World·Analysis

For black Americans, the inequality that fuelled fiery protests more than 50 years ago remains

Talk to black protesters in the U.S. these days, and police brutality is frequently cast as just one point in a constellation of inequalities. Other key disparities have been well known for a long time. But they remain unresolved.

In 1968, a U.S. president ordered a study on what drove race riots. The key findings still apply

A protester gestures in front of a fire during a demonstration in Minneapolis, Minn., last weekend. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

There's already a presidential report tracing the sources of rage in black communities that erupted in fiery protests across American cities.

That report is 52 years old. And it's mostly forgotten.

Atop its list of factors was an unholy trinity of segregation — separate police treatment, in separate communities, with separate school systems.

Talk to black protesters these days, and police brutality is frequently cast as just one point in a constellation of inequalities.

"Crimes have been committed since we landed in this country — excuse me, since we were robbed and brought to this country," said Marques Armstrong, a Minneapolis business consultant and community activist.

"You cannot continue to oppress, beat down, marginalize, redline, and kill people and think we aren't gonna stand up and eventually fight back. … This is an uprising. I'm not with all that looting but, dammit, I understand.

"The game is not set for us."

That's the same conclusion reached by the Kerner Commission in 1968, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in several cities.

WATCH | Marques Armstrong on what else is behind the protests: 

Marques Armstrong, a protester in Minneapolis, tells CBC's Susan Ormiston that the protests across the U.S. are a manifestation of outrage not just at the death of George Floyd but at years of systemic discrimination and racially motivated violence against African Americans. 3:30

The report went mostly ignored.

The commission produced a politically unpopular argument: that white people had rigged the system for themselves by voting for, and supporting, policies that ensured separate societies. 

It zeroed in on housing, opportunity, and policing atop the list of frustrations for black people.

Michelle Adams, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York City who studies links between schooling, housing and race, has described the country's education systems as America's apartheid.

She said it's impossible to disentangle one problem from the others.

"I think the reality is this is all connected," she said. "If you pull a strand, it all falls apart."

Prof. Michelle Adams has described education in the U.S. as America's apartheid. (Courtesy Michelle Adams)

Referring to those ongoing historical inequalities, Robert Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, called Monday for trillions of dollars in economic reparations.

The 1968 report didn't propose anything that dramatic.

Yet the issues it raised remain unresolved. A backlash was brewing at the time against civil rights reforms, and the tension was reflected in the early careers of two men now running for president.

In 1973, Donald Trump was getting his start in the housing business launched by his father. Joe Biden had just entered the U.S. Senate and faced a dilemma over school integration. 

Donald Trump and housing

One of the first newspaper references to Trump involved a federal allegation that his family refused to rent apartments to black people, which he denied in a court affidavit.

The Trumps were accused of violating a landmark civil rights law that protected minority renters and homebuyers seeking loans, the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

A New York Times investigation cited additional examples of alleged racial bias at family properties. The federal case with Trump Management was settled out of court.

Early in his career, Donald Trump, seen here on the left in 1978, defended his family's real estate company against allegations it practised housing discrimination by refusing to rent to black people. (The Associated Press)

Now, as president, Trump leads an administration that has taken steps to roll back anti-housing discrimination regulations.

U.S. cities remain deeply segregated to this day — just check any demographic map and analysis comparing white and black enclaves. 

Joe Biden and education

One protester near the White House last weekend who spoke with CBC News brought up educational disparities and their impact on employment opportunities. She linked these issues to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed black Americans at a higher rate.

Sophia Tekola said media reports are missing the bigger picture when they portray the current frustration as being caused by only one issue, the deaths of black people in police custody.

"It's so much more than that," she told CBC News.

"In education — we're the ones getting bad education. ... This is a thing that has gone on since slavery, lynching, segregation.

"This isn't OK. We're done with this."

In his first term as senator, Biden was berated about school integration at a town hall event. White constituents fumed about children being bused between neighbourhoods.

White parents protesting school integration through court-ordered busing in Boston at a 1975 demonstration. Early in his career as a lawmaker, Joe Biden bowed to political pressure to limit the federal role in busing. (Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

His response: a bill amendment to make it impossible for federal agencies to strip funding if school districts resisted busing.

Fearing a backsliding in racial integration, when the bill passed in 1975, the NAACP's Roy Wilkins was quoted by the Pittsburgh Courier calling it "appalling." 

It was around this time that a Supreme Court decision gutted Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 ruling that desegregated schools nationwide.

The court decided in 1974 that it would not intervene in school districts designed around white and black areas because they weren't explicitly segregated by race.

A dissenting judge wrote that this would perpetuate "evil."

This dissenter had a deep personal connection to the issue: Thurgood Marshall wasn't just the high court's first black justice, as a lawyer he had successfully fought for school desegregation.

"Our children, whatever their race, [deserve] an equal start in life," Marshall wrote in the Milliken decision.

"Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together."

WATCH | Sophia Tekola on what she wants to come out of the protests: 

Sophia Tekola, an exasperated demonstrator in Washington, D.C., tells CBC's Katie Simpson that all African American protesters are seeking is an acknowledgment of their basic humanity. 1:57

School districts remain engines of inequality. 

Wealthier, whiter districts typically get more funding per student and have smaller class sizes. 

That's because most states use property taxes as part of their funding formula, meaning the wealthiest houses generate the most money for classrooms.

A report by EdBuild, a school funding research and advocacy group based in New Jersey, found a funding gap of $2,226 per child, per year between predominantly white and predominantly black school boards.  

It's one reason why houses in Washington, D.C., for example, sell for significantly more on one side of a creek that runs through the city than houses just a few blocks away.

On the wealthier, whiter side of Rock Creek, public schools have fewer students deemed at-risk of academic failure. 

History of mistrust, violence

The current unrest might be novel in its geographic scope, snowballing across cities into a national and international phenomenon that's being broadcast by participants' phones.

But it's by no means new. 

The book Police Brutality chronicles deadly race riots in American cities, in just one century alone, in 1900, 1917, 1919, 1921, 1943, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1980 and 1992.

The mutual fear and mistrust lingers between police and black communities.

In a Pew Research survey of 7,916 police officers in 2016, 93 per cent said they felt increasingly concerned about their safety on the job, at a time when anti-police protests had escalated into deadly violence.

A Pew Research survey from 2016 suggests white police officers hold vastly different views on civil rights than their black colleagues, and the overall public. (Pew Research Center)

The same survey also offered a glimpse into how police saw civil rights issues.

It found 92 per cent of white police officers said black Americans have equal rights with white people.

That was much different than the view of their black police colleagues and even of white members of the general public surveyed separately by Pew.

Jeff Pegues, a journalist who has covered criminal justice for decades, tried to convey the perspectives of both the black community and the police in his book Black and Blue.

CBS reporter Jeff Pegues, who has covered justice issues for three decades, chronicled mutual mistrust between police and black Americans in his book Black and Blue. (Submitted by Jeff Pegues)

"[Police brutality is] definitely a real thing," said Pegues, a justice correspondent for CBS. 

"You have police working in communities that they're frankly not familiar with. You have police officers that see residents in the communities that they 'protect and serve' as the enemy."

His book highlights reports produced by the Obama-era Justice Department that found racial double-standards in policing.

The report for Baltimore, for example, reached the same conclusion as the Kerner Commission in 1968 — that most black people perceived the existence of two separate societies.

It cited a long list of disparities. Black residents were stopped by police without cause far more often than white people; charged with drug possession more often than white drug-users; and almost exclusively the residents charged with crimes that require an officer's judgment call, such as failure to obey.

WATCH | Shannon Clark on why the stakes are so high for the protesters:

Shannon Clark tells CBC's Katie Simpson why the stakes are so high for those demonstrating on the streets of Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. 2:03

A demonstrator in Washington named Shannon Clark said he was protesting because most people he knows are aware of someone hurt by police brutality.

But he wasn't marching just for that.

"There's a lot more to this than just trying to fight against police. We're trying to live," he said.

"We don't need to live like that."

About the Author

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files from Susan Ormiston and Katie Simpson

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