Infuriatingly, we’ve known about the deleterious effects of racial segregation for decades. In the aftermath of nationwide civil unrest — including the 1965 Watts Rebellion, triggered by racially biased policing practices, as well as 1967 uprisings in Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey — President Lyndon B. Johnson charged a panel of civic leaders with investigating the genesis of racial inequities in the United States. The Kerner Commission, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, released a chilling report.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report stated, “one black, one white — separate and unequal.” It concluded, “Equality cannot be achieved under conditions of nearly complete separation.”
Fast forward five decades, however, and this unequal separation continues to exist. Such “conditions” are, of course, not happenstance but rather the result of policies that have systematically favored the social well-being of white people at the expense of people of color.
In a recent interview, Richard Rothstein, author of "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America," discussed “the long history of federal, state and local policies that generated the residential segregation found across the country today.” He laid out the nation’s many racially biased policies, from the first segregated public housing built under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration and its mortgage underwriting program, to the 1949 Housing Act that encouraged white flight to the suburbs, to redlining — the unconstitutional racial zoning ordinances passed by city governments that became popular throughout the middle of the 20th century.
“The current state of the American city,” Rothstein said, “is the direct result of unconstitutional, state-sanctioned racial discrimination.”
Today, the very practices that the Kerner Commission pilloried back in 1968 are proliferating anew. If our nation really is committed to ensuring that racial segregation is relegated to the dustbin of history, we must focus on racial justice. Understanding that today’s inequalities and disparities have their roots in state-sponsored segregation — and are exacerbated by increasing resegregation — represents a crucial step in the right direction.
Christopher Petrella is a lecturer in American cultural studies at Bates College, who focuses on the cultural politics of race. He is writing a book on the history of white supremacy in 20th-century New England.