This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, the famous study of racial inequality commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of the unrest that shook the country in the mid-1960s. To commemorate this milestone, Fred Harris — the only surviving member of the commission — and Alan Curtis of the Eisenhower Foundation have co-authored an update to the report titled “Healing Our Divided Society,” which was released earlier this month. As a progress report, it makes for depressing reading.
Harris was one of 11 congressmen, businesspeople, and community leaders to accept the White House’s invitation to study the uprisings that were sweeping through black neighborhoods nationwide — over the course of 1967, more than 150 in total. Plainfield, New Jersey. Minneapolis. Milwaukee: As the list of cities grew, so did the casualties. Sixty-nine people were killed in Detroit and Newark alone.
With a national election looming, President Johnson scrambled to project confidence and control over a disintegrating situation. But the Vietnam War, which was proving expensive in lives and funding, had depleted much of his political capital. In this environment, Congress would never indulge him with another grand gesture like the Civil Rights Act he’d signed just three summers earlier. So the president settled for a small, bipartisan commission instead. He would charge them with investigating three simple questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?
Johnson hoped he already knew the answers. Conventional wisdom in Establishment quarters like his held that the lethal riots were a product of the Negro’s inferior moral and cultural values, outside agitators, and perhaps a far-reaching conspiracy to destabilize the nation. In the president’s ideal scenario, the report would show that he was well on his way to solving the problem by praising his Great Society programs — a potentially helpful boost for the 1968 presidential race. A report affirming these conclusions would cause few waves while casting the White House in a proactive and positive light. To ensure just that, the president staffed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — better known as the Kerner Commission — with nine white and two black moderates and loyalists. Then, he sent them on a meagerly funded mission to paper over the status quo.
But Harris — then a young Democratic senator from Oklahoma — and his peers had other plans. Following months of hearings and earnest visits to black neighborhoods, the commission reached a surprisingly strongly worded conclusion:
Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white—separate and unequal. 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 the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.
To address the grievances identified by the oppressed citizens, the commission recommended massive government intervention to reform employment, housing, education, and welfare policies on a national scale. In a radical turn for the time, the report also explicitly named white power structure, white racism, and white repression as fundamental causes of the segregation and poverty inflicted on black Americans. And the White House had indirectly validated this indictment.
Johnson was livid. To reprimand the Kerner Commission, the president refused to sign cards thanking them for their service or to even publicly acknowledge the report. But the commission had anticipated an icy reception. So that the report would not be buried, it had distributed drafts to media outlets and had scheduled to release its findings in paperback form. This foresight would be rewarded: The book became an instant best seller that was reprinted more than 20 times, and its popularity primed the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Unfortunately, the momentum halted there. Seizing on white America’s hesitancy for too much progress too fast, conservative figures quickly moved to reassign blame to blacks for the riots. Structural change was out; law-and-order was in. Though America escaped the rabidly racist politics of George Wallace, this reactionary trend would ultimately prevail through Richard Nixon, and later Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The Kerner Commission’s recommendations were left to collect dust.
Fifty years later, the picture is bleak. The initial reception of the report would have made it difficult for Fred Harris to imagine just how little difference half a century would make for black Americans. To be sure, some gains have been made. Black Americans are more educated than ever before. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, in 1968 fewer than 55 percent of young black Americans had a high-school diploma while only 9 percent had graduated from college. Today, those numbers hover at 92 percent and almost 23 percent respectively.
Representation, for black Americans and other minorities, has also improved. My grandparents would have laughed if I told them then that, 50 years later, a superhero blockbuster featuring an almost all-black cast would become one of the most successful movies of all time. And this, just a couple of years after a two-term black president and First Lady? They would have wheeled me to the nearest hospital. Though it is easy to dismiss these representational victories as merely symbolic, they nonetheless signal a modicum of progress in our national attitude toward race (yes, I believe this, even as we endure a Trump administration).
But in too many other respects, conditions for black Americans have remained the same or worsened. We remain unemployed at about twice the rate of white Americans and severely lag behind in homeownership rates. The updated Kerner report partially attributes this to the impact of the financial crisis wiping wealth from black households. But of course, the gap was also a product of redlining and other long-standing discriminatory policies in the housing sector. Despite our gains in high school and post-secondary education, decades of whittling down school-desegregation decisions paired with a bipartisan push for charter schools have reversed the improvements we saw in the 1980s. The rate of our wage growth and household income significantly trails the wages of white Americans. Meanwhile, black infants are now 2.3 times more likely to die than white infants, up 0.4 points since 1968. Decades of discriminatory policing have almost tripled our incarceration rates, making us 6.4 times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. As Harris told NPR, “Whoever thought that 50 years later, we’d still be talking about the same things?”
The answer may lie in how we talk about these things.
Framing our politics — the mincing of who gets what, when, and how— in terms of equal opportunity is as American as apple pie. Our presidents — Republican and Democrat — do it. Our judges do it. Our civil-rights champions do it. And, often without batting an eye, we do it.
The problem is, striving for equality only with respect to opportunity is myopic. This approach focuses on fairness of process, while ignoring inequality in outcomes. It reflects the very meritocratic mentality that has helped sustain wide gaps between black Americans and white Americans, between the genders, between classes, and between broader demographic categories. Envisioning our future through an egalitarian lens would require us to seriously reconsider political ideologies that embrace equal outcomes. More broadly, it would compel us to prioritize the well-being of the collective over that of the few, even if this came at the expense of the few.
Opportunity is commonly explained as a bottleneck. The bottle contains the things we are trying to access. The form and value of these things can vary greatly, but tend to reflect what we’ve democratically determined to be fundamental to our ability to function as individuals. A bottle based on the Kerner report might, for example, contain a public and affordable education, well-paying jobs, safe and sanitary housing, generous welfare benefits, fair policing, and a right to participate in the democratic process.
Creating equal opportunities relies on regulating passage through the bottleneck. This may mean tweaking the size of the bottleneck or the number of things in the bottle, adjusting the number of tries one gets to come through, or encouraging more people to try to get through the bottleneck. Less abstractly, these equal opportunities often take the form of rules against discrimination and segregation, hiring quotas, school and housing vouchers, subsidized student loans and mortgages, health-care market exchanges, and increased funding for particular programs, among other things.
In practice, though, the equal in equal opportunity errs toward decorative. As long as everyone has a chance to get through the bottleneck — however unrealistic, or offset by dramatic disadvantages, the chance — then the process is just. And if the process is just, then proponents of equal-opportunity measures tell us that having winners and losers is also just.
Only in rare instances does equal opportunity aggressively compensate for bad luck and poor personal choices. And when it does, it almost never goes as far as expanding the equal outcome universally, even when society as a whole would benefit. Take, for example, current Department of Education rules: A student loan borrower who becomes totally and permanently disabled can get a discharge of her government-backed student loans, i.e., she can have them forgiven. This is true whether the disability is a result of bad luck (say, a genetic fluke) or a poor personal choice (perhaps attempting an ill-advised motorcycle stunt without riding experience or a helmet). In this scenario, the public recognizes that a total and permanent disability affects the ability to earn wages. We also recognize that disabled individuals would be better able to function, and benefit from their education, without the burden of debt. Thus, we give them a particular and equal outcome: the right to their education without crushing loans to repay.
As the plight of the deeply indebted millennial generation shows, it would be a net positive for our society if all of us could be educated without crushing debt. To expand the outcome that we already offer the unlucky person and the poor choice-maker in our example is a political choice. But instead, we make peace with the inequality that results from our narrow conception of equality. We can go on pretending that the graduate who drains her next 20 years of wages on high-interest student loans — at the cost of acquiring other things in the bottle — has been given an equal opportunity. Or that we, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, could never afford to redefine equal opportunity to an education to account for debt. Or, we could make a democratic choice to prioritize more equal outcomes for all for us.
Equal opportunity tolerates deep inequalities in outcomes. Its narrative tells us that a person born into their family’s third generation of deep poverty and another born into their family’s third generation of extreme wealth have an equal opportunity to obtain a college degree if they both graduate from high school, have access to the requisite funding, and colleges are prohibited from discriminating against them on the basis of certain characteristics. It ignores how much harder a disadvantaged student may have to work for the same opportunity. So long as the bottleneck is there for the disadvantaged student to pass through, then the equal-opportunity requirement has been met. Even if the disadvantaged student lives in conditions that require her to sleep less than her peers (because poor public transportation in her neighborhood makes for a two-hour commute). Or to study less (because she must work part-time to afford food, books, and rent).
This narrative also has little respect for those who, for whatever reasons, decline or fail to make it through the bottleneck despite being given an equal opportunity. It is easy to see how this type of rhetoric hurts stay-at-home caregivers, who may be denied certain benefits —for instance, welfare benefits — just because it is more fulfilling or more affordable for them to care for their dependents full-time. The same could be said of workers who may choose a lower-paying, more fulfilling job and thereby give up their opportunity to have quality health care.
But it also leaves in the lurch people who sail through the bottleneck, and still lose the things once acquired in the bottle. Think of the person who slides into debt and poverty despite having done everything “right” to obtain housing, health care, and stable employment. Perhaps they fall behind on their house payments after an unexpected illness exhausts their savings, despite their good insurance coverage, and a lousy economy suddenly reduces their wages. Equal opportunity does not require an accounting of this person’s fate, having fulfilled its duty of letting them through the bottleneck.
It’s not exactly that opportunity of equality is bad idea. All other things being equal, it is very important for us to have rules that give everyone a fairer chance to access those resources key to our functioning. The problem is that all other things are not even close to being equal. But trying to make them so would be a worthy goal. Yet, rarely do we — outside of left-wing social movements — seriously engage with what it would mean for the things in our bottle analogy to simply be guaranteed to every single person; for us to decide that some things are too essential to require a bottleneck; for us to define a baseline of things that would get us closer to being equal to each other.
Democratic equality is not a call for everyone to end up with the same precise amount of resources, or for all of us to perform the same roles. We are individuals with different constitutions, aspirations, and needs. Democratic equality recognizes that freedom can only follow if each individual is also guaranteed a baseline — of resources, welfare, rights — that guarantees our functioning. It is also acutely conscious of the need to restrain inequality between us, lest we open the door for some to be able to exercise outsize power over others, or, worse, to outright oppress our peers. Democratic equality thus defines equality in terms of social relations. It is insufficient for opportunities to be equally available. Institutions must be structured to repudiate hierarchies and claims of superiority over others on any basis — be it race, class, gender, sex, family status, and other socially constructed distinctions. Democratic equality also appreciates the importance of each of our roles, even if our contribution to the economy is not easily measurable. Instead, the sum of us spin the wheels of our society.
This doesn’t mean that equal opportunity is not a worthy aspiration. But with democratic equality as our goal, the effectiveness of equal opportunity is measured, in part, by equality of the outcomes. (We sort of do this now by allowing people to prove discrimination by just how unequal an outcome is.) It forces us to think about recalibrating our process to reach more equal outcomes, and to think more broadly about the factors that constitute opportunity.
For instance, no longer could we be satisfied with “equal pay for equal work” laws that only seek pay parity between all genders within single workplaces. Such approaches invite races to the bottom: Imagine an industry that employs primarily women of color and consistently pays less than a living wage. Though these workers would have been given an equal opportunity to access wages, democratic equality would ask us to consider whether the outcome was equal enough. It would ask us to think about how to improve pay parity across the entire industry, and to account for cost of living — i.e., how to make sure these workers were equal not only to each other, but to the rest of society.
By setting equal outcomes as a goal, we also would avoid falling prey to token representation. A few exceptionally successful people could never be taken as evidence that things were relatively equal for all other members of a demographic. Nor would “bad apple” rhetoric be an acceptable defense in the face of wildly unequal outcomes. As democratic equality is always first and foremost concerned with structure, no exemption could be made to accommodate unequal treatment. You could thus imagine how a democratically equal regime would not be timid about pushing aggressive culture changes to support its structural changes.
Finally, democratic equality would only work if the democratic aspect of the concept was itself equal. This is to say that our society would have to be committed to making political participation fairer for all. It would mean entitling each person to a vote after a democratically determined age, regardless of poor personal choices, including having committed crimes. It would mean designing an electoral system that was representative and more proportional than our gerrymandering woes and Senate structure currently allow. It would require seeking equality in the outcomes concerning who participates in electoral races.
There is no shortage of parties who benefit greatly from the myopia of equal-opportunity rhetoric, and the unequal structures it maintains. The pursuit of equality is always met by a well-funded resistance.
But there is yet hope, starting with the new list of demands in the update to the Kerner report. Among them: a living minimum wage, a single-payer health-care system, an investment in early childhood education, integration and equity in our schools, an increase in subsidized housing and the enforcement of our anti-discriminatory laws, support for labor unions and workers over corporations, drastically reducing the number of people we incarcerate. All the above would certainly be a dramatic improvement on the status quo, a hodgepodge of neoliberal policies administered by a sinister assortment of ex-CEOs and dynasty heirs.
Left-leaning politicians with an eye on the 2020 presidential race have a chance, now, to harness the energy that is already shifting toward democratic equality. Speaking more boldly against socioeconomic inequality is a start, but it is also not enough. To advance toward what we could be — a kinder, fairer, more egalitarian America — and in the process earn the support of left social movements, we must move past the shackling timidity of “equal opportunity” rhetoric. And it’s our responsibility too, as we enter yet another election season, to ask ourselves whether the candidates and policies we stand behind will actually make us more equal. If we’re lucky, we’ll be having a very different conversation about the Kerner report in another 50 years.