50 years after the Kerner Commission report, the nation is still grappling with many of the same issues

A woman and child walk past a dilapidated building in a run-down neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland March 9, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY) - GM1E73A0I1C01

After intense mid to late 1960s urban rioting, President Lyndon B. Johnson commissioned The Natonal Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—generally known as the Kerner Commission—to study the causes of the riots and to propose solutions.  Their report, issued in March 1968, argued that the riots were caused in large part by poor neighborhood conditions and limited labor market options facing black Americans as a consequence of racism and rampant discrimination in housing and labor markets (Kerner Report, 1968).  These factors underlay the development and maintenance of the northern black “ghettos”, where residents endured extreme segregation, limited housing choices, concentrated poverty, and poor schools (Kerner, 1968). Although the report’s authors believed in full integration as the long-term solution, they argued that more immediate relief  was possible through large-scale, targeted government investment in housing, education, and employment programs, and more robust social insurance programs. Without immediate action, however,  they predicted the rioting would continue. Despite these warnings, their recommendations were not adopted by President Johnson.  Notwithstanding the rioting in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that year, however, the rioting largely stopped and the exigency of the period receded.

Since the report’s publication, the country has certainly seen much progress. Many black Americans enjoy relatively high social and economic status; overt racism and efforts to exclude or constrain where they live, work, or attend school have greatly diminished. Yet, the report outlined concerns that are still relevant. Racial segregation remains the defining feature of many US cities; blacks face higher unemployment and lower wages; huge disparities in wealth persist at levels near those described by Kerner and his colleagues five decades ago.

Given the attention raised by the Kerner Report on black urban neighborhood conditions as both a cause of the riots and a potential metric of improvement, we thought it might be instructive to revisit how neighborhoods in riot-affected cities evolved in the subsequent decades. In a recent paper published in a special issue of the Russell Sage Journal of the Social Sciences devoted the legacy of the Kerner Report, we examine how black neighborhoods—both riot-affected and not—have evolved on number of key social indicators over the decades spanning 1970 – 2010. Focusing on four cities that experienced especially severe and highly-publicized rioting—Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, and Washington DC—we match tract-level riot location information (Collins and Margo 2004) to census tract socioeconomic data.Though data limitations rendered a causal research design impossible, our descriptive analysis revealed several interesting stylized facts.

We show that in 1970, the first census year we have available,  black neighborhoods that directly experienced riots were populated with residents that had lower incomes, lower educational levels, experienced higher unemployment, and had higher incidence of welfare usage than other black neighborhoods that were not directly affected by riots (Casey and Hardy 2018). This might not be that surprising; these are essentially markers for the factors that the Kerner Report attributed to causing the riots. More interesting, however, is that these level differences across riot and non-riot affected black neighborhoods persist over time with little convergence across neighborhoods.

For example, Figure 1, panels A and B  illustrate these gaps for the fraction of neighborhood residents 25 and over that hold a bachelor’s degree. Reflective of the growth in educational attainment in US society over this period, we see that all neighborhoods, on average, experienced an upward trend in educational attainment. However, there are large level differences between direct riot-affected neighborhoods and those that were not affected that persist across time. Panel B focuses only on black neighborhoods in our four cities. Among these neighborhoods, we see smaller gaps in the fraction of people holding bachelor degrees between riot-affected neighborhoods and those unaffected by riots. Yet, these gaps perist with little convergence in the intervening decades. Further results  in the paper show that when we take a broader view of neighborhood amenities, similarly persistent differences emerge between black and non-black neighborhoods across time as well.

We believe there are several important takeaways from this and other recent studies revisiting the legacy of the Kerner Commission Report. First, they reflect the growing consensus among social scientists that place matters for both individual and group well-being and intergenerational advancement (see e.g. Chetty and Hendren 2018a and 2018b). Second,  50 years after the publication of the Kerner Report, black neighborhoods in the U.S. still yield examples of success, but given lags in educational attainment, income, wealth, and violent crime exposure—painful reminders of unrealized individual potential. The growing emphasis on thinking about place and people together represents an opportunity to recommit to and refine neighborhood economic policy responses to challenges that blacks and other disadvantaged groups continue to face in the post-Kerner period. What is clear, however, is that the Kerner Commission’s 50 year old call for aggressive policy intervention  to improve lives still rings true today.


Casey, Marcus D. and Bradley L. Hardy. 2018. “The Evolution of Black Neighborhoods since Kerner,” The Russell Sage Journal of the Social Sciences.

Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2018a. “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility I: Childhood Exposure Effects.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. Published online February 10. Accessed May 9, 2018. DOI: 10.1093/qje/qjy007.

Chetty, Raj, and Nathaniel Hendren. 2018b. “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility II: County-Level Estimates.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. Published online February 10. Accessed May 9, 2018. DOI: 10.1093/qje/qjy007. 

Collins, William J. and Robert A. Margo. 2004. “The Labor Market Effects of the 1960s Riots.” Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution

Kerner Commission. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Washington: Government Printing Office.