Separate and Unequal, Still?


Forty years after a government commission concluded that racial unrest was on the brink of tearing the nation in two and that discrimination threatened the future of every American, Bill Clinton visited Penn in February for a conference that aimed to measure how far the country has come since then, and how far it still has to go. 

“We should not have to have a riot on the streets to do the right things,” the 42nd president declared before a packed house in Irvine Auditorium.  “We should not punish people for being law-abiding citizens by ignoring their problems.” 

The former president’s plea was in part a reference to the grim events of July 23, 1967, when a police raid on a Detroit speakeasy sparked a confrontation that enveloped 14 square miles in one of the most destructive urban upheavals in modern American history.  Five days later, 46 men and women lay dead, hundreds were injured, and over 2,000 buildings had been burned down.  It was the bloodiest yet of the so-called “race riots” which had wreaked havoc upon cities ranging from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Omaha. 

The day the smoke began to clear over what would prove to be a permanently altered Detroit, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to assess what had gone wrong, and why.  Seven months later, the Kerner Commission—as it was popularly called, after the Illinois governor who chaired it—released a report that Nichols Professor of History Steven Hahn calls “one of the most extraordinary documents not simply of the last 40 or 50 years, but one of the most extraordinary documents produced in all of American history.”

Far from confirming FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s contention that the uprisings were a product of Communist agitation, the Kerner Report asserted that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”  Calling attention to pervasive discrimination in employment, education, and housing, the report’s predominantly white authors declared that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  And the roots of violent protest, they went on, were to be found in “white terrorism directed at [the] nonviolent protest” which had initially characterized the civil-rights movement.

Most famously, they concluded: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  Five weeks later, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. touched off riots in more than 100 American cities.

Clinton’s address was part of a larger program put together by Penn’s Center for Africana Studies in partnership with the Annenberg School for Communication and North Carolina A&T State University’s Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies.   On the heels of producing the Kerner Plus 40 Report—a collection of reportage and scholarly essays assessing the nation’s response to the original commission’s findings—participating academics and journalists convened at Penn for two days of public symposia.


Today, as at the time of its release, the Kerner Report’s core assertion—that America was headed toward becoming two nations, separate and unequal—seems most remarkable for having avoided the real truth of the matter.  “America was already divided by race,” said Tukufu Zuberi, director of the Center for Africana Studies. “For African Americans, the reality of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation … that was their everyday life.  The white only signs—they saw it every day, all over the United States.”

Nevertheless, Hahn’s observation is hard to deny: the Kerner Report remains in many respects an astonishing document.  “The report itself is so devastating, and unsparing in its depiction of the country’s historical repression of African Americans and the country’s embrace of racism,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, “that it’s hard to believe it was produced by a presidential commission composed chiefly of moderate officials rather than wild-eyed radicals, which is exactly what would be assumed if it was read today.”

Yet the voices of those moderates were drowned out by the political tumult of 1968, many of the Kerner Plus 40 participants argued.  “I remember how the attention that the country might have given to the Kerner Commission Report at the time was diverted first by the Vietnam War and then by the murder of Dr. King and the riots which broke out afterward, including those that broke out where I was a student in Washington,” said Clinton.  Despite the “searing impact” of the report, he continued, “the political will to act on it could not be mustered, because of the heartbreak and division and anger of the country.”

The lively roundtable discussions encompassed a wide variety of perspectives, but much discussion focused on the changing contours of economic inequality in America, and the degree to which race still plays a part.  Surveying the last four decades, participants described a complex mixture of progress and backsliding.   

“The rise of the black middle class, the general acceptance of people from other races and religions into our political life is something of enormous significance—inconceivable when I was a boy growing up in the segregated South, when it was an act of high courage and drama when the Little Rock Nine braved their way into the schoolhouse in 1957,” said Clinton. 

Commenting on the ethnic diversity evident in the crowd at Irvine Auditorium, and calling attention to the success of figures like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, Clinton posited that American society is more inclusive today than ever before—but that much of that pluralism is confined to the cultural elite.

“We also have to look at what life is like for people who will never run for office, who will never be television stars or movie stars, and will never have a chance to attend the University of Pennsylvania,” he urged.  “People of color do have more opportunities than ever, but there are gaping disparities at the grassroots—in education, incarceration, health care, employment, incomes, and in wealth.”

He and several others contended that civil and economic inequality is no longer purely a matter of black and white, but features a stark contrast between an increasingly multi-ethnic professional class and large segments of the working poor for whom “separate and unequal” still remains true—as TV viewers, however briefly, were reminded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Penn sociology professor Camille Charles, the faculty associate director of the Center for Africana Studies, presented data indicating that while overall residential segregation has declined significantly since 1968, some 40 percent of the black population live in cities that are “hyper-segregated, which means that they are experiencing extreme levels of segregation across multiple dimensions.”  Such neighborhoods often lack basic amenities like supermarkets and banks—leading to the perverse scenario in which poor people frequently pay more than the wealthy for foodstuffs, and must resort to check-cashing services and payday loans that carry effective annual interest rates of up to 400 percent.  According to Charles, the number of hyper-segregated cities has doubled in America since 1980.  Echoing Clinton, she stressed the need to “bank the unbanked,” bringing what the FDIC estimates to be 28 million unserved Americans—who are disproportionately African American and Latino—into the financial system.

Some of the Kerner Plus 40 participants contended that if “white institutions” are still implicated in the persistence of these ghetto conditions, so too are well-off blacks.  Nikole Hannah Jones, a reporter for The Oregonian newspaper, ventured that when those African Americans W.E.B. DuBios referred to as the “talented tenth” were finally allowed into white-dominated institutions, they lost the impetus to advocate for their disadvantaged brethren.  

“Now we have a society in which the talented tenth have kind of made it,” she said, “and we believe the doors are open to the rest of the masses, but they’re not.  We’re too comfortable now to agitate.  We have too much to lose.” 

Gregory Kane, a columnist for The Baltimore Sun, sharpened the point.  “Forty years after the Kerner Report, black America is now two societies, separate and unequal,” he declared.  “We need to ask ourselves the question: Do those two societies have values that are in direct contradiction to each other?”

Other participants saw a clash of values taking place on a different level, arguing that the civic and economic inequality that persists 40 years after the Kerner Report is substantially an outgrowth of political ideology. 

“What you see in operation is free-market fundamentalism,” said Claude W. Barnes, a political science professor at North Carolina A&T State.  “We’ve been captured by an ideology and a philosophy that basically says: Give money to those who already have money, because they know what to do with it.  So what has happened is a tremendous concentration of wealth, and we’ve seen a pyramid begin to appear—not just in the African-American community, but more and more, other sectors of society are finding themselves kicked out of the middle class, pushed down to the working class, and unemployed.

“The riots in the 1960s may have been led by African Americans primarily,” he continued. “I have a nightmare that the riots of the future might be a multicultural affair.”

Although he was more hopeful about the future, Clinton plumbed a similar theme in his address, arguing that economic indicators like the poverty rate, which fell significantly during his administration and has risen since he was replaced in office, are testament to the impact of government policy.     

 “The American people never got to live with the consequences of the policies behind the rhetoric of the right wing of the Republican Party until President Bush was elected with a Republican Congress,” he said, pointing out that President Reagan had been tempered to some degree by the Democrats who then controlled the House of Representatives.  “And I think even the Republicans know that, which is why they nominated Senator McCain instead of somebody to the right of him.  I mean, I just think that, you know, their deal didn’t work very well and we all got to live with it.”

The media also came under close scrutiny by conference participants.  The Kerner Commission criticized the fourth estate in its findings.  “It was, I think, rather direct in suggesting that the media had a great responsibility for what had taken place,” said DeWayne Wickham, director of North Carolina A&T State’s Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies and a columnist for USA Today

“It pointed out that the media had not done an adequate job of covering issues of importance to people of color,” he continued, “and said that the media had failed miserably, in fact, to hire and to promote blacks, and that it went about its job looking at issues from a white man’s perspective.”

Annenberg School Dean Michael Delli Carpini C’75 G’75 said that things haven’t changed as much as they should have. “The news media can be applauded for raising issues of race and class in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” he wrote in the report, “but the dearth of coverage of these issues before that catastrophic event and, more ominously, in the years since, suggests that our applause for the press should be muted.”


Speaking at the conference, Delli Carpini noted that “the percentage of blacks that are journalists or in positions in management in the news has improved somewhat, but not much—and most of that improvement happened within the 10 or so years after the Kerner Report, and it’s been flat or downward since then.”

Nikole Hannah Jones observed that that fact, combined with the event-driven nature of much journalism, undercuts the ability of mainstream media to delve into racial issues in a meaningful way.  “The people in charge of the news view race in terms of single incidents, and that’s how they report these things,” she said, offering the coverage of radio host Don Imus’ notorious reference to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ’hos,” as an example.  “Those of us of color know that race is constant, and everything is part of this ongoing struggle that we have against racism.  But editors often don’t see it that way.  So they’re not going to write the complex story.  They’re not going to take a step back.  They’re going to cover that incident, because to them, the larger racism is gone.”

This is a problem today for the same reason that the Kerner Commission identified it as a problem in 1968, Tukufu Zuberi said after the conference.  “By ignoring the realities of race, [the media] do us a great disservice.  By speaking of the racial problem as something that happened in the past, it does not allow us to connect the present to the past.”  And that, he added, bodes ill for the future.

Forty years ago, the Kerner Commission sounded an ominous warning: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community, and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”  In 2008 the racial divide is not quite so stark, but the gulf between the haves and have-nots remains wide enough—and media coverage shallow enough—that the Kerner Plus 40 participants were reluctant to uncork the champagne.

“If you go back and look at what happened in the 1960s, the social scientists were caught off guard,” Barnes observed at the end of the conference.  “We may be setting ourselves up for a similar kind of surprise.”—T.P

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