Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Black/White Disparities: 50 Years After the Kerner Commission

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson in the summer of 1967 and issued its report in February 1968. US cities had been experiencing sporadic but severe riots for three years. The report became known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. of Illinois. I'm not seeing a place online where the full report is freely available online, which is a bit of a surprise to me, although the intro and first 70 pages or so are available here. For the tone, here is some of the introduction: 
"The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear, and bewilderment to the Nation. The worst came during a 2-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities. ...
"This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer's disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of  American life; they now threaten the future of every American. 
"This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. 
"To pursue our present course 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. This alternative will require a commitment to national action--compassionate, massive, and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth.
"From every American it will rcquire ncw attitudes, ncw understanding, and, above all, new will. The vital needs of the Nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted. 
"Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot--it will not--tolerate coercion and mob rule. 
"Violence and destruction must be ended--in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people. 
"Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood--but what the Negro 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."
From a modern standpoint, it's interesting to note that this report is being published in 1968, four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decade after that law did see some dramatic changes for African-Americans in employment, education, and voting. For details, see John J. Donohue III and James Heckman, "Continuous Versus Episodic Change: The Impact of Civil Rights Policy on the Economic Status of Blacks," Journal of Economic Literature  (December 1991, 29:4 , pp. 1603-1643). But much of that progress seemed to taper off by the mid-1970s.

Thus, the 50th anniversary of the Kerner commission offers a chance for reflection.  Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson offer a useful starting point in the short report, 50 years after the Kerner Commission: African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality, from the Economic Policy Institute (February 26, 2018). The report compares black and white America in 1968 and the present, along a number of dimensions.  (So that the table would be more readaable on the blog, I've trimmed off the last column, which shows changes between the two years.)

For example, blacks have made dramatic gains to near-equality with whites in high school graduation rates. But in terms of college attendance, the racial gap remains very large. 

Black unemployment rates continue to be consistently higher than white rates. The black/white gaps in terms of hourly pay, annual income, poverty rate, and annual wealth have closed a bit, after 50 years (!), but remain large.  The homeownership rate for blacks has barely budged in 50 years.

Life expectancy is close to equal for whites and blacks. Infant mortality has dropped substantially for both blacks and whites in the last 50 years, but remains more than twice as high for blacks. Incarceration rates have more than doubled forth both whites and blacks, and the ratio of the black/white incarceration rate has risen from 5:1 to 6:1 in the last 50 years. 
The authors of this Economic Policy Institute aren't arguing over causes and reasons--at least not here--just putting some facts out there. But I'll add a few words.

The patterns mentioned here are of course intertwined. The fact that whites have far higher college graduation rates affects wages, income, poverty rates, and wealth. Lower education and income are also correlated with infant mortality rates and crime.  Differences in education level between groups can take a long time to play out. Someone who didn't finish high school back around 1970 has probably just retired in the last few years. Someone who didn't go to college in the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s has been probably been working for decades in lower-paying jobs. When parents have less education, their children tend to have less education, too. And while racial discrimination in America doesn't operate with the same brute force as 50 years ago, it surely continues to play a role in patterns of housing, employment, and what society is willing to tolerate in terms of educational results.

The racial disparities in 2018 aren't happening in the same society as in 1968, or from the same causes, or against the same backdrop of urban rioting. But black/white racial disparities remain very large. Very large indeed.