Clinton: Racism remains an issue

Former President Bill Clinton, shown here with Penn President Amy Gutmann, delivered the keynote address for the Feb. 28 Penn-hosted “Kerner Plus 40” symposium, which marked the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1968 report issued by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Forty years after a U.S. commission warned that the United States was descending into two separate and unequal societies—one white and one black—Penn’s Center for Africana Studies revisited the issue in an effort to assess just how far the nation has come since those dark days.

And they brought in former President Bill Clinton to help.

Clinton was a college student in the years leading up to the creation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, and while delivering the keynote address for the “Kerner Plus 40” symposium at Penn on Feb. 28, he told an audience at Irvine Auditorium that he recalls how powerful the Commission report was.

“I remember still the … impact of the Kerner Commission concluding that we were moving towards two societies,” Clinton said, “but still the political will to act on it could not be mustered because of the heartbreak, the divisions and anger of the country.”

President Lyndon Johnson assembled the Commission—better known as the Kerner Commission, after its chairman, Illinois Governor Otto Kerner—in 1967 to study the causes of the violent rebellions that engulfed the country throughout the 1960s.After undertaking a broad range of studies and investigations, interviewing witnesses, and speaking with experts, the Commission concluded that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of the World War II.” It cited pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing, black migration into cities and white exodus, and black ghettos, “where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure.”

Recommendations for solving these problems included a “commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale.” The Commission called on the U.S. government to take immediate action to create 2 million new jobs, eliminate discrimination and de facto segregation in schools, enact a comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing law, and enact new taxes to “meet the vital needs of the nation.”

The Penn symposium, hosted by the Center for Africana Studies, was launched to re-examine America’s response to these recommendations.
Tukufu Zuberi, director of the Center, said Clinton was chosen as keynote speaker because the Kerner Commission called for a conversation about race that would lead to concrete action; Clinton, Zuberi said, sought the same while president. In pointed remarks, Clinton told the audience that much progress has been made in the four decades that have passed since the report, and that the dramatic increase of diversity in our nation has “helped to move us closer to one America.” But, he added, “I wouldn’t spend five minutes celebrating the progress, not with this much inequality, not with inequality growing.”

“In the last decade, inequality has returned with a vengeance, and it does have a racial aspect. It is no longer confined to African Americans. It includes Hispanic Americans and many other first-generation immigrants.” Penn President Amy Gutmann agreed, noting that “absolutely brutal inequalities and disparities still persist in education, health, housing and economic opportunity.”

She added: “History teaches us that ... no good could ever come from the isolation, the disenfranchisement, or the division of any group of citizens of our society. Conversely, tremendous good comes from healing divisions and empowering all citizens to share in the blessings of our diverse constitutional democracy.”

Click here for a brief history of Presidents (and First Ladies) at Penn.

Originally published March 6, 2008