In the past few years, a number of commentators have begun to question the continuing viability of liberal democracy. If, in fact, liberalism is reaching its end–which is not at all clear–it’s useful to wonder why this has happened, to figure out where things began to come apart. A new book by University of Oklahoma historian Steven Gillon, Separate and Unequal: The Keener Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism (Basic Books), argues that a turning point was a 1968 government report on race riots. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:
In Separate and Unequal, historian Steven M. Gillon offers a revelatory new history of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders–popularly known as the Kerner Commission. Convened by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in Newark and Detroit left dozens dead and thousands injured, the commission issued a report in 1968 that attributed the unrest to “white racism” and called for aggressive new programs to end discrimination and poverty. “Our nation is moving toward two societies,” it warned, “one black, and one white–separate and unequal.”
Johnson refused to accept the Kerner Report, and as his political coalition unraveled, its proposals went nowhere. For the right, the report became a symbol of liberal excess, and for the left, one of opportunities lost. Separate and Unequal is essential for anyone seeking to understand the fraught politics of race in America.