In the mid-1960s, inner cities around the country exploded in violence. Americans were shocked and scared. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued the Kerner Commission Report, which ominously warned that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” We have come far since then, but still have far to go. Our goal must remain to be one nation with equal opportunity for all. That objective is achievable, but requires more hard work by all of us.
Forty years ago, the civil-rights movement was struggling against institutionalized discrimination throughout the South. Lynchings, white-only restrooms, segregated schools and lunch counters were a plague upon the nation. Crime, drug abuse, illegitimacy and dependency were spreading throughout black neighborhoods. Poverty was the inner-city norm, with declining hope for the future.
Since that time, in some areas we have come far. In others, our progress has been disappointing. We have learned to live and work together. As the recent Iowa Democratic caucus demonstrated, Americans increasingly look past color. Racism still exists, but no longer can be considered the primary cause of many serious problems facing the African-American community.
Black Americans are making important economic gains. A vibrant professional and entrepreneurial class helps lead all of the cities that once suffered urban unrest. Middle- and upper-income African-Americans have moved out of the inner-city into suburbs across the nation. Blacks have taken an even greater leadership role in politics. Forty years ago African-Americans had to fight to exercise the right to vote. Today, the Democratic frontrunner for president is a black man. America’s 65th secretary of state was an African American man, and the 66th secretary of state is an African American woman. Blacks now routinely serve in Congress and the cabinet, on the U.S. Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as governors and mayors across the country. While we once would have been surprised to see a black face at an important political gathering, we now are surprised if there isn’t one.
We should be proud of our progress. As columnist Eugene Robinson observed: “This successful black America gets very little coverage, for the obvious reason that good news isn’t really news in the traditional sense.”
Nevertheless, there is much more to do. Residential segregation remains distressingly common. In many areas it still looks like there are two Americas. Moreover, the dramatic economic improvement for many blacks cannot hide the persistence of poverty in what we once called “the ghetto.” Illegitimacy rates for young girls and incarceration rates for young men have hit staggering levels. Our public education system continues to fail children throughout the nation. Too many African American kids determined to succeed find themselves ill-prepared for the competition in top universities and an increasingly globalized workplace.
There’s no simple answer.
The Kerner Commission recommended new welfare programs, and the federal government has spent more to fight poverty than it spent to win World War II. Unfortunately, bigger social programs backfired, encouraging family and community break-up, discouraging education and employment, and creating pervasive dependency. We know more government social engineering will not work.
The 1996 welfare reform, agreed to by a Republican Congress and Democratic president, freed many of the nation’s poor from the fetters of dependency and encourages self-sufficiency. Today, we must improve education and generate economic opportunity for those still stuck in poverty. To do so we must empower people rather than bureaucracies. For instance, pouring more money into failing public schools won’t improve student achievement. Giving parents improved options and forcing public institutions to compete will help kids learn. Poor people are poor, not stupid, which is why so many black Baptists work so hard to place their children in parochial schools.
Similarly, policies like the minimum wage may sound “progressive,” but actually destroy jobs. We need to clear away regulations that make it hard to start a small business and enter a profession. Entrepreneurs, not politicians, create real jobs with the potential for advancement.
Although people are focused on the subprime lending crisis, and its negative impact on minority homeownership, building codes, rent controls and zoning restrictions do far more to limit good housing. Better policing is also necessary to provide safe neighborhoods for poor as well as rich.
Forty years ago the Kerner Commission provided us with an important warning. However, unlike the conventional wisdom of the 1960s, what we know today is that blacks haven’t been so crippled by past discrimination that we cannot compete with whites. We can, and will continue to do so, if government will let us.
Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and author of “Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before.”