Racism haunts ex-senator
Nearly 50 years after study of causes of deadly riots, former lawmaker says he remains hopeful
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.