From 1968 to 2020: How racism continues to plague America

The protests over the death of George Floyd aren’t the first time pent-up frustrations over the treatment of African-Americans has boiled over into demonstrations. 

Some may wonder how we have reached this moment in history, but racism has been part of the American landscape for generations and has often led to turmoil. 

In 1967, violent unrest swept the nation as 26 people were killed in Newark alone as part of a series of riots and violent unrest that swept through the nation that summer.

In 1968, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Kerner Commission to study what caused the unrent. Then-NYC Mayor John Lindsay was named Vice-Chairman of the effort.

The commission’s report turned assumptions upside down, putting a name on the problem. White racism was to blame.

It named things that had to be addressed, some of which ring true almost more than half a century later.

“Improving housing for the poor, doing something like making sure that people have a better education than was being offered, and do something about the police and reform and train them,” said Mary Frances Berry, a history professor of the University of Pennsylvania, about the commission.

According to Berry, the commission’s recommendations weren’t followed and as it warned, the unrest continues to torment America. 

Now, what Kerner called “white racism” is now called “institutionalized racism,” and historians say addressing it involved making ourselves uncomfortable, to confront our own biases for every interaction.

“It’s really hard to take that apart, but what’s needed is some honest and serious and painful discussions on race that will make all of us uncomfortable,” said Michele Mitchell, a history professor at New York University. 

Historians say the Kerner Report was powerful in calling out two radically different Americas, a white America, and a black America. But while we look to be locked into a cycle, some believe that the 60’s laid the foundation for protests to become more inclusive today. 

“Because we have that precedent, it’s not as scary and unknown,” said Tyesha Maddox, a history professor at Fordham. “People have done it before and so maybe people are educating themselves and looking to that moment and saying ‘I want to be on the right side of history, I want to participate in these movements.’”

As for how this chapter of history needs to be written, historians say it’s about politicians committing to substantive changes.

“The protests have to continue until there’s a consensus that politicians should act at the state, local and national level, and that they should do something to stop this endless cycle of problems,” Berry said.


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