86-yearold Har­ris said he still feels strongly that poverty and struc­tural racism en­flame racial ten­sions, even as the U.S. be­comes more di­verse.

“To­day, there are more peo­ple in Amer­ica who are poor — both in num­bers and greater per­cent­age,” Har­ris said from his home in Cor­rales, N.M. “And poor peo­ple to­day are poorer than they were then. It’s harder to get out of poverty.”

The na­tion’s poverty rate was 14.2 per cent in 1967 com­pared to 14 per cent last year, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus.

And de­spite five decades of civil rights and vot­ing rights ad­vance­ments, cities and schools “have re­seg­re­gated,” Har­ris said. He cited re­cent fed­eral data that showed

Pthe num­ber of poor schools with mainly Latino and black stu­dents more than dou­bled from 2001 to 2014.

The re­sult­ing ten­sions some­times play out in clashes with po­lice, as seen re­cently in St. Louis, Bal­ti­more and Char­lotte, N.C.

Only by get­ting the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion con­cerned about racial dis­par­ity, poor hous­ing and proper job train­ing will the U.S. fi­nally tackle the un­der­ly­ing causes of the ur­ban ri­ots of the 1960s and the po­licemi­nor­ity ten­sions of to­day, Har­ris said.

“We can help peo­ple to see that we didn’t solve these prob­lems,” Har­ris said. “No, they are still with us, and in some ways, poverty is worse.”

Of the Kerner Com­mis­sion’s mem­bers, who in­cluded for­mer Illi­nois gov­er­norn Otto Kerner, for­mer New York mayor John Lind­sayand­form­erse­n­a­torEd­ward W. Brooke of Mas­sachusetts, only Har­ris re­mains.

Then-pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son cre­ated the 11-mem­ber com­mis­sion in 1967 as Detroit was en­gulfed in a rag­ing riot. Five days of vi­o­lence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 build­ings burned. More than 7,000 peo­ple were ar­rested.

Detroit wasn’t the first of the ri­ots in the sum­mer of 1967, nor the last. Buf­falo, New York, and Ne­wark, N.J., pre­ceded it. Dur­ing the sum­mer, more than 150 cases of civil un­rest erupted across the U.S. Los Angeles also had been the site of pre­vi­ous un­rest.

With other com­mis­sion mem­bers, Har­ris toured riot-torn cities and in­ter­viewed black and Latino res­i­dents and white po­lice of­fi­cers.

Har­ris and his col­leagues soon dis­cov­ered that as black res­i­dents from the South moved into ur­ban cen­tres, white res­i­dents moved out and so did high-pay­ing em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Over and over, we were told, ‘we want jobs, baby,’ ” Har­ris said.

The panel con­cluded that the na­tion should spend bil­lions re­vi­tal­iz­ing strug­gling cities, im­prov­ing po­lice re­la­tions and end­ing hous­ing and job dis­crim­i­na­tion.

But amid the Viet­nam War and anti-war protest, John­son re­fused to meet with the com­mis­sion. John­son con­cluded the re­port would “ruin” him and that com­mis­sion mem­bers didn’t give his “Great So­ci­ety” pro­grams enough credit, Har­ris said.

“That was false,” Har­ris said, ar­gu­ing that the re­port gave John­son credit for tack­ling poverty and wasn’t aimed at hurt­ing him. “But the pres­i­dent re­fused to even meet with us.”

None­the­less, the re­port, re­leased March 1, 1968, be­came a best­seller and a clas­sic study on poverty and racial in­equal­ity in the U.S.

Eric Tang, an African and African Di­as­pora Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas, said that be­fore the Kerner Com­mis­sion re­port, no gov­ern­ment doc­u­ment had ex­plic­itly iden­ti­fied in­sti­tu­tional, sys­temic racism as an un­der­ly­ing cause of black un­rest in the U.S.

“These is­sues haven’t gone away, be­cause many of the key rec­om­men­da­tions weren’t im­ple­mented,” Tang said. THURSDAY, OC­TO­BER 12, 2017

After Richard Nixon took of­fice as pres­i­dent, the fo­cus shifted to in­creased polic­ing in cities and con­fin­ing the poverty there, Tang said.

In re­cent years, high-pro­file po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed black and Latino men have sparked mul­ti­ple ur­ban racial con­flicts, protests and calls for po­lice re­forms. Ac­cord­ing to data gath­ered by the 165 of the 730 peo­ple shot by po­lice so far this year were black. Last year, 233 of the 963 peo­ple shot by law en­force­ment were black, the data showed.

Last year, then-San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick be­gan tak­ing a knee dur­ing the U.S. National An­them be­fore foot­ball games to protest the shoot­ing of black men by po­lice. Other NFL play­ers joined, prompt­ing U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to de­clare that any foot­ball player who con­tin­ued to do so should be fired.

Ron­nie Dunn, an Ur­ban Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Cleve­land State Univer­sity, said that since many of the is­sues re­main around racial in­equal­ity, the Kerner Com­mis­sion “could have well been writ­ten in 2017.”

“Un­til Amer­ica ac­tu­ally gets the po­lit­i­cal will to sus­tain its ef­forts to ad­dress the his­tory and the legacy and seg­re­ga­tion in the coun­try our democ­racy ... is not guar­an­teed to suc­ceed,” Dunn said. “We’re a more di­verse so­ci­ety now.”

Har­ris is work­ing on a book on the 50th an­niver­sary of the Kerner Com­mis­sion’s re­port, to be re­leased in March.

“I think if we can get peo­ple to see that these prob­lems are still with us,” Har­ris said, “that it’s in the in­ter­ests of all of us, to do some­thing about it.”


A Michi­gan State po­lice of­fi­cer searches a youth on Detroit’s 12th St. on July 24, 1967, where loot­ing was still in progress after the pre­vi­ous day’s ri­ot­ing. Fred Har­ris, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the Kerner Com­mis­sion, says he re­mains haunted that the panel’s rec­om­men­da­tions on U.S. race re­la­tion and poverty were never adopted.


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