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“A Complex Pattern of Past and Present Discrimination”: Academics React to the Kerner Report

President Lyndon Johnson formed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to explain the riots that plagued cities each summer since 1964 and to provide recommendations for the future. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Unless conditions were remedied, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of ’apartheid’” in its major cities. The Kerner report delivered an indictment of “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans and urged legislation to promote racial integration and to enrich slums—primarily through the creation of jobs, job training programs, and decent housing. President Johnson, however, rejected the recommendations. In April 1968, one month after the release of the Kerner report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. In the following statements to joint Congressional hearings on urban employment problems in May and June of 1968, two academics related their findings regarding overt and institutionalized discrimination. They further argued that there were no simple solutions for overcoming the racial divide.


. . . I will be addressing my attention to the construction industry—perhaps the most important employment area at issue, because of its huge size, because of its crucial central role in our economy, because of its special significance for the ghettos and minorities, and because of its enormously growing potential in our society.

I would start out by summarizing three facts which I think characterize the present situation and are relevant to this particular hearing addressed to the question of racial discrimination and employment.

These three facts are very simply stated.

First. As a result of a complex pattern of past and present discrimination and exclusion, minority workers are generally barred from most construction work—except in very marginal circumstances, and in the unskilled categories, the construction industry labor force on June 6, 1968, is lily white.

Second. No programs are underway, and no changes are in the works at the present time which will result in a balanced construction labor force with appropriate proportions of minority workers in the years immediately ahead. Current antidiscrimination agreements and declarations by building trades, union, and employers, legal enforcement actions and special apprenticeship programs are highly laudable, but they are inadequate to change significantly the basically white makeup of the construction labor force.

Third. The continuing failure to create a minority worker construction labor force is leading to an intolerable impasse which threatens to result in drastic and often violent confrontation whenever building and construction is undertaken in our cities. It is unrealistic—and you here in Washington are sitting in the middle of an example of this, in the question of the stalemated cleanup work following the violence of some weeks ago—it is unrealistic to expect that white work crews are going to be permitted peacefully to rebuild our slums, rehabilitate and build new low-income housing, construct schools and hospitals, in the Negro, Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American neighborhoods of our country.

The comprehensive housing plan just approved by the Senate, the model cites program, government public works at all levels, are all put in jeopardy by the failure to integrate the construction labor force.

Finally, to shift from what I think is a statement of facts to an opinion and a recommendation.

A drastic crash program on a new level and a new scale is needed to bring Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans quickly into the construction industry, and to avoid the dangers and troubles inherent in the present situation.

New routes and standards for entry into construction jobs, rationalization and restructuring of jobs, new programs of on-the-job training, with realistic ladders for occupational advancement must be developed.

I would emphasize to you that impressive steps are being taken by many employers at the present time, through the National Alliance of Businessmen, and the Urban Coalition, to do just this in major sections of industry. . . .

Viewed from the frame of reference of the Kerner Report, “national action on an unprecedented scale” to eliminate the roots of racial discrimination, it is completely inadequate merely to state that from now on, overt racial discrimination will be ended in the construction trades. This is true for at least two reasons.

First. De facto discrimination is part and parcel of the present apprenticeship and hiring system of the construction industry. Without far-reaching changes in the industry’s job entry processes, that system will perpetuate a racist labor force, regardless of antidiscrimination avowals by employers, unions, and Government.

Second. The racist distortion of the present construction labor force composition is so extreme that “time” cannot be left to solve the problem and drastic balancing action, remedial actions, are immediately required. The estimate of the NAACP that “given a continuation of the present rates of advance, it will take Negroes 138 years, or until 2094 to secure equal participation in skilled, craft training and employment” is well founded. . . .

This table, which was prepared by the Commission on Human Rights in New York City, on the basis of extensive hearings, and updated from 1963 to 1967. Just let me highlight a couple of points. These are symbolic.

The Elevator Construction Union Local No. 1, approximate total membership 2,300 people, has 10 Negro and Puerto Rican journeymen. This is in a city with 35 percent Negro and Puerto Rican population.

Plumbers Union Local No. 2, that is the home local of the president of the AFL-CIO, 4,100 members, 21 minority journeymen and two or three apprentices.

In the Steamfitters Local 638, 6,800 members, 200 minority journeymen and 14 minority apprentices.

On an overall basis the New York City Human Rights Commission estimates that less than 2 percent of the skilled craft unions are Puerto Ricans and Negroes.

Let me repeat again—this is the situation in a “progressive” city—in a State and city that have pioneered in the enactment and application presumably of antidiscrimination legislation, in a city in which 30 to 35 percent of our population are Negro and Puerto Rican, and in a city in which we are spending a billion dollars in the next year for school construction, and contemplating model cities programs, and rebuilding of slums, and the building of more hospitals. I suggest to you that these two purposes—or this purpose, and this situation, or condition, are completely at odds. . . .


Dr. CHRISTIAN. That you, Mr. Chairman.

My testimony is a marked contrast to that of the previous speakers, in that they addressed themselves to the problem of an overt discrimination in the job market, whereas I wish to talk about institutionalized discrimination for which education is a strong proxy variable.

In the Kerner Report which presents the typical Negro rioter, there appears the statement “he feels strongly that he deserves a better job and that he is barred from it, not because of lack of training, ability, or ambition, but because of discrimination by employers.”[1] And again, in ranking grievances of the Negro community as perceived by that community, it lists inadequate education fourth—not even in the first level of intensity.[2] These quotations indicate that the Negro does not realize that his problem is even more fundamental than job discrimination; namely, that relatively poor schooling has placed him at a marked disadvantage before he reaches the job market. He is therefore mistaken in putting most of the blame for unequal treatment on the employer, because the total of society is in fact responsible for a considerable part of it.

1. Unequal educational opportunity puts the Negro worker in an inferior position in the competition for jobs entirely independent of discrimination by employers.

Segregated schooling has meant inferior schooling for Negroes. This point, not disputed by any serious researcher of the question and strongly reaffirmed by the recent study “Equality of Educational Opportunity” sponsored by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, suggests that the nonwhite suffers in two ways: First, lower enrollment rates for nonwhites at all grade levels leads to a lower median number of years of schooling; second, lower quality academic programs means that at given levels Negro students score lower on achievement-tests and, additionally, that the score gap generally widens as the grade level progresses.[3] At the 12th grade, the “achievement disadvantage suffered by Negroes in comparison to whites is about 9 points in the standard scores in the metropolitan North, but about 12 points in the rural South.”[4] Should the Negro from the rural South migrate to the urban North his disadvantage, because of a between region variation which affects all students, becomes even larger. This means, of course, that there is a perfectly valid economic reason for employers to lean toward white applicants in their hiring policies, particularly for the better paying and more demanding jobs, since they know that the white at a given grade level is likely to have had better schooling and will presumably be more productive. . . .

Thus it appears that roughly half the job discrimination faced by the Negro in the industries studied was attributable to differential education. In one sense it is tragic that this is true. For it means that the long-run solution of the problem involved a great deal more than just overcoming employer discrimination, difficult as that might be. And it implies that millions of Negroes currently in the labor market, and hence discriminated against in this vital respect already, will be at a competitive disadvantage all their working lives. . . .

2. Migration of the Negro from the rural South to urban ghettos, South and non-South, will not, in and of itself, cure the problem of educational inequality.

In 1910, 91 percent of the Nation’s nearly 10 million Negroes lived in the South and only slightly more than a quarter of them were in cities of 2,500 or more.[7] By 1966, only 51 percent of the 21.5 million Negroes were in the South and 69 percent of them lived in metropolitan areas. The 12 largest central cities contained two-thirds of the Negro population outside the South, and one-third of the total in the United States. Obviously the Negro population has become dispersed geographically and increasingly concentrated in the largest urban centers.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this dramatic shift in Negro population has brought an equally dramatic shift toward educational equality. In fact, the previously cited study of educational opportunity states that the disadvantage suffered by the Negro in the rural South is reduced by only a fourth in the urban North. The reasons seem apparent: they can be summarized by noting that the urban Negro generally is found in substandard housing in a racially segregated section of the central city, frequently attends schools which are almost as segregated as those in the South, and is beset by all the miseries attendant to the urban slums. The flight of the more affluent white residents to the suburbs has eroded the tax base and, additionally, and perhaps more importantly, has left a socioeconomic atmosphere that is hardly conducive to quality education; the two factors taken together indicate that it will be increasingly difficult for city governments to finance good schools and substantiates the notion, advanced in the Coleman Report, that the students in them will not be highly motivated.

3. Improvement of the schools which Negroes attend is then a necessary, though not a necessary and sufficient condition, for curing the concentration of Negroes in low-skill, low-paying, low-status jobs.

The preceding argument is not to be interpreted as a defense of the employment practices of American industry. Or of the apprenticeship and membership practices of organized labor for that matter.[8] That there is widespread discrimination by both management and unions is an unequivocal fact, widely studied and thoroughly documented. Hence it would be fallacious to assert that the Negro’s job inferiority would be wiped out if he achieved full educational equality, given the existing social attitudes toward him. But it would be equally fallacious to assert that his job inferiority would be wiped out by corrected social attitudes, given the existing disparity in educational achievement.

In the absence of racial discrimination the job market would become completely impersonal, and competitive forces would compel employers to hire the better prepared workers, leaving the Negro still behind in respect of the better jobs.

There is still another aspect of Negro employment that is related to the level of educational achievement of the Negro. That is, the low occupational status of the Negro worker, which is partially attributable to inadequate preparation for the better jobs, makes him highly susceptible to underemployment and unemployment. . . .

It is unfortunately true that the two major aspects of the Negro’s problem—inadequate schooling, which places him at a disadvantage before he reaches the labor market, and discrimination in the job market itself—are both outward manifestations of the racial attitudes of the white majority. Nothing said thus far should be taken to mean that equalizing educational opportunity is a complete solution. It leaves the second factor out entirely, and it says nothing about the millions of Negroes in the labor market who have already been victimized by second-class education. But it has been emphasized in this statement because there exists legislation—title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in particular—aimed at overt market discrimination. Enforcement is the issue there. The real tragedy for the present generation is the large group of people populating the urban ghettos who are, and always have been, obsolete in terms of the skills needed to be economically effective in an urban society. [1] Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, p. 73: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.Back to text.

[2] Ibid., p. 81.Back to text.

[3] James S. Coleman et al., “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” p. 218 ff.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1966. Back to text.

[7] U.S. Riot Commission Report, op. cit., p. 239.Back to text.

[8] See F. Ray Marshall and Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., “The Negro and Apprenticeship,” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. Back to text.

Source: Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Employment and Manpower Problems in the Cities: Implications of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 91th Congress, 2d Session, 1968 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968).