Conference to examine race in the U.S. 50 years after the Kerner Report

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Eldridge Cleaver walking on campus in 1968

Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party, was invited by UC Berkeley students to give a lecture on campus in October 1968. (San Francisco Examiner photo archive at The Bancroft Library)

That’s the conclusion of the 1968 Kerner Report, a landmark set of recommendations for how to improve racial equality in the U.S. issued after violent police encounters with black Americans sparked uprisings in more than 100 cities across the country.

“To pursue our present course,” the report reads, “will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.”

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at UC Berkeley

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on the steps of Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley in 1967. King called the Kerner Report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” (Photo by Ron Riesterer)

Officially called the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the 462-page document was written by an 11-member commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the immediate causes of the 1967 race riots, as well as the racial segregation and discrimination that gave rise to them. It called for new housing, better jobs, healthcare and policing and most notably, to invest billions of dollars in housing programs to break up residential segregation. And it became a bestseller.

Fifty years later, UC Berkeley is returning to the issues raised in the report — and assessing progress made toward the goals it lay out, or the lack thereof — with a three-day conference, Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50.

Starting Tuesday, Feb. 27, a series of panels with dozens of scholars and experts from the campus and across the country will discuss the commission’s legacy and envision what a contemporary Kerner Report might look like. The event was organized by Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Johns Hopkins University.

free speech panel on stage

Chancellor Carol Christ (far left) and john powell (second to left), a professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies and director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at a free speech panel at UC Berkeley (UC Berkeley photo by Sara Yogi)

Chancellor Carol Christ will open the conference, followed by an introduction by the Haas Institute Director john powell. “The challenge of the country today is even more stark than it was in 1968,” says powell. “If we don’t address many of these issues, we will see a threat to the viability of our social fabric and our democracy… The Kerner Report sits at the heart of our most elemental questions of politics and policy. Only until we understand the underlying causes of our divisions and what remedies they require can we begin to move towards a fair and just society where all belong.”

Among the speakers are Shaun Donovan, who served as secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2009 to 2014 and Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, both scheduled to provide keynote addresses at the conference. Former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, the only surviving member of the Kerner Commission, will participate in the a panel on the history and legacy of the Kerner Commission. And Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, a book on government-instituted segregation nominated for a National Book Award last year, is set to moderate a panel on housing.

Ian Haney López

Ian Haney López is a professor of law at UC Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading thinkers on how racism has evolved in the U.S. since the civil rights era. (McGeorge School of Law photo via Flickr)

Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney López, who is moderating the panelAmerica from 1968 to 2018: What’s changed, what hasn’t? Racial justice and the politics of resentment,” says that even though racial dynamics have changed in some ways, “we remain a nation hobbled by that great moral challenge and that great structural challenge of racism.”

Nothing better symbolizes this, he says, than the election of Barack Obama as president, followed by the election of Donald Trump.

“In a sense, what you have is this gesture, this reaching out towards racial equality that much of the country has made,” says Haney López. “And over the same time, we have a developing and deepening politics of racial resentment that Donald Trump was able to command and harness.”

Few of the report’s recommendations have been enacted five decades after its release, Haney López says, because since 1968 — the “high-water mark of the country’s commitment to racial equality” during which real change seemed possible — there has been a “metastasizing politics of racial resentment” that amped up electoral politics of pandering to white racial fear.

The result, he says, is that for the last 50 years, the majority of whites “have been electing a set of politicians who are fundamentally beholden, not to the country as a whole, but to concentrated wealth, the special interests of corporate capital and dynastic family wealth.”

At the conference, Sandra Smith, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley, will speak on a panel about the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice reform. (Photo by Daniel Hoherd via Flickr)

Trump’s election, says Haney López, illustrates that for the majority of whites, voting their racial fears works against their own best interest by giving power to the wealthiest people in the nation. “Many whites have had the luxury of believing that anti-black racism has little effect on them,” he says. “But in fact, when the majority of whites vote their racial fears, they’re handing over the country to plutocrats.”

Other panels at the conference will discuss the Black Lives Matter movement and criminal justice reform, housing and neighborhoods, employment and transportation, health and race, and structural and state-sponsored forms of racism in the country.

Those interested in attending the event, to be held in the MLK Pauley Ballroom, can register online. Registration for individuals is $75 and Berkeley students get in for only $4.

To learn more about Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50 and for a list of speakers, visit http://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/kerner50.

Read more about the Kerner Report on the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society’s website.