Event explores 50 years of American race relations

President Johnson with some members of the Kerner Commission in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson with some members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Marion S. Trikosko, via the Library of Congress)

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — known as the Kerner Commission after its chair, Governor Otto Kerner Jr. of Illinois — was an 11-member presidential commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the nationwide 1967 race riots in the United States and to provide recommendations about quelling these deadly uprisings in the future.

At a recent event on campus commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, Elijah Anderson, Yale Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies, and Alan Curtis, president and chief executive officer of the Eisenhower Foundation, discussed the latest update to the Kerner Commission’s findings. These findings were published as a book titled “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America 50 Years after the Kerner Report,” which was released by the Eisenhower Foundation, the private-sector outgrowth of the 1967-1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

The original report concluded that America was heading “toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” This, said Anderson, has proved to be an accurate prediction. In February 2018 the Eisenhower Foundation concluded in its update that America has made relatively little progress in reducing poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. In fact, the nation has arguably lost ground, according to the report.

Elijah Anderson
Elijah Anderson

At the event, Anderson, who contributed a chapter to the 2018 report, noted that in 1968 urban ghettos were likened to tinderboxes, and that the 1968 report concluded that the disorders were attributable to one central cause: white racism. These findings were not well received, noted Anderson, adding that many prominent U.S. leaders rejected the findings. “The dominant ideology at the time was one of egalitarianism and equal opportunity,” said Anderson. “The truth of the matter is that since slavery, of course, black people have made significant progress, but as a group, they continue to experience bigotry that renders many of them second-class citizens.”

When the report was published, said Anderson, President Johnson seemed to ignore it and some members of Congress repudiated it, but many leaders in politics, business, and the academy embraced its spirit and began to make the institutions they led more consistent with the nation’s professed egalitarian ideology and values. “This set the stage for what I call the racial incorporation process,” said Anderson, “an extremely important development that has resulted in the largest black middle class in American history.”

Indeed, it is a process has contributed both indirectly and directly to the “diversity” of American institutions that we know today, said Anderson. But even with this progress in race relations, noted Anderson, the black ghetto remains as an institutionalized bastion of racialized poverty. “In the minds of many Americans,” he said, “the ghetto is strongly associated with poverty, crime, and danger, but most importantly, it is symbolic of ‘the place where the black people live.’ It has become an icon that effectively reinforces what slavery established — the ‘place’ of black people as a second-class citizen in the nation’s racial order.”

Ironically, today, black people inhabit all levels of society. They attend the best schools and many rise to the top of their professions. But, for these people, the urban ghetto hovers — shaping how other Americans conceive of them, said Anderson. For many Americans, the ghetto works as a “master status,” he said, “often superseding whatever else an anonymous black person may claim to be. Others typically consider that person to be ‘black’ first, and then as a doctor, a professor, a student, or whatever. The anonymous black person is often associated with the ghetto, and when the police and others are concerned about crime and danger, they make these presumptions all the time.”

Anderson said that when black people move about anonymously, especially in “white spaces,” they operate with a deficit of credibility, especially when compared with their white counterparts.  Such “deficits” may be resolved by repeated “good behavior,” but even then, the black person is often left with a “provisional status,” or something more to prove. This is one of the reasons the country is so racially divided today.

Anderson explained that much of the traditional white racism has been coupled with a peculiar form of symbolic racism that is premised on the black person’s historically subordinate “place” that many of the larger society associate with black people. “Black people commonly experience implicit racial bias, which becomes activated especially when black people navigate white spaces and are audacious enough to claim status equal to that of white people,” said Anderson. “When black people make such claims, implicit though they may be, some whites can become uncomfortable, and motivated to resist such advances, or to summon the police to effectively ‘put the black person in his ‘place.’ These issues and the tensions they provoke are among the most pressing, and persistent, racial challenges we face today.”

One of the primary reasons for the event, said Anderson, was to enlighten people about the 50-year-old report and to spread the word about the 2018 update. “I want people to reflect on these issues and really think about what we can do to alleviate some of these real problems that we as a society still face today.”

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324