A report in the February 27, 2018 online U.S. News and World Report titled "Inequality Remains 50 Years After Kerner Report" is shocking, yet not surprising. That report 50 years ago was spurred by the massive extent of civil disobedience in America during the summer of 1967 when 157 cities went up in flames due to racial injustice and, you guessed it, economic inequality. Sound familiar? We face the same issues today on a grander, more deeply entrenched scale.
I remember the Kerner Commission Report very well. I was a senior in high school preparing to go to college. Detroit and 156 other urban areas in the U.S., including Plainfield, N.J., my hometown, went up in flames that summer. I always find it a bit ironic that much of the nation looks back on that summer as the “summer of love.” That is, of course, if you were White.
As Mike Deak has noted in a piece in myCentralJersey.com, White kids were trying to figure out whether they should have sex before marriage. If you were Black, it was the “summer of hate.” Black kids were trying to figure out why the vast majority of their peers were being directed into a non-college track in school, while many White kids were predestined to attend college.
I also recall the ugly racial epithets that spewed out of the mouths of some of my friends, family members, and strangers as they watched Plainfield burn to the ground. However, at the age of 18, I knew that this was wrong; I also understood the frustration on both sides of the issue. It was a very ugly time in America. Plainfield and many other cities throughout America have never fully recovered.
President Lyndon Johnson was absolutely furious that the Kerner Commission Report did not give his Great Society program any credit for attempting to address the problem of racial and economic inequality in America. He was fiercely proud of what he had accomplished just a few years earlier with passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the many Great Society Programs. LBJ never did get the credit he deserved then, nor does he get any credit for it today, largely because of his severely misguided foreign policy in Vietnam.
The study examined by U.S. News and World Report states that ongoing, entrenched, persistent economic inequality coupled with poor schools and limited housing options is a threat to democracy. Americans seem to be in "La La Land" on this issue. We had better wake up to the issue. I have seen the consequences of it in my lifetime in the form of racial rioting that destroyed cities, including Plainfield, N.J. not more than 50 years ago. It can happen again. This time, the outcome may not be a return to normalcy if the forces of social control fail to quell the civil unrest. The potential for society to reach an unalterable tipping point is real.
The current generation of young people needs to step up to the plate and take action to assure that does not happen. I see far too many young people completely absorbed in empty, vacuous activity on social media or their digital devices with little concern about the economic and racial inequality right under their noses. I also see far too many people my age who are fat and happy with their comfy homes in the suburbs who have completely forgotten what motivated them when they were young. Young and old, we seem to be absorbed in our own lives at the expense of millions who live lives of desperation. That cannot continue in a viable democracy.
As Eldridge Cleaver stated during the height of the civil rights movement, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”