(The following essay contains excerpts from a presentation given at this year’s Race, Ethnicity, and Place Conference in Cleveland, OH)
“Can’t we all just get along?” These are the famous words from police brutality victim Rodney King that sparked the 1992 L.A. uprisings, some call “riots.” What exactly does it mean for two people groups “to get along” in the context of White supremacist violence and domination? In July of 1967, there was another set of uprisings in the city of Detroit, Michigan. In the aftermath of the rioting, President Lyndon Baines Johnson commissioned a report to investigate the cause of the riot and ways to prevent it in the future. The infamous Detroit Riot of 1967 led to the federal investigation into social unrest in what would be published in the Kerner Report.
Nearly fifty years later America is still haunted by the ghosts of the Kerner Report. In particular, the major findings of the report still ring true. The continued impact of hundreds of years of systematic oppression has created a deep rift between the experiences of many black Americans and white Americans, which led to the report’s conclusion: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white- separate and unequal.” Although this report was published in 1968, it described a reality not unlike today.
The lack of political power was a major frustration of many of the participants in the riots. The report reads: “What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens.” (NACCD, 1967) The lack of political representation in local government only further angered the residents. The demographics of the Detroit had transformed so that African Americans were the majority by 1967. However, this change in demographic was not evident in political representation.
Minority political under representation continues to be a problem today in many places. In Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot, the overall population of the city is over sixty percent African American. However, they only make up around fifteen percent of local legislators. According to Karen Shanton, approximately 1.2 million African Americans across 175 different communities do not have proportionate representation in their cities (Shanton, 2016). She goes on to describe how groups that are not descriptively represented are less like to participate in the political process or have someone advocate for their interests. Political disengagement and inattention simply helped to perpetuate a system of mistrust between civic leaders and the community. In a country where a revolution was sparked by the words, “No taxation without representation,” it would seem as if representative democracy in this republic strictly favors the dominant culture. The vast majority of whites continue to believe that everyone receives equal opportunities in America, while minorities on the other hand see great disparities. In other words, our nation continues to “move towards two societies, one black, and one white- separate and unequal.”