Forty years have passed since the pivotal year of 1968. Brace yourselves, young 'uns. This is going to be a big year for boomer nostalgia.
What a coincidence. The 40th anniversary of the Kerner Report just happens to occur as Democrats are deciding whether they will nominate their first black candidate or their first female candidate for president. That's a tough call for some, considering how closely both candidates stand on major issues. But nobody said progress was going to be easy.
And much progress has been made since the historic report by President Lyndon B. Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, Jr. Johnson named the 11-member panel to investigate the causes of 160 race riots that ripped through American cities in 1967, leaving more than 80 people dead and more than $200 million worth of destruction.
The report's ringing conclusion: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white separate and unequal."
This had been said before, but not everyone had said it. For the first time, a distinguished presidential panel, not a bunch of black militants or lefty radicals, was saying that urban unrest had not erupted because of some communist conspiracy, but because of white racism.
"White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto," the report declared. "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."
Forty years later, it has become a timeworn cliche to say that we have come a long way, yet have a long way to go. In fact, it is more accurate to say that most of us African Americans have come a long way from "the ghetto," as Kerner referred to overcrowded low-income black neighborhoods, while too many of our former neighbors have been left behind.
We don't have waves of riots as we did in the 1960s, partly because we have locked up so many people who might cause one. Last week, for example, the Pew Center on the States issued a report that finds this country now leads the world in both incarceration rates and in absolute numbers of those incarcerated, especially for young black men. More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, Pew found. That includes one in every nine black men ages 20 to 34 and one in 100 black women ages 35 to 39, compared with one in 355 white women in the same age group.
Throwing more offenders in prison does reduce crime, studies show, but so does reducing joblessness, raising wages and putting more police officers on the streets, Pew report co-author Adam Gelb pointed out. So, I would add, does raising children in a wholesome environment.
"White people drive around the cities right past black neighborhoods without noticing the poverty," the original Kerner Commission reported. Today, the most striking difference in today's urban scene is the middle class black people like me who have joined the middle-class white people in zipping past poor black neighborhoods with their car doors firmly locked.
America's low-income neighborhoods and their school systems are still segregated by race, but with a key difference: today's racial divide is a consequence of an income divide. White flight to the suburbs in the wake of the riots in the 1960s was quickly followed by middle-class black flight. Today's urban poor are fewer in number but more isolated, not only from the white mainstream but also from upwardly mobile blacks,
Instead of traditional streets riots, a group of experts who included some former Kerner Commission members observed in a follow-up report 20 years ago that we have "quiet riots" of street crimes, drug addition, family violence and other self-destructive behavior stirred up by rage, frustration and despair.
These "quiet riots" erupt in grim statistics where poverty is concentrated and that's not a problem only for black Americans. After all, by sheer numbers, poor whites outnumber poor blacks and Hispanics combined.
Yes, the white poverty rate of 10.3 percent is less than half the 24.3 percent of blacks or the 20.6 percent of Hispanics, who can be of any race, as of 2006, the latest census figures available. Yet that translates to 24 million white Americans below poverty, compared to 9 million blacks and 9.2 million Hispanics.
Ten years from now, as we look back 50 years after Kerner, I hope we can point to progress in closing the gap between the two societies we now see growing in new ways, not between black and white, but between the upwardly mobile and those stuck on the bottom. A presidential campaign is an excellent time to begin that task. We don't need to wait for a riot.