“Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
This dismal analysis came in 1968 from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission. Appointed by US President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the riots that plagued black inner cities the previous summer, this body of political and business leaders assessed that: “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Almost half a century later, those words hang like dark clouds over Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury has refused to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, for shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The killing, which occurred three months ago, triggered weeks of civil unrest, including violent outbursts by black residents and a heavily militarised occupation by the Ferguson police. The verdict on Monday evening ignited more protests in Ferguson and throughout the United States.
The jury’s decision was rooted in the specifics of the interaction between Wilson and Brown. Some witnesses testified that Brown, who had committed petty theft, had his hands up in surrender. Wilson and others maintained that Brown aggressively approached the officer. But the current African American outrage is not, at its heart, about the particular case of Michael Brown.
Rather, the shooting confirms the dire warnings of the Kerner Commission, sharpening black perceptions of their own second-class status in American society. For all the nation’s progress in the wake of the civil rights movement, many African Americans live in segregated neighbourhoods, endure a racially biased criminal justice system, and operate within a political culture that dismisses their perspective. These barriers have roots in the past, but they endure in the present.
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Even in regions untouched by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow laws, government policies largely relegated black people to segregated ghettoes while denying them access to homeownership.
When the Federal Housing Administration started insuring private mortgages in the 1930s, it classified black districts as uninsurable risks. Restrictive covenants banned blacks from buying homes in certain white neighbourhoods.
By the 1950s, federal funds made possible an expansive network of highways to suburbs, while public housing concentrated black poverty in the urban core. Such practises reflected the Kerner Commission’s contention that “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto”.
Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, was not the typical inner-city “ghetto”. African Americans started moving there in the 1980s. But its key institutions testify to the enduring barriers of race. As blacks moved in, whites fled. As of 2010, Ferguson was 69 percent black and 29 percent white. Yet the mayor, police chief, five of six City Council members, and six of seven School Board members are white. An astonishing 50 of its 53 police officers are white. In St Louis County, 47 percent of black men aged 18-24 are unemployed. About three times as many blacks live in poverty as do whites.
Even now, in the wake of yet another shooting of an unarmed black boy by a white authority, US President Barack Obama just offers milquetoast pleas for law, order, and mutual understanding.
Poor black districts
The shooting of Michael Brown did not occur in a vacuum. Black residents of Ferguson complain about constant traffic stops and unfair arrests, a reflection of a justice system that is criminalising a generation of poor, young, African American men.
In the past 30 years, since the introduction of Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs,” the American prison population has surged from 300,000 to over 2 million, despite no corresponding increase in crime rates. Federal drug laws concentrate on poor black districts. In some cities, up to 80 percent of black males have a criminal record, creating a situation that scholar Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow”.
None of this was inevitable. The Kerner Commission advocated for an ambitious slate of programmes to combat racial inequality: jobs programmes, urban investment, improvements in police training, and policies to end residential segregation.
Johnson ignored the report, and his political successors abandoned attention to the nation’s most pressing social problem. The issues of race and urban poverty are off the political table. Even now, in the wake of yet another shooting of an unarmed black boy by a white authority, US President Barack Obama just offers milquetoast pleas for law, order, and mutual understanding.
The violence in Ferguson may be desperate, futile, and self-destructive, but it is easy to understand, for anyone who cares to understand. Black people are angry about the shooting of Michael Brown, because they are angry about the hurdles that a black youth must jump to get a chance at the American Dream. Black people are angry about the Darren Wilson verdict, because they are angry about how powerful institutions are aligned against the disadvantaged. Black people are angry about America, because it is “two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
Aram Goudsouzian is Chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis and author of “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear”. Please see www.aramgoudsouzian.com.