Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50

Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50
Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore, MD
Wednesday, February 28, 2018, 12pm

Good afternoon. I’m Ron Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University.  It is a privilege and a pleasure to welcome you – those here in Baltimore, and those watching in Berkeley – to our conference on Race and Inequality in America: the Kerner Commission at 50.

I have to begin with thanks to Richard Rothstein, john a. powell and his entire team, and our many colleagues at Berkeley for their leadership in conceiving this conference and bringing it to fruition. We are so pleased to be invited to join them as co-sponsor of this important transcontinental dialogue.

That the dialogue spans the continent is significant. The enduring burden of entrenched inequities plagues our communities on both coasts, and those in between.

It is also significant that the conversation is taking place here, in Baltimore. This city and the name of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in 2015, have become shorthand in the media, symbols of the legacy of race in America and its wrenching toll on communities and individual lives.

Of course, for those who live and work in Baltimore, Freddie Gray and the entrenched challenges of racial and socioeconomic inequity that shaped his life and death in this city are not symbols. They are our history and our present.

In this context, it is also not lost on us that the release of the Kerner Commission Report pre-dated the riots that devastated Baltimore from April 6th through April 14th of 1968.

It was during that same week – April 12, 2015 – in which Freddie Gray was arrested by the Baltimore police – 47 years later.

And as we considered the meaning, the lessons, the imperatives of Freddy Gray’s death, the Kerner Commission’s clarion call to action – to address the police treatment of black Americans, to increase access to employment, to quality education, to fair and equal housing –  resonated loudly.

That call reverberated among the pews and through the aisles of the packed St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore one evening in June 2015.

There I stood alongside community partners and faith leaders from across the city to express our collective commitment to all of our cities’ residents and the future they deserved.  And while I acknowledged the urgency for all of Baltimore’s leaders to do more in meeting the needs of the city, I also was cognizant of the fact that our institution’s own record on race and equity was not without blemish and that we – along with many of our peers in higher education – needed to continue to ask hard, unsettling questions of ourselves so that we could imagine and do better.

That evening, I was able to announce an institution-wide economic inclusion and jobs creation program – HopkinsLocal and later BLocal – that had been in the works for some time, but of course, took on renewed urgency in the days and weeks after Freddie Gray died and unrest shook the city.  For we had heard a rising chorus from all quarters – church leaders, community organizers, educators, grandparents and their grandchildren – sounding the same call … jobs. We need jobs. We want jobs.

A chorus that was far too reminiscent of one that Senator Fred Harris, former Kerner commissioner, has often spoken of hearing 50 years ago from young black men in the neighborhoods devastated by the riots the commission studied.

A chorus that has not subsided or dulled in intensity.

For good reason.

Contemporary statistics that map Baltimore’s treatment of its African-American community continue to paint a damning picture when life expectancy in our city’s most affluent areas remains almost 15 years higher than in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods…when median household income in the neighborhood surrounding our own medical campus is 2/3rd less than the city average. And when USA Today just declared Baltimore the most violent city in America.

And so, once again, in our city and in cities across the country, we find ourselves asking the questions that fueled the urgent work of the Kerner Commission: What happened? Why did it happen? What can we do about it?

To those, I’d also add: Why have we not made more progress? Why do we find ourselves, 50 years on, repeating history in places from Staten Island to Ferguson?  How can we recommit to understanding the issues highlighted by the Kerner Commission and find the right instruments to affect lasting change?

These are tough questions. They implicate all of us – from policy makers to community advocates to academic institutions.

Though unfortunately, the report’s recommendations largely went unheeded, undermined by a lack of political will and a rapidly changing cultural environment in the years following its release, the Kerner Commission represented a turning point.

Indeed, in a long history of commissions that had hoped to address the issue of race in America, Kerner was notable for its invocation of social science insights and expertise.  Kerner harnessed and analyzed data that fundamentally shifted the narrative of the root causes of the violence. Data that refuted claims espoused by previous investigations that insisted that cultural or moral failings inherent in black communities were to blame for the lack of progress.

Data that dispelled the notion – long harbored even by President Johnson – that the outbreaks of violence in inner cities in 1967 were the product of coordinated conspiracy.

This is not to say that it was always smooth sailing for social scientists.  As you may have heard or read Princeton historian Julian Zelizer tell it, the 120 social scientists associated with the commission were fired soon after delivering a first draft of the report. The dismissals ostensibly occurred for budget reasons, but perhaps more so because their data urged the nation to identify white racism as the sine qua non of the enduring challenges faced by blacks in America.

Nor am I suggesting that data is somehow immaculate and inherently “right.”

We know all too well that evidence can be collected, framed, and interpreted in ways that are deeply biased and discriminatory.

Yet therein lay the true boldness of the Kerner report – thanks in no small part to Senator Fred Harris and his colleagues. By insisting that policy be informed by rigorous empiricism, the Commission was able to challenge hidden biases and assumptions that had shaped previous thinking. And in doing so, it refused to allow the nation to shirk from confronting the hardest truths of our history.

All of which brings us to this moment.  It is no accident that today’s conference is being co-hosted by two of the nation’s leading universities, places where data, research, and evidence matter.

Places where we act as conveners of difficult conversations around contentious issues through endeavors like the Haas Institute and our 21st Century Cities Initiative.

Places where our researchers and scholars are determined to unearth evidence, but even more so transform it into workable interventions that impact individual lives and our society as a whole.

This is both our professional and our moral obligation. It is reflected in the work of our researchers and scholars.  Leaders like Lisa Cooper, whose research in hypertension and heart disease has illuminated the underlying causes of health disparities in disadvantaged populations, particularly African-Americans. In doing so, she has helped define our understanding the impact of public health inequities in ways the Kerner Commission only began to anticipate. As important, she has implemented interventions that have measurably improved health outcomes for African-Americans through partnerships with other public experts, a commitment she shares with Baltimore Health commissioner Leana Wen, who will join Lisa on stage tomorrow.

This ethos also drives our efforts across our institution to find new ways to move the needle on these issues as we seek to sustain our neighbors and neighborhoods, through economic development, educational initiatives that create school-to-job pipelines, and job creation.

Once again, as the Kerner Commission made plain, we have choices to make. And we know well the tragic consequences of abdicating our responsibility. Once again, we must challenge ourselves in dialogues like this, in our research, and in the work we do with our communities to ask the tough questions and hold ourselves accountable.

We seek to do all this so that we may answer on the 100th Anniversary of the Kerner Commission that we have done all we can to build a better, more just, more equitable society.

With this, I am delighted to cede the stage to our first panel.

We are truly fortunate to have with us today former member of the Kerner Commission, Senator Fred Harris, and Jay Kriegel, who was then staff to Commissioner and New York Mayor John Lindsay. In them, we have onstage the embodiment of the vision and eloquence that have made the Kerner report an enduring touchstone in our national narrative.  We are also truly fortunate to have with us Governor Kerner’s daughter and members of her family.

Thanks to Senator Harris, Jay Kriegel, and all our panelists for joining us and to all of you for helping us ask these timely and essential questions and continue to seek answers together.

Thank you.