After 50 years of progress and protest, America is still a land of unequal opportunity
Forty-eight years before the Black Lives Matter movement began, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, issued its final report. It shocked many (and irritated President Lyndon Johnson) when one of its main conclusions was that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that this was the underlying cause of the riots and rebellions that had occurred in urban areas. This separation was not based on voluntary actions by black Americans but was created, maintained, and condoned by white America.
From this conclusion and the need for national action, the commission made recommendations to move the US toward a more unified society where equality was more the norm. Given the commission’s conclusions and its recommendations, why is there a need today for the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice?
The answer to this question lies in part in the answer to two other questions that arise from the commission’s recommendations—what is “equal,” and did the recommendations (where adopted) move us toward the desired goal?
The commission’s recommendations were in employment, education, public welfare, and housing. In none of these areas have we seen equality, if by that we mean equal outcomes for white people and black people.
If instead we mean equal opportunity or equity, what does the government or the private sector need to do to make opportunity equal for two groups where many in one group start further behind or encounter more obstacles in trying to achieve success? Let’s look at where we are on a few of these issues 50 years after the report’s release.
Graphic via the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The commission acknowledged that African Americans were more likely to have arrest records for reasons of discrimination and recommended that this barrier not be held against applicants. Over the years, the likelihood of African Americans, especially men, having a record of engagement with the criminal justice system has increased, and in some ways, these encounters have had more negative consequences.
As a result, there have been efforts to encourage or prevent employers from taking criminal records into account through administrative or legislative measures to “ban the box” on applications where an applicant would indicate an arrest or conviction. This is designed to let applicants get past this first hurdle and prove themselves before a past criminal justice encounter precludes them from consideration.
But research on the impact of ban the box suggests that the issue is more complicated than it appears. Absent concrete evidence about criminal justice engagement, some employers might assume that the black applicant is more likely to have a criminal record than the white applicant and not call the black candidate in for an interview.
On a related employment issue, black people seeking employment may be less likely to have access to training or links to employers through family or community networks. In many communities, that lack of access can limit the places of employment that a person can access. In this case, equal access might mean building a network or connection for black job applicants that is not needed for their white counterparts.
The commission acknowledged that black children were less likely to have been provided the educational experience needed to succeed and achieve their potential. Moreover, it said special efforts were needed to overcome the effects of discrimination and past deprivation.
The commission set forth several recommendations, including the extension of high-quality early childhood education to every disadvantaged child. Head Start, the model preschool program for disadvantaged children, addresses this recommendation. But Head Start alone is not sufficient if children go on to inferior elementary and secondary schools.
Recent research also shows that Head Start might be too late to overcome early deprivation. Black children, especially boys, on average, are performing at lower levels than white children by age 2. This suggests that equity would mean more help at an earlier age to counter whatever it is in their environment that limits their advancement, whether it is fewer educational resources in the home or parents with long work hours who cannot be as engaged in developmental learning as other parents.
The commission’s report said the system of “public welfare is designed to save money instead of people and tragically ends up doing neither.” While we have modified and revamped the cash welfare program, currently Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), we have failed to make the system uplift people.
Rather than moving toward uniform national standards, the system has shifted more power back to states, with the result being a state-run system that seems to work against African Americans. Urban Institute research shows that states with higher shares of African American families tend to have more stringent and less generous TANF programs. This study examined broad policies but not what happens to individual families who try to use the system. So we don’t even know whether black families are treated in an equitable fashion by the welfare program where they live.
Understanding whether equal treatment exists is not just a matter of whether they are treated the same but whether all things being equal (including need, eligibility, and preference), people with comparable needs are treated the same. Consequently, things are not equal if a black woman showing up at the welfare office in her state is not treated in a comparable manner with the white woman in a similar situation who comes in, under whatever rules are in place.
Ensuring a focus on equity
Given the history of black people in the United States, “equal” should not mean the same if people are not entering the race with the same or similar chances. Or, as Lyndon Johnson said in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
To give people an equal chance to participate in the race, you have to make sure they have the equipment necessary to participate on an equal basis. Until that happens, movements like Black Lives Matter will continue to be relevant.
The Kerner Commission in session in Washington DC, 1967. Officially called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, it was created by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations for the future. Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images.