I’ve had conversations with black people who’ve told me that voting hasn’t changed anything for blacks in America. And while I vehemently disagree with their assessment, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute lends credence to their argument.
The new report, titled “50 Years After the Kerner Commission,” measures black progress in the half-century since President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a group to examine the causes of the black uprisings that had taken place in cities across America.
The Economic Policy Institute found that as of 2016, the median black family had only 10.2 percent of the wealth of the median white family. As it’s been for the last 50 years, the black unemployment rate is twice the white unemployment rate, and when blacks are employed, they make only 82.5 cents for every dollar made by whites. Even worse, the share of African Americans in prison has almost tripled since 1968, and today blacks are 6.4 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites.
It’s almost as if the most famous line from the Kerner Commission’s report was a prophecy. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report said. “One black, one white – separate and unequal.”
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That unequal society has arrived. Or, as many in my community would say, it’s always been here. And because America hasn’t had the political will to attack the root causes of our society’s inequality, we’ve remained stuck in a time warp. A time warp fueled by racism.
Even as blacks pushed forward over the last 50 years, earning greater educational attainment, more income, and greater wealth than they had in 1968, we continued to lag behind whites. And in my view, that’s largely due to the same racist attitudes that prevailed during the time of the Kerner Commission.
Many in my community laughed bitterly when we were told that the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, marked the start of a post-racial era. We knew we were still followed in stores, still denied employment opportunities, still denied loans, and still denied the basic humanity routinely afforded to whites.
In many ways, the racial situation worsened with Obama’s election, as racists sought opportunities to demonstrate their rage. We saw children such as Trayvon Martin killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman. We saw unarmed blacks shot and killed by white policemen. We saw almost no one go to jail in such cases.
But we didn’t truly know the extent of white rage until the backlash came to a head with the election of Donald Trump.
To deny that racism helped fuel Trump’s election is to deny Trump’s platform. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly identified people of color as America’s problem. His proposal to build a wall to impede brown immigrants from Mexico and beyond was a racial dog-whistle, as was his proposal to ban Muslims from countries in Africa and the Middle East. His “law and order” platform for cities seemed in many ways a signal to a white working class that was weary of protests around police shootings of unarmed blacks.
But Trump’s election says more about America than it does about Trump. It tells us the Kerner Commission was right to identify white racism as the foundational cause of “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing” in America. It tells us that the same attitudes that held sway in 1968 remain prevalent today. It tells us, most of all, that history repeats itself.
In 1968, when the Kerner Commission surprised observers by heaping the lion’s share of the blame for black uprisings on white racism, America stuck its proverbial head in the sand. White politicians and media pushed back against the notion that white institutions and attitudes were at fault.
The commission recommended that the federal government work with the private sector to create two million jobs in a three-year period; that the quality of education in black schools be drastically improved, and that the federal government partner with the private sector to fight housing segregation.
Johnson refused to implement the commission’s recommendations. The reasons were twofold. First, Johnson did not want to upset the white electorate and hurt Democrats’ chances for winning the upcoming presidential election. Johnson also believed the commission had unfairly ignored all he had done on civil rights and poverty through his Great Society programs.
We see the same kind of defensiveness today.
Democrats have run Philadelphia for well over 50 years, and despite whatever programs they’ve put in place, Philadelphia remains the poorest big city in America, and that poverty is concentrated in black and brown communities. Substandard schools are concentrated in black and brown communities. Drugs, unemployment, and loan discrimination are concentrated in Philadelphia’s black and brown communities.
So racism is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. It is a white American problem. And until we admit that sobering fact, we'll remain in the same racial quagmire that the Kerner Commission so bravely identified 50 years ago.