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Two Societies: One Black, One White — Separate and Unequal

Lance Simmens: While many whites and white collar workers can take solace in performing work duties in their own homes, many black and brown workers are not afforded that luxury, it is either work or unemployment.
killed by the police

President Lyndon Johnson constituted the Kerner Commission to identify the genesis of the violent 1967 riots that killed 43 in Detroit and 26 in Newark (above, soldiers in a Newark storefront), while causing fewer casualties in 23 other cities. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

What is the state of race relations in the United States today? Is it better or worse than ever? It is said the more things change the more they stay the same. I would offer that little has changed over the 67 years I have spent on this earth in the land of the free and during that time period an argument could be made that we have actually regressed. We need a national dialogue on race relations. I have written for the past decade that we need a national Presidential commission on race relations to pick up where the Kerner Commission left off over 50 years ago. Wake up America.

In the wake of the riots that lit up major cities across America in the 1960s, a commission led by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr., released a blistering indictment of the state of race relations in this nation. It was received and promptly shelved by President Lyndon Johnson. While it sits in the dustbin of history our nation’s permanent underclass continues to face a modern version of slavery under a system whose institutionalized racism continues unabated.

While many whites and white collar workers can take solace in performing work duties in their own homes, many black and brown workers are not afforded that luxury, it is either work or unemployment.

This week it is George Floyd in Minneapolis, the week before Breouna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, before that it was Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. Senseless killings involving African Americans merely being the wrong color at the wrong place at the wrong time, and it goes on and on and on. It must stop.

So let's take a look at the findings of the Kerner Commission to see how relevant it is to what is happening today. The Commission identified deeply held grievances:

  • police practices,
  • unemployment and underemployment,
  • inadequate housing,
  • inadequate education,
  • poor recreation facilities and programs,
  • ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms,
  • disrespectful white attitudes,
  • discriminatory consumer and credit practices, and
  • inadequate welfare programs.

The report concluded “the police are not merely a ‘spark factor’…to some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression…and the atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection—one for Negroes and one for whites.”

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In conclusion the report stated that the nation “was moving towards two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

In innumerable instances today evidence of unequal justice, exemplified in mass incarceration and differential sentencing for similar crimes, economic disparities, and the recent public health crisis that finds people of color disproportionately serving in dangerous and underpaying frontline positions from grocery clerks to nurses to janitors facing the choice between working or poverty, highlight racial inequities in black society. While many whites and white collar workers can take solace in performing work duties in their own homes, many black and brown workers are not afforded that luxury, it is either work or unemployment.

Today, black Americans find themselves facing an assault on voting rights designed to suppress their ability to participate in the most sacred and coveted participatory exercise in a democracy: voting. Systematic harassment, profiling, and injustice exhibited by largely white dominated power structures is a common threat for popular unrest, and we are seeing this on a regular basis.

If not for advances in video technology widely available throughout our society such as the ubiquitous cell phone with camera how much would merely continue to fly beneath the public radar screen? A resurgence in hate crimes and ultra-right wing activities that thrive on intimidation and that gain a degree of public approval emanating from the President and his false equivalence in assigning first amendment protections to neo-Nazis and white supremicists further add to the notion that we really are two Americas.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The more things change the more they remain the same. We are sliding backwards into a past when America was great if you were white yet as Ralph Ellison so eloquently captured in Invisible Man, because the people he encounters "see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination," he is effectively invisible.

A reintroduction to the state of race in America is long, long overdue. There is no dialogue that is not soaked in denial of the reality of the moment. We must promote greater understanding of the realities of what it is like to live in a separate yet unequal society. It is time to wake up America.

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Lance Simmens

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