Frontiers

Two Societies, Separate and Unequal

Two Societies, Separate and Unequal
March 2008
Forty years ago, in an attempt to deal with a country rocked by racial unrest, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission. Last week, the intense public scrutiny garnered by Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race testified that the issue continues to strike at the nation’s soul. The recently published Kerner Plus 40 Report assesses just how far the U.S. has come during the past four decades in dealing with the Kerner Commission’s chilling conclusion that nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.

"The Kerner Plus 40 Report is illuminating because it shows that we have a long way to go before we can say that we only see 'One America,'" says Tukufu Zuberi, professor and chair of sociology, Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies. “The color line is still very real.”

The book stems from a joint project by scholars at the Center for Africana Studies, Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, and the Institute for Advanced Journalism at North Carolina A&T State University, as well as a team of journalists. Researchers conducted empirical research, investigative reporting and roundtable discussions to measure the progress made in meeting the Kerner Commission’s recommendations for some of the cities hardest hit by race riots in the 1960s. These recommendations included creating two million new jobs, eliminating defacto segregation in schools, overhauling housing laws and enacting new taxes. The researchers found, however, that many of the economic, social and political systems that previously contributed to racial disparities in education, health, housing and economic well-being still persist.

 These findings were made public during a week-long symposium that was split between Penn and North Carolina A&T University. “We brought top flight journalists and top flight scholars together and provided them with an infrastructure and a public platform to have conversations about the issue of race in American society,” Zuberi says. He explains that these public conversations are vital to reversing the lingering impact of racial discrimination and to diffusing explosive situations exemplified by the violent unrest of the 60s.

The Kerner Plus 40 Report says that such discussions must happen at the grassroots as well as the highest levels of leadership and warns against political evasiveness toward issues of race. Zuberi says, “The report recommends that we as everyday citizens hold our leaders to the fire to get involved and raise questions about how to attack the specifics of these problems.”