Activists, academics, and authors on racial attitudes

Activists, academics, and authors on racial attitudes
July 25, 2016 Michigan Radio

By Lester Graham | Michigan Radio

A presidential commission blamed white America for the racial uprisings and riots of the 1960s. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) shocked many white people by its findings in a report released in 1968.

“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 it, and white society condones it,” the report stated.

The basic conclusion of the report was this: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white –separate and unequal.”

Nearly five decades later we’re still coming to grips with attitudes about race. We interviewed several people who either live in, write about, or study Detroit. We asked them about racial attitudes then and today…


“While there have been some advances, we can see in the present divisions of America right now between North and South, between Republicans and Democrats, between conservatives and so-called liberals or progressives, that many of the attitudes that were responsible for the racial explosions that the Kerner Commission was founded to help examine and hopefully prevent in the future, I mean, those attitudes are still with us.”

-Paul Lee, historian and resident of Detroit


“If you looked at polling data from 1968, the year that the Kerner Commission report comes out, the level of white misunderstanding of the African-American experience and the level of racist stereotypes the whites carried about African-Americans was way higher than it is today. White attitudes have improved. The idea that whites, not all whites, but, a lot of whites could actually talk today about the idea of white privilege is a remarkable change from 1968 when most whites would never have thought of that concept. So, actually, white attitudes have changed. The remarkably depressing thing is they haven’t changed as dramatically as they ought to have had over this extended period of time.”

-Keven Boyle, Professor of History, author of Arc of Justice, and Detroit native


“Dealing with the set of issues we still haven’t figured out how to deal with is: what racism, what personal prejudice, what institutional racism means, what the connection is between poverty and race. There’s nobody living in the suburbs, in my opinion, or even in the wealthy neighborhoods of the city who’s white who hasn’t benefitted from this idea of white skin privilege. That is a set of ideas that needs to be explored. It is a conversation that in my experience white people don’t want to have. They just don’t want to have.”

-Sheila Cockrel, former member of the Detroit City Council


“One of the conclusions of the Kerner report was that white racism was at work, was the cause of the upsets and the uprisings that we had. In fact the report stated that white society created it, perpetuates it, and sustains it. Those conclusions really upset many people throughout the country who felt they were being accused of being racist by a presidential commission. People still resist the notion that they are racist because they opposed desegregation. When we attempted to implement the remedies necessary to correct historic discrimination, there had to be some impact on the status quo. White persons who had established their positions and their conditions did so, in part, as a result of denial of rights to others.”

– Nathaniel R. Jones, Assistant General Counsel of the Kerner Commission


“One of the astounding things that happens after this wave of civil rights rebellions is that even though the Johnson administration is passing civil rights legislation, he is simultaneously erecting an entire apparatus by which a war on crime is going to be fought for the next 40 years…and, so, for whites in places like Detroit they didn’t have to come out in the streets and run a black family off of a block by 1972 because there were so many policies in place, policing policies and school district policies, that made white privilege cement in a way that allowed many white citizens to not see their own complicity in this racial injustice.”

– Heather Ann Thompson, author of “Whose Detroit?”


“In the past few years I’ve always assessed the white return to the city in the terms of how many people are living in the neighborhoods where black people are going through it. I mean, are their children going to the schools, the same challenged schools that we are going to? Are they really experiencing what we experience and ready to mobilize for real change because of that experience? Or are they coming with their padded positions, you know, good jobs where they can buy up these properties for dirt cheap and pay the back taxes, the back water bills because they already had the money saved up because they start from a good position. It’s a frustration which sees the disparities, but doesn’t fully understand them.”

-Kwasi Akwamu, former journalist, activist, small business owner


“The potential for the place to explode again exists because the grievances are still there. And they get worse sometimes because there is no avenue that is reliable for those who have these grievances to get them addressed in a way that they’ll feel confident that they’ll be treated as they should. No city at this point that I know of has something in place that is controlled by the civilian population that when you have a grievance against any situation involving the police department you can get your grievances addressed and you can trust the process that’s engaged in those grievances to try to solve them. That doesn’t exist. The Kerner Commission recommended that. It hasn’t been done.”

-Joe T. Darden, professor of geography researching segregation, and inequality


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