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Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism

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From a New York Times bestselling author, the definitive history of the Kerner Commission, whose report on urban unrest reshaped American debates about race and inequality

In Separate and Unequal , New York Times bestselling historian Steven M. Gillon offers a revelatory new history of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders -- popularly known as the Kerner Commission. Convened by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in Newark and Detroit left dozens dead and thousands injured, the commission issued a report in 1968 that attributed the unrest to "white racism" and called for aggressive new programs to end discrimination and poverty. "Our nation is moving toward two societies," it warned, "one black, and one white -- separate and unequal."

Johnson refused to accept the Kerner Report, and as his political coalition unraveled, its proposals went nowhere. For the right, the report became a symbol of liberal excess, and for the left, one of opportunities lost. Separate and Unequal is essential for anyone seeking to understand the fraught politics of race in America.

400 pages, Hardcover

Published March 6, 2018

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Steven M. Gillon

38 books39 followers

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Caroline.
468 reviews21 followers
September 6, 2018
This important book delves deeply into the work of the Kerner Commission, established by president Johnson in 1967 after riots in a number of American cities. Although Johnson would ultimately ignore the resulting report, the commission members (almost all white, both liberal and conservative) took their mandate seriously and gathered reams of information from inner city neighborhoods across the country - both directly themselves and through teams of social science investigators. This information convinced even the most law-and-order conservatives of the group that institutionalized racism had produced an underclass with no hope, pent up in cities by housing, employment, and education discrimination even as those cities fell apart because whites fled them and no longer cared what happened there. Of course, they then disagreed fiercely about what could be done to change the situation. However, they ended up writing a report filled with recommendations that reflect the optimism and the trust in government that existed in those days. Then Johnson ignored it, and white America flew into a rage that ended in the election of Nixon. The destruction of government and its ability to improve the life of the country began in 1968, not with Reagan in 1980. And the problems identified in America by the Kerner Commission are still with us and are even worse, as is made clear by a final chapter providing a quick survey of the years since 1968 from the point of view of racial division. I said the book was important, not that it was going to make us feel good...
Fortunately, the social scientists' report, "Harvest of American Racism," has just been published and is available as a $10 ebook through Google Books. This report went beyond reporting the facts because the authors became so enraged by what they learned, so it was suppressed by the commission itself. I need a break from this subject to avoid getting depressed, but that's on my list to read. Gillon's book is compulsively readable and draws on interviews, memoirs, and LBJ presidential papers to tell this story in the words of its participants. The road from the Kerner Commission to Ferguson MO and Freddie Gray is not that long.
Profile Image for Shira.
Author 3 books169 followers
March 10, 2019
How sad that the contents and conclusions of this report are still relevant, and still ignored, today, 50 years after it was released in response to the riots in Newark and Detroit of the “long hot” summer of 1967. I found this book after seeing Dr. King's response to the question, during the Memphis garbage workers' strike, of what it would take to prevent or call off his Poor People's March on Washington: the answer was to implement the recommendations in this report.

The report was commissioned to find out what caused the rioting, not how to prevent further riots. The clearest distinctions between those who actively participated in the rioting and their neighbors who did not, at least at the start of each riot, was the trigger of having witnessed or experienced police brutality. But what primed that trigger for action was the underlying anger, poverty, constant discrimination, and despair to which the Black community in particular was subjected over a very long period of time.

The report called for various measures to be taken which would have improved the lives not only of members of the Black community, but also everyone else in the nation. Measures like the elimination of sub-standard housing in inner-cities, building new schools, health centers, and community facilities, and introducing a guaranteed minimum income would help all citizens, not only those bereft of resources and hope when they were freed with only the clothing on their backs, unable to melt into White American society. From the disrespect by police, to the lack of garbage collection in inner-city neighborhoods, Black Americans were fed up with White America’s deliberate disregard for “the realities of life for many poor blacks” in the United States. This anger, combined with the criminalization of poverty (which was just beginning to kick off the era of Mass Incarceration), the lack of Black faces in [the media, police, highly paid professions and other areas of potential] power, led to a sense of hopelessness and fear that non-violent resistance would never break down a system which was inherently designed to break down the Black community. Ideas like the War on Drugs, brought back by Reagan after the Carter years, and Law and Order, parroted by both right and left, muddied the discourse around solving the problems that led to the riots, instead creating a cloud of convenient reasons to blame inner-city Black communities for their problems while ignoring the structural issues that had created and perpetuated the problems since the slavery era.

The conclusion drawn by the report, above all, was that the entire nation needed education and “a richer portrait of life in urban areas” and to hire many many more Black police officers.

I think that many of the issues of perspective mentioned in the book by the author in his analysis of the report and its time are now beginning to be looked at again, as the discussion around White Privilege becomes louder and more mainstream. That discussion is a necessary but insufficient part of the solution to our current problems, which go back to pre-existing problems pointed out by the report. Please read this book on the Commission report (and also see Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin), and then, write your reps!

Pages I found especially relevant included:

P. 6: 1966 result of creation of ghettos by the 1930s-50s urban renewal aka Negro Removal all across the USA
** P. 12: What a contrast: only 1/100 white people thought that blacks were poorly treated in the USA...
***Ribicoff P. 37: recos...
P. 100: “in the ghetto" last garbage collection (if at all), police disrespectful, school & housing dilapidated
P. 228 (and the answer to that boot-straps baloney:) discrimination and segregation prevented many blacks from following the same patterns which had been followed by immigrant groups, and limited blacks to all but the lowest ... jobs

Let's #EndPoverty & #EndMoneyBail by improving these four parts of our good #PublicDomainInfrastructure 4:
1. #libraries,
2. #ProBono legal aid and Education,
3. #UniversalHealthCare , and
4. good #publictransport
Read, Write, Ranked Choice Voting for ALL!!!!, Walk !


March, 12019 HE

Profile Image for Sanjida.
391 reviews30 followers
June 15, 2018
This book describes the personalities, politics, and findings and recommendations of a commission on American race relations from 60 years ago. It could have been detailing events from 10 years ago, or last year, or probably 10 years in the future. How can anything change? is this a call to arms?

Profile Image for Johnny Mettlach.
16 reviews
May 10, 2018
A very comprehensive look at the commission LBJ called for after almost 200 uprisings in dozens of American cities. The enduring and diplomatic spirit of the director Ginsburg is well described as he navigated a mixed groups of independents, conservatives and liberals. The machinations of LBJ are documented, including his attempts at sabotaging the Commission, his cutting of its funding, and why he did so (a very unpopular, expensive war he once championed, the huge drain on the government budget due to the Vietnam War, his desire to be re-elected, and the growing unrest within the marginalized black population which thought of his legislative victories in the earlier Housing and Voting Rights Acts as starting points whereas whites thought of them as ending points).
Some of the *key Commission summary findings (quotes) are *starred below; other conclusions from the chapters follow the *summary conclusions. See HISTORY MATTERS at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/
*This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

*Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.

*This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed.

*To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.

*The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society.

*This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.

*The vital needs of the nation must be met; hard choices must be made, and, if necessary, new taxes enacted.

*Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

*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, and white society condones it.

*It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens—urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.

*These [suggested] programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance, but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience. . . .

“Why did it happen?” we shift our focus from the local to the national scene, from the particular events of the summer of 1967 to the factors within the society at large that created a mood of violence among many urban Negroes.

These factors are complex and interacting; they vary significantly in their effect from city to city and from year to year; and the consequences of one disorder, generating new grievances and new demands, become the causes of the next. Thus was created the “thicket of tension, conflicting evidence and extreme opinions” cited by the President.

Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans.

Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. Among the ingredients of this mixture are:

Pervasive discrimination and segregation in employment, education and housing, which have resulted in the continuing exclusion of great numbers of Negroes from the benefits of economic progress.

Black in-migration and white exodus, which have produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and services and unmet human needs.

The black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure. Crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general and white society in particular are the result.

At the same time, most whites and some Negroes outside the ghetto have prospered to a degree unparalleled in the history of civilization. Through television and other media, this affluence has been flaunted before the eyes of the Negro poor and the jobless ghetto youth.

Yet these facts alone cannot be said to have caused the disorders. Recently, other powerful ingredients have begun to catalyze the mixture:

Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.

A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.

The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of “moving the system.” These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them, and in the reach toward racial consciousness and solidarity reflected in the slogan “Black Power.”

A new mood has sprung up among Negroes, particularly among the young, in which self-esteem and enhanced racial pride are replacing apathy and submission to “the system.”

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 fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. 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.

To this point, we have attempted to identify the prime components of the “explosive mixture.” In the chapters that follow we seek to analyze them in the perspective of history. Their meaning, however, is clear:

In the summer of 1967, we have seen in our cities a chain reaction of racial violence. If we are heedless, none of us shall escape the consequences.

[1] The term “ghetto” as used in this report refers to an area within a city characterized by poverty and acute social disorganization, and inhabited by members of a racial or ethnic group under conditions of involuntary segregation. Back to text.
Profile Image for Kayla Estes.
3 reviews1 follower
August 19, 2020
An absolute must-read before the election. If you haven't heard about the Kerner Commission (like me two weeks ago) you'll notice it's strikingly familiar to our current racial unrest. The Kerner Commission Report lays out a roadmap to solving systemic racism, Gillon gives an in-depth history lesson that every American needs right now.
Profile Image for Jim Milway.
287 reviews2 followers
December 30, 2018
Throughout my professional career, I served at various levels on public panels, commissions, etc. These required defining the mandate, setting the research agenda and conducting it, drawing conclusions, reporting progress, and issuing a final report. It was that experience that drew me to this book.

President Lyndon Johnson. like many Americans, was flummoxed by the race riots in 1967. Nobody thought race relations were perfect, or even acceptable, in the 1960s - but the sudden eruption of violent uprisings in many major cities seemed to come out of nowhere. He appointed a blue-ribbon panel to explain why the riots happened and what should be done to avoid them. He gathered a group of liberals and conservatives, politicians, public organization leaders, and one businessman. The panel was headed by Otto Kerner, Democratic governor of Illinois and a bone fide member of Richard Daley's machine. The vice chairman was John Lindsay, Republican Mayor of New York.

The committee determined that white racism was the root cause of the riots. It ruled out conspiracies (a realistic possibility given the incendiary speeches of people like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael). But it also ruled out - or could find no compelling link with - poverty. The liberal members of the commission did not think that Johnson's Great Society programs were anywhere near enough to solve the crisis of the Black community.

Johnson was livid as he heard the direction the commission was headed. It's not clear if there were ever any formal progress reviews with Johnson - he seemed to have his own sources. He had wanted applause for his Great Society. He also did not appreciate the publicity for Lindsay as he was in the wrong party. He cut the Commission's funding so that it had to get its report out much sooner than it had hoped. The Commission staff had great difficulty getting a unanimous report as some members wanted to set out government programs and their costs while others wanted to stay with the evidence and let the reader determine what to do. When the report was issued he ignored it - not even sending a thank you note to the members and staff.

For those on the left, the Commission had the right prescriptions, but they weren't implemented. For those on the right, the Commission's recommendations actually drove public policy for decades with little success.

For me the policy questions were less interesting than the process. Lots of things worked together to create the problems for the commission. A president who was under siege because of the Vietnam war and, now, the race riots appointed this commission without thinking it through clearly. A commission who was rushed to their final report. A lack of touching base with the commission's sponsor.

Clearly written book. Great for policy and process wonks.

Profile Image for Lisa.
Author 5 books30 followers
August 4, 2018
You would not think that a book about the work of a commission on the riots in the summer of 1967 would be that interesting, but this book is almost a page-turner, and it really puts things in perspective. When LBJ muscled Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (in part by allowing Southern segregationists to add amendments that took out a lot of its teeth), the economy was on the rise and hopes for the Great Society programs were high. The commissioners and staff who investigated the inner-city riots (Johnson was convinced that they showed a lack of gratitude on the part of African Americans for all he had accomplished for them) were shocked at conditions in the urban cores--conditions that few people outside those communities were aware of. Although some thought that increased attention to law and order was the answer, it turned out that police responses had in almost all cases begun and aggravated the intensity of the riots. And the report of the commission cited white racism as the underlying cause of the conditions that led to the riots. Unfortunately, the answer to almost all the problems was massive federal spending (due to nationwide racism and the pervasive history of racism) and desegregation of housing and employment in ways that many, if not most, white Americans were unwilling to consider. Spending on the Vietnam War was using up all the funds that might have gone to alleviate the plight of African Americans, even had the political will been present, and the economy took a downturn that further undermined possible funding. The author puts the commission's work and report in the political and economic contexts of the time, and discusses how and why things have not gotten better, due to the militarization of the police, the so-called War on Drugs, the polarization of the American people through the Republican Southern Strategy that exacerbates racist fears, and other factors. He brings things forward to the Black Lives Matter movement and the partisanship of the electorate, and explains how the moment that could have allowed American liberalism to work toward solving some of the problems in the United States was lost. Well done.
443 reviews8 followers
June 8, 2018
The Koerner Commission served under LBJ & undertook the topic of urban rioting by minorities. Their conclusions, while valid & reasonable then as they are now were ignored in favor of "law and order". Yet another missed opportunity. Will it ever end?
Profile Image for Joe Costello.
1 review
July 12, 2018
Though the title says it all, this work could benefit from some first-hand accounts from people within the communities assessed in 1967 and 1968, although this was a fresh take on an otherwise very important set of events in US history.
Profile Image for Jo.
652 reviews4 followers
May 6, 2018
The book looks generally good. I got access to excerpt of this book. I wished to have access to the full book to provide a more deep review.
Profile Image for Kevin Scott.
180 reviews
July 8, 2018
Serendipitous that the topic is of interest to me and the book is well written.
Profile Image for Caleb Ruppert.
7 reviews
August 5, 2018
Good, important and well researched information written in a meandering and often repetitive style.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,546 reviews5 followers
June 10, 2020
Imagine a series of violent riots in largely urban areas filled with black people. Stores are looted and burned. There is fighting with the police. Protests rage. Soldiers are sent in to restore order. Politicians start screaming and preening and jockeying for positions. Activists become more radicalized. Churches call for prayers. Innocent people die.

Did you picture the Tulsa race riots of 1920?
The rioting that rocked the nation in the mid-late 60s?
The LA riots of 1992?
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2014?
The unrest in Baltimore in 2015?
Or the unprecedented civil unrest--largely peaceful but incredibly wide spread--taking place in the late spring of 2020?

There is a dreary repetition to all of this. Generally speaking, there is some kind of an incident in a largely black/brown community between a citizen and the police. The community then explodes with anger. Protesting gives way to looting and violence, which demands a heavy-handed police, and sometimes military, response. Blamestorming ensues: it's the black family! It's mass incarceration! It's unemployment! It'd drugs! It's the welfare state! It's racism! It's...again and again and again.

Next come the commissions--which is what this book is specifically about: the Kerner Commission, created by President Johnson in 1967 to study the causes of urban rioting--then the suggestions. Which largely are ignored. Then, it all happens again. And again. And again.

(I do need to point out the my first example, Tulsa 1920, was more of a massacre of black people and the destruction of their property and not a riot/protest situation).

The word radical comes from the Latin, radicalis, which means 'pertaining to the root.' In other words, when something is considered radical, it is getting to the source of a thing; the first cause. The primary mover. So let me be radical here as I tell you what the Kerner Commission found. Apply it to today, June 10th, 2020, as America once again is convulsed with racial disharmony:

The root cause of rioting is racism. The root cause of poverty, as experienced by black and brown people, is racism. The root cause of over policing, militarized policing, and police brutality isn't a broken system; it's a system working exactly as it was designed. America decided, long ago, to deal with social issues as issues law enforcement and criminalization. We deal with mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness, and poverty with policing, the judicial system, and imprisonment. That much of the weight of this system is trained on communities of color (and poverty) isn't accidental: it's on purpose. Black people in particular, from the beginning, have been systematically denied opportunity. The opportunity to vote. The opportunity to work and be treated fairly. The opportunity to attend good schools, live in safe neighborhoods, access quality healthcare, receive government support in times of trouble, and on and on and on. This is not my opinion. It is documented history.

Until we become radical--not in the 'let's throw bombs at people and fight' but in the 'lets address the root causes of the problem'--not much will change. So this book is about what happened 50 years ago, and how the same exact thing is happening again, 50 years later. President Johnson did not like the conclusions of his commission, and I suspect many people in Washington (and in America) would not like them today. But that doesn't meant they aren't true.

At the root is racism. And--may I be so bold?--at the deeper root is capitalism as it has developed in America, and the world.

Lots of roots.
Profile Image for John.
41 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2020
Most of this book remains focused on the direct circumstances around the Kerner report, and is excellent and well written. It illuminates how the government knew of the big problem of white racism in the cities, but how political expediency changed everything during the home stretch. The final section of the book is the weakest, where the author gives an overview of the following decades of continued racism. Good information, but not necessary for a focused work like this
Profile Image for Dexter.
8 reviews2 followers
May 13, 2019
A book which perfectly encapsulates the ongoing civil rights and liberties struggles of African-Americans. This book will have you either nodding your head like “of course” or scratching your head like “Huh? What? I don’t think that.” But if you’re open minded you’ll find truth in Gillon’s fair and comprehensively annotated assessment.
Profile Image for Ray.
33 reviews
August 6, 2021
The story of the Kerner Commission is the story of the US' attempts to come to grips (or not) with the impact of race on our society... a story that has been repeated before and since. Extremely worthwhile reading.
January 7, 2023
Good book, however I wish the author had expanded on the final chapters where he put the kerner report into context with events over the past 60 years versus focusing on the overwhelming details of the kerner reports creation.
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