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‘Plague of inequality’ haunts U.S. 50 years after a landmark study on racial division

This weeks marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, a bipartisan assessment of race in America that revealed the nation to be both separate and unequal. A half century later, a new report takes stock of what we’ve begun to fix, and what still needs to be done. Hari Sreenivasan talks to the author of the new report, Fred Harris, and Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some have suggested the racial, economic and political divides facing our country now are deeper than they have been at any point in the past four or five decades.

    A new report takes stock of those issues, where we stand now, and, as Hari Sreenivasan reports, looks at some ideas for bridging those gaps.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the late '60s, after riots and unrest around the country, President Lyndon Johnson created a bipartisan commission to assess what could be done about social injustice and economic inequality.

    It came to be known as the Kerner Commission. It was controversial and concluded in February of 1968 — quote — "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal."

    This week marks the 50th anniversary of the commission. And a new update is out from the Eisenhower Foundation, as well as the last surviving member of the original Kerner Commission.

    It concludes there's been real progress, such as expansion of the middle class for blacks and Latinos, and the election of many political leaders, including former President Barack Obama.

    But it also finds, in some ways, things have not improved or have worsened since then.

    We're going to hear more about this from Fred Harris, a former senator and one of the original members of the Kerner Commission. He's the co-author of new report called "Healing Our Divided Society." And Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, who focuses on a number of these issues.

    For the record, the foundation is a funder of the NewsHour.

    Mr. Harris, I want to start with you.

    Give us a fuller picture of what you think that we have not made so much progress in.

  • Former Sen. Fred Harris:

    Well, we did make progress for about a decade after the Kerner report came out.

    But then, with automation, globalization causing jobs to disappear or to move out of the central cities, with a political change on the conservative side that lowered taxes for the rich and for big corporations at the same time as they were cutting spending that benefited the middle class and poor people, we began to slow that progress.

    Then it stopped, and, since then, it's reversed, since about the last part of the '70s. We're re-segregating again. There's worsening discrimination against African-Americans and Latinos. And there are more poor people today than there were 50 years ago.

    Poor people are poorer. And, lastly, the inequality of income is worsening in this country. And we want to get race and poverty back on the national agenda.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Darren Walker, what do you think is responsible for that slip backwards, this resegregation, as Mr. Harris says?

  • Darren Walker:

    I think we made great progress for a number of years, but I think the growing inequality that we started to see in the 1980s has exacerbated.

    And so we now have a twin challenge, the challenge of addressing our historic racial bias that is rooted in our national history, in the narrative of slavery, and a new phenomenon, the phenomenon of downward mobility of white Americans.

    For the first time, we are seeing a potential generation of white Americans who are feeling insecure and anxious about their futures. The context matters here, and we have to consider that the context for inequality and what it is doing in this country is making hopelessness and anxiety and a feeling that America's future will not be a great future, that, in fact, our future will be one of haves and have-notes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mr. Harris, your report points out just, of course, the general statistics that sometimes we're familiar with about median household income for whites is around $65,000, and for blacks, it's around $39,000.

    But you go way back, even earlier, when it comes to children and poverty, that we actually have now more American children living in poverty today. It's up to 21 percent now, where it was only about 15 percent in 1968.

  • Former Sen. Fred Harris:

    That's true.

    I think you can really judge a nation's priorities by looking at how they treat children. And it's just a scandal that we have this growing child poverty in this country.

    You know, we know what needs to be done. We know what works. We need just to build the will to get it done.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mr. Walker, how do you address these different issues in a bipartisan or nonpartisan way, where we see, in this political climate, we're seeing a retrenchment of kind of party lines getting stronger and thicker?

  • Darren Walker:

    Well, first of all, I think it's important to not be demoralized by the current state, because, in fact, we saw progress. It's important, because there are some who would say all of these investments were for naught. That is not true.

    We made tremendous strides in reducing poverty and reducing segregation in this country. Today, we need to have people understand that we all, all Americans, black, white and brown, are suffering from the same the same plague, and that is the plague of inequality.

    And for us to make progress, we have to show white, black, and brown Americans that we are all in this together. We need our leaders to be builders of bridges between communities, and to recognize that this nation needs healing, that we need to come together.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fred Harris, how do you figure out a way forward, based on some of the successes that we had in the past, some of the things that did work? What were the ingredients for that formula, and how do we reinject that?

  • Former Sen. Fred Harris:

    We know jobs work, education.

    We know that — one thing that we know from the past is that people have to work together. One of the great men of this country right now, I think, is the Reverend William Barber of North Carolina, leader of a new Poor People's Campaign.

    And he says we have got to quit existing and fighting in our separate silos, labor over here and civil rights activists over here. We're all in this thing together.

    And he's demonstrated that you can put people together around things like a livable wage and around jobs and around equality, no matter what a person's zip code or gender or race is.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Darren Walker, so, what is the source of inspiration when you look through this report? What are you seeing as kind of a road map for future success?

  • Darren Walker:

    Well, what I see, actually, success being characterized by recognizing the importance of technology in our future.

    Technology wasn't mentioned in the Kerner report. And, today, there is nothing more important, there is no feature of our society that will determine opportunity more than technology.

    The Internet will be a platform for opportunity or a platform for further inequality. So, we have got to focus on making sure that all Americans have access to the Internet, that we are able to not replicate on the Internet, in the digital world, the prejudice and injustice that we have in the analog world.

    So, I believe that a key unlocking of opportunity in the future and a way to address some of these issues is by focusing on technology.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right.

    Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and Fred Harris, one of the original members of the Kerner Commission, thank you both.

  • Darren Walker:

    Thank you.

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