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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

50 years later, the inequities remain

A 1968 report on the struggles of black Americans aptly describes the present.

National Guardsmen patrol a riot-torn street in Detroit

National Guardsmen patrol a riot-torn street in Detroit in July 1967. Riots across the country led to the Kerner Commission. Photo Credit: AP

Because 1968 was such an extraordinary and devastating year, 2018 will bring a lot of reminiscing and reflection.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. As American cities were torn apart by riots in the wake of King’s murder, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down on June 5. And at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in October, American sprinting medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute from the podium. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election that year. Richard Nixon won the White House in November.

It must have seemed at the time as if it were a year that was going to change everything. Fifty years later, it can seem it didn’t change anything.

And we need only look at a 50th anniversary that just passed with hardly any attention paid to understand why.

On March 1, 1968, the Kerner Commission, formally the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, released its findings on racial violence gripping the nation. Johnson created the commission, named after Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, in the wake of riots across the country in 1967. The unrest particularly devastated Detroit, where 33 black people and 10 whites were killed in the confrontations.

Johnson tasked the commission with three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What could be done to prevent it from happening again?

The committee worked hard, visiting cities across the United States, interviewing famous witnesses like King as well as young men on street corners. And then it issued a report, a bestseller that in retrospect people were much more willing to read than heed.

The problem, the Kerner Report concluded, was systemic racism that created terrible conditions in the black community: Wrenching poverty, horrible schools, no jobs and hostility from police and white society combined to create an endless, hopeless cycle. The solution, the report concluded, was a massive, concerted effort to provide black people with jobs, great schools and teachers, an end to racial segregation and better and more positive media coverage of their communities.

And there was, for a time, some improvement. Schools became less segregated, and employment and housing opened up more to minorities. But that advancement halted in the late 1970s and then, in many places and for many people, reversed.

A new study released this year to update the Kerner Commission’s work show that today, only 20 percent of black students go to majority-white schools. That number was 50 percent in 1988. The gaps between the races in income, student achievement, life expectancy and incarceration are huge. Study after study show black-seeming names on applications to rent homes or seek jobs often land those applications in the trash.

Black athletes, peacefully taking a knee to highlight injustice, are as vilified today as Tommie Smith and John Carlos were in 1968. The slogan #BlackLivesMatter is taken to be offensive, even as it is clear that to many Americans black lives don’t matter much at all.

The problems are what they were: Wrenching poverty, horrible segregated schools, no jobs and hostility from police and white society often combine to create an endless, hopeless cycle of black failure. There has been progress, ebbing and flowing and not nearly enough.

Race and inequality are once again the fundamental issue in our political divide. We can never escape it until we take the hard, expensive and loving steps necessary to fix it.

When will that be?

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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