Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

March 5, 2018

The Homeownership Rate and The Kerner Commission

By David Reiss


photo by Marion S. Trikosko

President Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission

The Economic Policy Institute released a report, 50 Years After The Kerner Commission.  It finds that “African Americans are better off in many ways but are still disadvantaged by racial inequality.” (1) The report opens,

The year 1968 was a watershed in American history and black America’s ongoing fight for equality. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and riots broke out in cities around the country. Rising against this tragedy, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawing housing discrimination was signed into law. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute as they received their medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Arthur Ashe became the first African American to win the U.S. Open singles title, and Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The same year, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, delivered a report to President Johnson examining the causes of civil unrest in African American communities. The report named “white racism”—leading to “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing”—as the culprit, and the report’s authors called for a commitment to “the realization of  common opportunities for all within a single [racially undivided] society.” The Kerner Commission report pulled together a comprehensive array of data to assess the specific economic and social inequities confronting African Americans in 1968.

Where do we stand as a society today? In this brief report, we compare the state of black workers and their families in 1968 with the circumstances of their descendants today, 50 years after the Kerner report was released. We find both good news and bad news. While African Americans are in many ways better off in absolute terms than they were in 1968, they are still disadvantaged in important ways relative to whites. In several important respects, African Americans have actually lost ground relative to whites, and, in a few cases, even relative to African Americans in 1968. (1, footnote omitted)

I was particularly shocked by one figure in the report:

One of the most important forms of wealth for working and middle-class families is home equity. Yet, the share of black households that owned their own home remained virtually unchanged between 1968 (41.1 percent) and today (41.2 percent). Over the same period, homeownership for white households increased 5.2 percentage points to 71.1 percent, about 30 percentage points higher than the ownership rate for black households. (4)

It is pretty extraordinary that the homeownership rate for African Americans has not really gone up, given all of the resources that were directed to increasing it. The FHA, Fannie, Freddie and other government programs have all focused on increasing that rate for decades. People of different political stripes will read what they want into this state of affairs. My own take is that wage instability has driven down homeownership rates across the board, but that it has hit African American households particularly hard. Households cannot commit to homeownership if they cannot reasonably depend on getting their wages month-in, month-out.

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