The wanton killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the civil disturbances following were a predictable repetition of Detroit's rebellion in 1967 when the largest civil disturbance in American history was triggered by the abuse of African Americans by a police force that mostly was all-white. The Michigan National Guard and 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army were required to regain control of the city. Forty-three people died and hundreds of millions in today's dollars in property damages was caused Notwithstanding the magnitude of the rebellion, the abject discrimination revealed a need for federal intervention as the country failed to learn a lesson.
The root of the problem then, as it is now, is structural racism, and white police officer abuse of African Americans is merely one stark manifestation of it. Structural racism has its origin in slavery and fosters public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations that work to reinforce racial inequality for African Americans. Too many white police officers view African Americans with suspicion, interpret their actions as threatening and are quick to disregard their human rights.
Their attitudes are grounded in the culture of a substantial portion of the broader white community, where only 1 in 4 white Americans has African-American friends. Many whites are uncomfortable with African Americans as neighbors, unwilling to send their children to integrated schools or vote for African-American candidates.
President Lyndon B Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate conditions contributing to the Detroit rebellion and others occurring in the country. It found that African Americans faced pervasive racial inequality not only in abusive police practices, but also in employment, education, housing and virtually every other aspect of life.
The conclusion was that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one back, one white - separate and unequal.... What white Americans have never fully understood — but what African Americans 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."
Experts were skeptical that change would occur and consistent with their prophesy only scant progress in combating structural racism in the past half- century has been made. Many white Americans take solace in the election of the country's first African-American president, Barack Obama, as evidence that structural racism is in retreat. But, a cavernous gap between African Americans and whites remains. Today, as before, a far greater percentage of African Americans than whites are arrested, underemployed, impoverished, imprisoned, uneducated, poorly housed and lack access to adequate health care.
It takes a tragic killing such as George Floyd's and the rebellions that have followed for there to be a wake-up call that structural racism remains below the surface and alive in America. Not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson has American leadership engaged in a concerted effort to address structural racism. Discussion of it has been absent in the election cycles of the past several decades. A call for healing of wounds is not enough. American leaders need the courage to step up and face structural racism head on for America to be the just and peaceful society it purports to be.