When the Kerner Commission investigated racial strife in the United States, the members warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Furthermore, the commission excoriated journalists for ignoring African Americans’ complaints about police abuse, inferior schools and segregated housing. The commission stung U.S. journalists with this attack: “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance are seldom conveyed.” That was 50 years ago. The Kerner Commission was a blue-ribbon panel of prominent civic leaders appointed by President Johnson to investigate the problems that led to a series of riots—many called them “rebellions”—that burst out in cities across the country during the 1960s. In recent weeks there have been many events and campaigns to observe the Kerner Commission’s 50th anniversary.
Even San Franciscans accustomed to hearing complaints about soaring housing costs were taken aback when Fiona Gray declared that she might be forced to leave the city. She is, after all, a cheery-faced Mission High School student still living at home with her parents. Sitting at a dinner table with her father, James Gray, and other Bay Area residents, Fiona was glum about what the present crisis in housing spells for her future. Many classmates are homeless and depend on free school meals. Homelessness, in effect, had become “normalized” at Mission High, she explained.
Richard Rothstein, one of the most prominent experts on segregation in America, warns that the San Francisco Bay Area will never be able to fully address the current crisis in housing until one truth is acknowledged. It is this: Segregated housing projects were created by design—not accidentally—throughout the Bay Area because of federal and local government programs and policies, and the legacy of this history profoundly impacts the housing crisis today. “This myth that it all happened by accident hobbles our ability to do anything about it,” says Rothstein.