It's Been Five Decades Since 1968, and Things are Somehow Worse

tags: racism, civil rights, segregation, urban history, riots, Kerner Commission

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer.

The unrest that we have seen this week has not been nearly as devastating as what happened in 1967, when Detroit and Newark were devastated, both in loss of life and property. But there are ways our current situation is even more desolate. Despite the passage of more than 50 years, it feels like little progress has been made. In 1967, LBJ set up the Kerner Commission, which documented police violence against African Americans and found that racism and police brutality were the primary causes in the surge in riots. The report, released in 1968, famously said, "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."

Since then, the issue of criminal justice and racism has never gone away. In 1992, riots broke out after a grand jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers who had brutally beaten an African American man named Rodney King. During the Barack Obama years, smartphone technology allowed the public to see firsthand the risks that African Americans face just by going outside. Yet, even with that new tool to provide proof and the better possibility for justice, the abuse continues. "This shouldn't be 'normal' in 2020 America," Obama lamented in a statement on Friday. "It can't be 'normal.' If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better."

For those of us who study the 1960s or lived through those troubled times, it's hard to imagine things could be worse. But they are. The bad news is that things would get even worse in the 1970s, with an economic recession, social discord, an oil crisis, and more.

We need bolder leaders in Washington — the kind who have emerged in several state capitals — to help move us to a better place.

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