Half-century Of US Civil Rights Gains Have Stalled Or Reversed, Report Finds

Assessment 50 years after Kerner Commission points to child pover­ty and school seg­re­ga­tion, along with embold­ened white suprema­cists

Civil rights gains of the past half-cen­tu­ry have stalled or in some areas gone into reverse, accord­ing to a report mark­ing the 50th anniver­sary of the land­mark Kerner Commission.

Child pover­ty has increased, schools have become reseg­re­gat­ed and white suprema­cists are becom­ing embold­ened and more vio­lent, the study says.

Don’t let any­body tell you that the prob­lem is Donald Trump,” the Rev William Barber, a promi­nent North Carolina pas­tor, told a con­fer­ence launch­ing the 469-page report in Washington on Tuesday. “Long before Trump mas­tered a mod­ern-day ver­sion of the con of the south­ern strat­e­gy, he had an audi­ence that had been cul­ti­vat­ed for 50 years.”

President Lyndon Johnson formed the orig­i­nal 11-mem­ber Kerner Commission as Detroit was engulfed in a race riot in 1967. The commission’s report con­clud­ed: “Our nation is mov­ing toward two soci­eties, one black, one white – sep­a­rate and unequal.”

Johnson’s major pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives, the “great soci­ety” and “war on pover­ty”, had a pos­i­tive impact, accord­ing to the new report, Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report. The African American achieve­ment gap in read­ing decreased by half dur­ing the ear­ly 1970s and ear­ly 1980s.

The report adds, how­ev­er, that with the elim­i­na­tion of major fed­er­al pro­grammes under Ronald Reagan dur­ing the 1980s, the achieve­ment gap in read­ing grew once again and is now 30% big­ger than it was 30 years ago.

Fred Harris, the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the Kerner Commission, told Tuesday’s con­fer­ence at George Washington University: “We made progress on vir­tu­al­ly every aspect of race and pover­ty for near­ly a decade after the Kerner report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and eth­nic dis­crim­i­na­tion is again wors­en­ing. We are reseg­re­gat­ing our cities and our schools, con­demn­ing mil­lions of kids to infe­ri­or edu­ca­tion and tak­ing away their real pos­si­bil­i­ty of get­ting out of pover­ty.”

Harris, a for­mer Democratic sen­a­tor from Oklahoma and co-edi­tor of the new report, added: “There are mil­lions more poor peo­ple today than there were then. There’s greater child pover­ty; poverty’s hard­er to get out of. More poor peo­ple are in deep pover­ty than was true 50 years ago and income inequal­i­ty is worse now and wors­en­ing.”

The report says the per­cent­age of American chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty increased from 15.6% in 1968 to 21% in 2017. The per­cent­age of peo­ple liv­ing in deep or extreme pover­ty – defined as less than half the pover­ty thresh­old – has also gone up since 1975.

After a dra­mat­ic improve­ment in racial inte­gra­tion in edu­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly in the south, court orders and hous­ing pat­terns have led to a reseg­re­ga­tion of pub­lic schools. In 1988, about 44% of black stu­dents went to major­i­ty white schools nation­al­ly; only 20% of black stu­dents do so today.

Three decades after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, black home­own­er­ship rose by almost 6%, but those gains were wiped out from 2000 to 2015, the report con­tin­ues. It blames the decline on the dis­pro­por­tion­ate effect that the sub­prime mort­gage lend­ing cri­sis had on African American fam­i­lies.

Mass incar­cer­a­tion has increased the prison pop­u­la­tion from about 200,000 at the time of the Kerner Commission to about 1.4 mil­lion today, it also notes. African American men are near­ly six times as like­ly to be incar­cer­at­ed as white men.

Catherine Lhamon, chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, told the audi­ence: “We have seen oth­er times since the Kerner Commission when pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tions and Congress test­ed our ideals. Speaking for myself, I think of the Reagan admin­is­tra­tion as the nadir for civ­il rights before now but what wor­ries me is this Trump admin­is­tra­tion is tak­ing a page from the Reagan play­book and con­sol­i­dat­ing it. That scares me, frankly, and that is what I think needs to dri­ve all of us for a mean­ing­ful call to action.

This admin­is­tra­tion works to desta­bi­lize the fed­er­al judi­cia­ry, appoint­ing judges who are affir­ma­tive­ly opposed to fed­er­al civ­il rights enforce­ment and to fed­er­al civ­il rights them­selves. This admin­is­tra­tion issues speech after speech and tweet after tweet chal­leng­ing equi­ty prin­ci­ples and announc­ing that the admin­is­tra­tion will not enforce them. This admin­is­tra­tion gen­er­ates dan­ger­ous pol­i­cy and reg­u­la­to­ry lim­i­ta­tions on our rights.”

In his address, broad­cast via video link, Barber high­light­ed the impor­tance of vot­er sup­pres­sion in states that can make all the dif­fer­ence in elec­tions. “We have less vot­ing rights today than we had on August 6, 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed,” said Barber, pres­i­dent of Repairers of the Breach, a reli­gious and social jus­tice not-for-prof­it group.

This, my friend, is the elec­tion hack­ing no one wants to talk about because it would force us to deal with sys­temic racism in America, and study after study shows us that the polit­i­cal land­scape would look very dif­fer­ent with­out vot­er sup­pres­sion.”
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