Looking back on the Kerner report

March 02, 1993

Twenty-five years ago this week the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner commission, issued a report intended to guide the way toward repairing a country torn by racial and civil strife. The report is remembered chiefly for its warning that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

Today, however, the greatest danger facing American cities is not the racial discrimination that was still so evident in 1968, but rather a pernicious sense of despair that turns once-vibrant cities into pauperized jurisdictions with too many poor people and too few taxpaying residents. The disparities afflicting cities today are not so much gaps defined by race as disparities of hope and opportunity. In Baltimore and other cities, too many young people grow up with no dreams to fulfill as adults -- and plenty of reason to think they might not even live to see adulthood.

The Kerner commission recommended a series of steps to change the culture of despair afflicting the nation's ghettos. Some of it worked, some of it didn't. The urban crisis has gotten worse. Meanwhile, efforts to solve the crisis are still the subject of more study than action.

Point to any one problem -- crime, economic trends, crisis in the schools, drugs, teen-age pregnancy -- and you can make a good argument that solving it will make an appreciable difference. But all these problems are interconnected. If no more 14-year-old girls had babies, the city would face fewer pressures on social services systems, but that wouldn't clear the streets of drugs, nor assure that young people graduate from high school prepared to hold a job, nor restore the thousands of steady, well-paying industrial jobs that sustained generations of strong, working-class families.

Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, describes this inter-relationship of social problems as the "butterfly effect" -- "a belief that everything in the world is so mysteriously and comprehensively interconnected that a slight, seemingly insignificant wave of a butterfly's wing in a single spot on this planet can unleash a typhoon thousands of miles away."

Once we strip away the rhetoric from the analyses and recommendations for solving the urban crisis, it may be that Mr. Havel's images strike closer to the truth. There is no magic answer to the problems of Baltimore or any city. But there are many efforts that, implemented and sustained, can make a difference. Assuring public safety, investing in children, strengthening families, shoring up the schools, expanding the economy -- all of these are essential to making cities good places to live.

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