50 years later: UC Berkeley hosts conference reflecting on 1968 race report

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Fifty years ago, the federal government ordered a commission to investigate the cause of race riots that erupted across the United States in 1967 and led to the deaths of more than 80 people. Their findings, called the Kerner Report, were groundbreaking — the riots resulted from Black frustration at an unjust and oppressive economic structure.

“Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the commision said in the report’s most famous line, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently cited in 2015.

Fifty years later, the campus Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society will continue the Kerner Report’s legacy by hosting a conference commemorating its semicentennial anniversary. The conference — called “The Kerner Commission at 50 Conference” — will be held Feb. 27 through March 1, and will feature speakers such as Chris Edley, the former UC Berkeley School of Law dean; Bill Keller, editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers U.S. criminal justice; and campus law professor john powell, among others.

Otto Kerner, chair of the commision that authored the report, was governor of Illinois — the home state of Steven Pitts, associate chair of the campus Labor Center and expert on the topics of job quality and Black workers. Pitts will also speak at the conference.

“I remember the National Guard on the streets when (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) was killed in ‘68,” Pitts said. “I remember seeing the riots at the Democratic convention.”

Reflecting on how his view of the report has changed over time, Pitts said that the report is “just a lens” to view the social conditions it described.

Pitts said the report could be “limiting,” and that the riots and social conditions that initiated the report are more important.

Some of those social conditions, according to Pitts, in some ways are no different 50 years later.

Black Americans are still unemployed at the same rate, as compared to white Americans — a 2-to-1 ratio — according to Pitts. What has changed, however, is how those economic conditions take effect, Pitts said.

“One thing we don’t do well in this country is tie race to economic structures,” Pitts said. “It’s different under slavery, it’s different under Jim Crow … than it is to now.”

A massive rise in economic inequality, especially since the 1970s, has reduced the possibilities for Black individuals in the United States, according to Pitts. He added that the connections between regions and peoples changed dramatically.

“You have to not just fight racial supremacy in the abstract, but have a clear link to the racial economic system that it’s rooted to,” Pitts said. “Slavery was a global system.”

In the 50 years since the report’s release, according to Pitts, the United States has seen some, although not complete, progress against racism. The most explicit forms of Jim Crow are gone, Pitts said, along with the explicit form of white supremacist ties to the government.

According to the Haas Institute’s website, the conference aims to respond to modern issues of racism in the United States, despite the conference’s namesake.

“The killings of unarmed Black teenagers that sparked #BlackLivesMatter, and the ensuing movement that grew out of it, have re-awakened American consciousness to the pervasiveness of segregation, inequality, and police brutality and violence,” said the conference’s website. “The themes, findings, and recommendations of the Kerner Report have never seemed more relevant.”

The conference will envision what a contemporary Kerner Report might look like in various sectors of American life, including housing, education and policing, among others.

Pitts expressed doubt about the impact of a hypothetical modern Kerner Report, saying that Trump would call it “fake news.”

Pitts said he believes a portion of Americans would reject the findings of such a report, adding that modern political games of “tug of war” between partisan groups would prevent any change towards racial justice.

“A 2018 Kerner report,” Pitts said, “would simply go nowhere.”

Henry Tolchard covers race and diversity. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @htolchard.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Steven Pitts as Steven Pitt.