The Kerner Report’s Landscape: Liberalism and the Urban-Suburban Divide
The story is well told. Congress passes two landmark civil rights bills in 1964 and 1965. Urban riots and mass protest greet these victories. Liberals push forward to tackle remaining inequalities—disproportionate black poverty, racial disparities in income, occupations, and housing ownership, black concentration in urban ghettoes, and a black unemployment rate double that of whites. Their policies, rather than being carried by the momentum of earlier achievements, encounter political upheaval. Whites fight housing integration and busing. Black Power, the New Left, and Labor offer their own far-reaching, though divergent alternatives. A resurgent conservative movement challenges the very ideological tenets of liberal policy. New Deal liberalism wanes, the New Right waxes, and eventually, a centrist and market-friendly “New Democratic Party” emerges, too. We live with the consequences of this pivotal moment, from the persistent racial divide between white and non-white wealth, educational achievement, employment levels, and segregation , to the neoliberal orientation of both parties.
This crux in American political history, the nexus of race and political realignment in the late 1960s and 1970s, has been fertile ground for historians. The “backlash” thesis was the most popular interpretation until the 1990s. In this formulation, white voters balked at liberalism’s ambitious domestic civil rights economic agenda, fraying the coalition that made the American welfare state possible and setting the path for Reagan. Judith Stein’s 1998 Running Steel, Running America was a stark counter to this narrative. Using the U.S. steel industry as a case study, Stein contends that 1960s liberal ideology failed voters and workers. Anti-discrimination policies lacked an economic blueprint to produce adequate jobs, sustain a cross-racial coalition of working class people, and improve the material lives of African Americans. In the two decades since Running Steel, there has been no shortage of different takes on the subject, but none as innovative as the contribution of urban political historians. Drawing on the insights of urban and social history, geography, and urban sociology, the “spatial turn” in American political history situates the decline of New Deal liberalism and persistent racial inequality within the context of mass white suburbanization and regional migration to the Sunbelt. This literature compels scholars to consider the metropolitan nature of political realignment and racial inequality, particularly the relationship between suburbanization and the distribution of opportunity and wealth, along with the political constituencies this process birthed. But the “spatial turn” still rests on the key tenet of the “backlash” thesis: that political realignment hinged on white racial identity and whites’ political interests. It also elevates the divide between cities and suburbs as the primary reason for racial disparities and inequality. Despite its publication two decades ago, the insights of Judith Stein’s Running Steel remain relevant, not only for its challenge to the backlash thesis, but for its interpretation of politics and the economy which apply not only to the steel industry, but cities and suburbs too.
Post-World War II urban political history rests on the shoulders of two main threads in urban scholarship. Since Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier in the 1980s, urban historians have uncovered the contribution of federal housing policy, local land-use powers, and real estate practices to residential segregation and the twentieth century racial divide between cities and suburbs. These histories collectively identify the origins of what a vast social science literature, which dates back to the 1950s and achieved technical sophistication and wide praise in the 1990s, contend to be a primary source of the Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass exemplifies this scholarship, with its nineteen distinct indices of neighborhood dissimilarity proving the significance of the urban/suburban divide and residential segregation to persistent racial inequality in the decades following civil rights victories. Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s Black Wealth, White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality likewise shaped an entire field of “disparities” research since the 1990s, illustrating with copious data how whites have accrued so much wealth compared to the meagerassets of black Americans, much of it accumulated through housing rooted in the city/suburb divide .1
Urban political historians use this interdisciplinary work to explain why the political battles around housing and metropolitan public resources in the postwar period led to such persistent inequalities despite civil rights achievements. To summarize, liberal middle-class housing entitlement programs, primarily the FHA and GI Bill, were racially exclusive elements of the New Deal social contract, enabling white Americans to move upward and outward to politically independent and racially exclusive suburbs. The social advantages embedded in suburbia, demarcated by school district boundaries, hidden in the tax code, and mediated by the real estate industry, forged a white racial identity tied to segregated housing and neighborhoods. White homeowners interpreted their real estate purchases as meritocratic choices in the free market, not as products of racial privilege, and understood themselves as moral, hard-working families, who earned entrance into communities with others like them.
When postwar liberals sought to end these structural privileges, white suburbanites’ market-oriented and localist outlook shaped their political response. Starting in the 1950s, but reaching its apex in the wake of urban rioting, civil rights groups and liberal policymakers fought to deconcentrate the poor, redistribute metropolitan tax dollars, and open suburban jobs and housing to black Americans. Suburban whites, intent on preserving their “right” to homeownership and couching their arguments in “color-blind” rhetoric, successfully thwarted federal, state, and local efforts to overcome structural barriers depriving African Americans of needed tax revenue, housing opportunities, and equal education. In the process, these homeowners formed a “suburban” political consensus, what became the largest bloc of voters in the country. They reinvigorated the Republican Party in the late 1960s and, over time, pulled the Democratic Party to the right, away from metropolitan social reforms and toward local environmental regulation and sprawl containment. Inner-city ghettoes, disproportionately black, poor, far from jobs, with little tax revenue to support basic infrastructure and education, was the consequence of this political shift.2
This urban and “spatial” interpretation gives the white “backlash” thesis needed heft, linking political realignment not to liberal overreach but to the contradictions of New Deal liberalism itself. Liberal policy was on one hand responsible for embedding inequality in the urban/suburban divide, and was also at the forefront of rectifying spatial inequality. When the two strands came into direct confrontation, white middle-class political ideology, with its market-oriented defense of segregation, emerged victorious, pulling politics to the right and producing the “New American Dilemma” as Matthew Lassiter calls it, “the fusion of class segregation and racial discrimination embodied in the urban-suburban divide.”3 It’s a powerful argument, linking race and realignment in a way that still resonates in the current political climate and does not indict the civil rights movement or anti-poverty efforts for the rightward turn in politics. Despite its depth, the urban literature nonetheless takes the decline of New Deal liberalism to hinge on racism and white racial identity, particularly white opposition to rectifying racial inequality.
This is what makes Running Steel, Running America relevant. Though engaging the earlier debate about liberalism’s decline and the white “backlash,” Stein offers a significant counter to the urban or metropolitan political historiography. For Stein, growing liberal faith in the market as a solution to racial disparities, particularly black poverty and unemployment, divorced liberal policymaking in the 1960s from social-democratic impulses, aggravated racial divides among workers, and frayed the political coalitions that made liberal progress possible. The argument is laid out in chapters three, four, five, and seven, where Stein explains how there was a critical shift in the discourse of black economic problems, away from labor-market-oriented explanations and toward claims that disparities were rooted in prejudice, discrimination, and skill deficiencies. She first notes this change between 1963 and 1964, when Hubert Humphrey’s Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) bill was shelved in favor of Title VII, which addressed black unemployment as a problem of prejudice and discrimination, uncoupled from economic change. “Commercial Keynesian” influence was crucial, especially in the person of Walter Heller, Council of Economic Advisors Chair and the architect of the 1964 tax cut. Heller asserted that reducing taxes would have huge employment dividends, so questions of inclusion were about non-economic barriers.
This belief that the economy was sound, and that factors specific to African Americans were responsible for their destitution and joblessness, influenced legislation going forward. Johnson’s entire War on Poverty assumed that altering the poor’s skillsets and characteristics was the key to resolving these problems. Affirmative Action required equitable racial employment proportions without confronting layoffs or occupational shifts within industries. By 1967, as Stein argues, “the judgment that the United States was a racist society became widely accepted,” certified by the Kerner Commission the next year.4 This was reflected in the powers of the federal bureaucracies assigned to handle black economic problems, like the Justice Department, OFCC , the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and the courts, which could only use the tool of discrimination, a solution that pitted white against black in the desperate competition for fewer jobs. These actions “socially constructed racism” in Stein’s words, as animosity grew over the policy focus on racial proportion over declining opportunities in the steel industry writ large. This was the critical element to liberalism’s decline: since the New Deal, liberals had linked social goals to an economic agenda, but “the weakness of the liberalism of the 1960s was not its ambitious social goals, as has so often been asserted. It was that liberalism lacked an economic blueprint to match its social agenda.”5
The shift in liberal ideology mattered across the city/suburb divide too. After all, suburbanites were workers, and while housing, schools, and related fiscal concerns shaped their political outlook, so did metropolitan labor markets. Take Long Island for example, the quintessential postwar suburb, home to the first and largest Levittown. Between the years 1935 and 1954, the rate of employment growth outpaced the population surge by a factor of ten, drawing people, particularly the working class, to the suburbs.6 Federal policy undergirded these jobs, just as mortgage programs lubricated the suburban housing boom. From World War II through the first decade of the Cold War, military spending had served as a violent extension of New Deal employment programs; defense outlays were the closest Washington came to full employment and industrial policy after the end of the WPA. Filtered through private contractors, defense procurement ate up between fourteen and twenty-three percent of the federal budget during the 1950s, and aerospace (a sector dependent on defense spending) was the second largest industrial employer after automobiles, and just as heavily unionized.7 Long Island was among the beneficiaries; as of 1963, aerospace manufacturing accounting for half of all industrial jobs, employing one in every six Long Island workers and supporting an estimated 600,000 of 1.3 million residents in Nassau, Long Island’s largest county. In addition, defense-related manufacturing laid the foundation for the infrastructure and construction capacity to attract other industries, while the population boom led to new jobs in finance, retail, and services. This was not unique to Long Island. Military Keynesianism stimulated suburbs across the “Gunbelt,” the industrial archipelago of suburban industrial communities stretching from Massachusetts down to Florida, across the Deep South and concentrating along the Pacific coast to the urban fringe of Seattle.8
These mostly unionized blue-collar jobs, and the broader suburban labor market, were critical to working-class suburbanization, giving workers the income threshold to qualify for FHA-insured home mortgages. It also shaped suburban politics around the local economy, including concerns over the national distribution of military spending, the kinds of defense contracts pouring into the region (research or production-oriented), and the relationship between state spending and the labor market “twist” reducing demand for low-skilled workers. Jobs and state policy were particularly important to Long Island’s 72,000 black residents in 1960, a small but growing proportion of the Island’s population (3.7%). As of 1960, only an eighth of Long Island’s black workers held “white-collar” occupations, the remainder relying on metro-area factories, low-wage service-sector jobs, or laboring as domestic servants. Long Island’s aerospace manufacturers hired few black workers and promoted even fewer to skilled positions, and federal anti-discrimination agencies did nothing to improve non-white opportunity until the mid-1960s. Meanwhile, Long Island’s non-defense firms paid four dollars less a week on average than factories in the five boroughs.9 Overall, thirty-five percent of black families made less than half of Long Island’s median family income in 1960 (compared to ten percent of white families), a standard measure of poverty in high-cost areas.10 Low wages and unstable work added to the discriminatory obstacles of homeownership, relegating the black poor to Long Island’s scarce, expensive, and often illegal affordable housing.
This is what makes the 1960s shift toward commercial Keynesianism important. Though suburban politics included structural economic concerns, the market-oriented approach viewed the suburbs as the geographic manifestation of prosperity. Policies affecting suburbs like Long Island reflected this ideological turn in key ways. For example, just as the NAACP’s PCEEO complaint against Long Island’s second largest defense manufacturer, Republic Aviation, got underway in the early 1962, the Kennedy administration transformed the very nature of defense spending. JFK committed to closing the missile gap without raising taxes, and appointed Robert Strange McNamara to cut costs and improve military capability. McNamara chose to consolidate weapons purchases for the entire military, denying a contract to Republic Aviation in 1962, leaving 15,000 workers and an estimated 8,000 subcontract workers unemployed. The action weighed heavily on the NAACP’s suit, as saving jobs took precedence. Workers went on strike in April 1962, sent 50,000 letters to DC, and local pols publicly pleaded the government keep people working. Their outcry was not rooted in defense spending per se, but a general government responsibility to employ. Long Island’s daily Newsday argued “even before World War II, the government encouraged Republic and similar defense plants to expand to the point where all of them represent a crucially important source of employment… [The federal government] has a responsibility to these people.”11
The administration responded in a way that reflected the commercial Keynesian approach. McNamara was in charge of shuffling defense spending, while CEA chairman Walter Heller determined what to do with laid-off workers. Heller led the Committee on the Economic Impact of Defense and Disarmament (later an agency) in 1964, and published conclusions in line with the market-oriented view: defense cuts would have no major impacts on employment or growth, even complete disarmament. Workers would be easily absorbed into tax-fueled growth.12 When economic expansion occurred alongside reduced proportional defense spending in ‘63 and ‘64, the first time in postwar history that unemployment fell alongside defense reductions, Heller was vindicated. Aggregate demand measures replaced targeted industrial policy no longer justifiable for national security.
By the end of 1964, Republic slashed almost 14,000 employees from their payrolls, and this was aside from the thousands of subcontractor jobs lost. The White House only made two commitments to laid-off workers. Heller’s committee sponsored a report to prepare these workers for the private economy entitled the Transferability of Defense Job Skills to Non-Defense Occupations. And in October 1965, Robert McNamara toured Long Island’s plants. He basically came to scold Long Island’s government, business, industry, and education leaders for relying on defense spending because “the defense industry is a highly erratic industry and you should not try to build an economy on it.” Newsday best summarized the tour with the front-page title: “McNamara to LI: Diversify”, the suburban equivalent of “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”13 Essentially, McNamara was informing these workers that the government was no longer committed to employing them, and what happens to these plants, workers, and the region in general was not the state’s responsibility. The only solution offered, assisting defense workers’ transition into the private economy, was in line with the ideology that privileged the aggregate over the structural, and unemployment as the challenge for the worker to overcome, not of the state supplying the jobs.
Republic’s former white and black workers moved onto service or non-defense factory jobs, with wages that placed them below the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s “lower budget” threshold.14 But the defense shakeup did not hurt the entire Gunbelt. California benefitted, and even Long Island’s largest employer, Grumman, remained stable. Nonetheless, market discipline pushed manufacturers to favor skilled technicians and engineers over the mass of blue-collar production workers to win defense contracts. The anti-discrimination agencies responsible for enforcing fair hiring and promotion—from the PCEEO to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCC) in the late 1960s—implemented Affirmative Action, concerned with racial proportions within the existing distribution of work, not the number of jobs, particularly for the mass of non-white workers on Long Island and elsewhere.
Commercial Keynesian market ideology likewise informed the suburban War on Poverty. While Johnson’s own “Task Force on Suburban Problems” found that thirteen percent of suburban families lived at or near the federal poverty level, their plight was cast within the “poverty amidst plenty” framework of LBJ’s anti-poverty crusade.15 Long Island exemplified the “paradox,” where 33,000 poor families lived in the nation’s wealthiest large suburban region.16 Long Island’s county governments embraced the War on Poverty’s framing, hoping the region’s impressive median income, aggregate economic statistics, and relatively low poverty rates would make it a model for the nation. Federal anti-poverty agencies, county administrations, and even civil rights groups deployed the familiar labor-supply oriented programs: job training, bus routes, and comprehensive referral systems. These efforts revealed structural problems beneath the paradox: manufacturing losses, a polarized service sector, and a plethora of low-wage employment opportunities. By 1969, Nassau County’s executive Eugene Nickerson proposed (unsuccessfully) a county-wide job guarantee program, a public option for county residents which would create civil service jobs for those in need of work. Nickerson’s proposal illustrated the reality that suburbia’s private economy could not employ all; the state was necessary.
The mystification of suburbia’s economic structure came full circle in the widely circulated Kerner Report in 1968. The Report’s thesis about white society’s implication in the ghetto was spatial; America was moving toward “two societies, one black, and one white—separate and unequal…one, largely Negro and poor, located in the central cities; the other, predominantly white and affluent, located in the suburbs and in outlying areas.”17 And while the report addressed many aspects of racial inequality and urban problems, its condemnation of suburbia was direct: employment and the middle class were moving to the suburbs while restrictive land practices not only denied African Americans and the poor free housing choice, but restricted job opportunities, access to quality education, and equitable tax distribution. These conclusions were drawn from contemporary social science research from the likes of John F. Kain, author of the “spatial mismatch hypothesis,” and Anthony Downs, future author of Opening Up the Suburbs, and reflected decades of civil rights activism. The Report was not even the first federal commission to condemn the “white noose” for urban black problems, but it galvanized a wide range of federal agencies, state policymakers, civil rights groups, and local activists to interpret the wide range of racial inequalities, including black poverty and unemployment, along the urban/suburban divide. They were absolutely right that housing segregation, exclusive school districts, and the fragmentation of governance and taxing jurisdictions concentrated African Americans into urban neighborhoods with scarce resources relative to whites. But whether it was the source of black unemployment, lower incomes, or poverty rested on a formulation that the suburban economy worked well for all except those denied access.
This became problematic when the ideology met reality in suburbs like Long Island. In 1969, the NAACP sued the suburban town of Oyster Bay, Long Island, on the grounds that denying housing opportunity in effect nullified equal employment opportunity, and thereby the Fourteenth Amendment. The NAACP demanded the Town permit affordable housing for about 18,000 New York City residents, a population increase of five percent. But the NAACP had to prove housing segregation prohibited people from job opportunities, and while Oyster Bay experienced plant growth during the 1960s, defense cutbacks and a general industrial migration toward the South and West reduced manufacturing employment across the New York metropolitan area. The remaining entry-level jobs were no better than opportunities in the city. The Town’s defense attorneys stated as much when they contended the NAACP “merely state the conclusion that there are job opportunities in Oyster Bay.”18
On the brink of losing the case, the NAACP changed strategy in March 1973, demanding Affirmative Action based on the “fair share” concept, that the Town’s demographics should match that of New York City. This was a different rationale than the suburbs as a transformative space to end poverty and unemployment. Two years later, the NAACP withdrew the suit. The NAACP’s mid-suit shift in strategy reflected the broader direction of activism addressing the “urban crisis” as formulated by the Kerner Report. HUD’s Open Communities Program, New York State’s Urban Development Corporation, and county agencies all used their legal powers to disperse the poor so they could benefit from suburbia’s largesse. And on Long Island, as elsewhere, two basic issues emerged: whether moving the poor would have the purported benefits, and where to place the poor. The former was already answered and the debate framed in moral or legalistic terms. The latter question was the most explosive, particularly in places like Long Island, where fragmented taxing districts meant the costs of such housing would be borne by very local populations who were not always affluent. Affected residents, including white and black working-class suburbanites, vigorously fought such projects. Their opposition was framed in market-oriented meritocratic discourse, and some whites veered into racism. But this was in part a consequence of the way liberal elites socially constructed the problem – that the suburbs were an exclusive space where schools produced upward mobility and the labor market was full of work, but racial barriers limited access. The vision was at best relative, and for many working-class suburbanites, a skewed version of their reality by the 1970s. Both sides were speaking in terms of a market—one of a robust labor market exclusive to suburbs, the other of their own meritocratic status in a “free” market of housing that the state was trying to infringe upon. Here the thrust of the new political divide, fought along the urban/suburban divide, was born, a political outcome of suburbanization and the market-oriented approach that came to dominate liberal policymaking.
The Kerner Report is often the starting point among urban political historians, the “last gasp of the progressive imagination” of the 1960s.19 American politics moved right and came to center around suburban concerns as liberals failed to break down the structures that made America’s metropolises unequal. But the Kerner Report can also be read a first breath of a less social-democratic imagination, one where equality is found in the efficiency of the market, made inefficient by racially discriminatory barriers. This was first birthed in the racial democratic conception of Title VII, the War on Poverty, and Affirmative Action. The Kerner Report extended the approach to the “urban crisis.” The focus on suburban schools, including school desegregation, revenue-sharing to improve school quality, or forming regional districts, was and continues to be framed as means to improve the skillset of the labor supply, so that all can compete for work equally in the private market. Breaking open suburban zoning to permit affordable housing rested on the purported value of freeing the poor so they could be more mobile, to search farther and wider for work. And the fight for a more equitable distribution of housing wealth between races did not question whether asset building would reduce racialized class inequality.
This is not to say historians espouse these particular solutions to the exclusion of others, but the urban political interpretation of the period nonetheless contributes to the broader contention that segregation, and the whites who benefitted from it, is at the heart of the political failure to remedy systemic racial inequality, i.e. racism is responsible for the various still-present disparities. They locate the shift in suburban white identity politics and decry the “narrow social responsibility” among suburban voters, fomented by federal policy and abetted by politicians, who were concerned primarily with their own “spatially bounded communities” and failed to take “collective” responsibility for the nation’s urban problems.20 This limits the solution to metropolitan-level anti-discrimination or integration policies and generalized expiation; their identity, associated political movements, and embedded privileges were what needed to be altered. Overcoming racism entrenched in America’s metropolises would have surely produced a more humane nation and reduced educational, housing, and resource disparities, but it would not have grappled with the fundamental inequalities rooted in the structure of the postwar economy and the limits of anti-discrimination policy.
This is what makes Judith Stein’s Running Steel, Running America indispensable. While her work and that of urban political historians seemingly address two different aspects of inequality, one embedded in the labor market and the other in the urban/suburban divide, both are intimately tied together. Suburbanites had multiple identities, including that of a worker, and suburbs were places of work. On Long Island and across the Gunbelt, massive state spending buttressed suburbanization itself. Defense spending was not a social-democratic project, but a violent perversion of the full-employment ideals formulated in the 1934 Committee on Economic Security and WPA. It nonetheless employed millions, and discrimination excluded black workers from these jobs. Unfortunately, efforts to integrate and expand black job opportunities, in cities and suburbs, coincided with a new economic ideology that increasingly pushed Americans toward the private market for their livelihood. Emphasizing social, legal, and geographic barriers to participation in a labor market assumed to provide “full employment,” liberals offered little and framed battles as those between black versus white and city versus suburb, fomenting new political interests with consequences to this day. The responsibility then was not only one that rested with white middle class suburbanites, the beneficiaries of the course of events, but of the state, which shed its responsibility to employ people and produce adequate jobs that could make social policy meaningful. Judith Stein’s Running Steel, Running America helps us understand that the emerging racial and spatial divisions of the 1960s were ideological constructions from liberal elites as much as grassroots metropolitan residents. And most importantly, Stein illustrates that broader political coalitions were and are possible, including ones across the city/suburb and racial divide. This is all the more important now, because today there is more poverty in suburbs than cities, low-wage jobs predominate across municipal borders, and the challenges once considered “urban” or “black” can no longer be justified as such.21 History proves they never should have been considered distinct in the first place.