College Students Revisit Kerner Commission Report

In 1968, the Kerner Commission report on race and poverty declared that America had become two societies — one black and one white, separate and unequal. Forty years later, two groups of college students are re-examining the study. Tukufu Zuberi, who is co-leading the student efforts, is joined by former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, who served on the original Kerner Commission, to discuss current race relations in America.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

Coming up, The Wall turns 25. We'll talk with designer/architect Maya Lin about how the Vietnam Veterans Memorial went from reviled to beloved.

But first, we have a couple of stories this week about racial progress in this country or the lack thereof. We'll have a discussion about the result of a new poll commission by NPR in tomorrow's broadcast.

So we decided to start the discussion with a brief look back. The National Advisory Commission On Civil Disorders is the official name of what has become to be known as the Kerner Commission. Back in 1967, following riot in cities across the country, President Lyndon Johnson created a blue-ribbon panel to examine the causes and recommend solutions to the problems of race and poverty. The Kerner report came out in February 1968. It's best known for its conclusion that America was quote, "moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal," unquote.

Today, students from North Carolina A&T, and the University Of Pennsylvania are revisiting the communities examined by the Kerner Commission. Their report is expected out next February to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the original.

Joining us is Tukufu Zuberi, co-leader of the student researchers. He's chair of the Sociology Department at the University Of Pennsylvania and the director of its Center For Africana Studies. We're also joined by Fred Harris, an original member of the Kerner Commission. At the time, Fred Harris was a senator from Oklahoma. He's now the chair of the Eisenhower Foundation which continues the work of the Kerner Commission and is conducting hearings across the country that will lead to its own updated report. Gentlemen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FRED HARRIS (Chairman, Eisenhower Foundation): Sure.

Dr. TUKUFU ZUBERI (Department of Sociology, University Of Pennsylvania): It is my pleasure.

MARTIN: Senator, separate and unequal, those are powerful, powerful words. When the findings were released, how were they received?

MR. HARRIS: Well, President Johnson was not pleased with the report. He hadn't read it but somebody told him that the Commission report condoned violence and didn't have a good word to say about any of his efforts against racism and poverty - both of which things were untrue.

But other members of the administration and in the Senate, people like Senator Robert Kennedy received it very warmly. And not just because of the report, but generally, America made real progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for the next 10 years after the report. And then with the advent of the Reagan Administration, that progress slowed, then stopped, and in many ways we began to go backward.

MARTIN: I do want to ask about you though. Do you remember, at the time, when you were getting the findings of the investigators, do you remember being surprised?

MR. HARRIS: No. I had already been holding some hearings in regard to the intertwined problems of race and poverty in the country. And then continued on two different senate committees that were doing something of the same, but my experience on the Kerner Commission was to really deepen and furnish a good deal more details about the terrible conditions, which existed in the central cities all across the country.

MARTIN: So, Professor Zuberi, why did you want to take a new look at the Kerner Commission report? So many things have changed in 40 years time including the population of the country. You know, one in 10, people living in the U.S., foreign-born. As you know, the Latino population has risen dramatically in that time. So, why did you want to take another look?

Dr. ZUBERI: well, we thought that the legacy of the report was to raise a question about a persistent reality that America was a society that was racially divided, black and white. And those who were black were disproportionately represented by individuals who were left out, who were poor and who were on the bottom of society and were frustrated, and as the consequence of those frustrations had really struck out in violent social protest in years leading up to the Kerner Commission report.

And we thought that this was a good occasion to return to the same - not because the nation is divided between black and white, but that those divisions, while they exist, they don't exist in isolation of now the addition of a very significant Latino population. And that this changing dimension, while bringing a different demographic to the equation, has not happened in a situation where black disadvantage has disappeared - but in fact, has layered that disadvantage. In fact, it has layered a population which is as excluded and facing the great obstacles that America continues to present to some of its citizens. If you…

MARTIN: But also, I just - if I could just clarify, Professor Zuberi. Will the new report that you are working on with the students include the Latino experience? Also, is it going to focus on the black-white experience in the way the original report did?

Dr. ZUBERI: we have sent a group of journalist to give us some reportage on what's going on in those cities. You know, where there were riots that occasioned the Kerner Commission. They're returning to those cities to say what is different now, and what they will find is a different demographic. But what they will also find is the legacy of some of the racial exclusion and racial divisions which have plagued America since its beginning.

MARTIN: Senator, the same question to you. The Eisenhower Foundation is also preparing an updated report about the conditions in the cities that were originally visited. Do you anticipate addressing all the demographic changes that have taken place in 40 years time? How do you - how are you going to talk about that?

MR. HARRIS: Well, absolutely. And you have to include, for example, Hispanics today. What we already know - and we've commissioned a good many studies -there're more people who were poor today than was poor 40 years ago. Then, about 25 and a half million Americans were poor by Federal standards. Now, about 36 and a half million are poor - about 11 million more. Not only that, but poverty is more concentrated. For example, in Detroit, you've had a great decrease in overall population, about a third of the population of Detroit has moved out, leaving far more concentration of poverty and of African American. And for poor African Americans and poor Hispanics, poverty is triple of what it is for non-Hispanic White, and they're twice as likely to be living in deep poverty.

Furthermore, we know that re-segregation is happening again in all the cities the Kerner Commission studied; re-segregation in housing and in schools. And what we want to do is to show people two things. One, that it's not true that government can't do anything right and that we tried didn't work. What we tried did work, we just quit trying it over. We didn't try it hard enough. And secondly, that these problems are still with us. A lot of people think they were all solved. They weren't. And we hope that with that knowledge, there'll be a greater likelihood that we can get policy-makers to act again.

MARTIN: Senator Harris, you were saying that, one of - in re-reading the report, one of the things that stuck out for me - well, there are two things that stuck out for me. One was that at the time, many people, including people of high levels of the government, believed that they were outside agitators who are responsible for bringing unrest to the cities. The report demonstrated that that was not just the case, there were conditions there, there were local people involved in sort of local conflicts that have been simmering.

The second thing that the report talked about was just how inadequate the news media had been in covering these conflicts. It was as if there were stories happening right under these people's noses that they never covered and didn't understand.

Will the updated report also address questions like that? I think the outside agitator's questions probably not really on the tape, but what about that question about the way we talk about race and poverty in this country?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, and that's absolutely true that the media, generally, did not have very much representation from minority people. And, furthermore, President Johnson himself, I know, personally thought that the disorders back then were organized and that there were some conspiracy behind them that wasn't true.

As we've said in the report and as I tried to explain to President Johnson personally, hostilities were such, frustrations were such, the conditions were so terrible and most of the cities in the country that almost any random spark, as was true in Detroit and Newark, did ignite — those disorders.

MARTIN: Professor Zuberi, final thought to you, what - I know these students have already completed their initial round of interviews, is there something in their findings that is surprising to you in the way that the commission's original findings were surprising to so many of the people who heard them?

Dr. ZUBERI: Our emphasis is on the media and on how race is discussed in this country because we think that's one of the very important findings to come out of the report. And I agree with Senator Harris. I think he is quite correct in pointing out that there were some positive efforts that were initiated and then they were abandoned, and that there were problems that we could solve that are with us now.

And so what our preliminary investigations are showing us is that these problems are not only with us, but, as the senator has suggested, they are getting worst. And they demand that we give them immediate attention which focuses on solving the problems rather than blaming the victims for simply being poor or simply being victimized by the persistence of attitudes which are anti-people of color.

That is - we have a very anti-African-American and anti-Latino and Hispanic attitude in this country which, in turn, gets reflected in our attitude towards poor people. And so in a preliminary way, I think that what we're showing is that the problem of race persists and that there are obvious things that we could do to help solve those problems and that we need to get busy about that work.

MARTIN: Tukufu Zuberi is the chair of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Zuberi is leading a student research effort to update the Kerner Commission Report.

We were also joined by Fred Harris, an original member of the Kerner Commission. He teaches at the University of New Mexico and is chair of the Eisenhower Foundation, which is also preparing an updated report.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. ZUBERI: Thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: