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Our Focus: The White Problem
1968: Defining the “White Problem”
The Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders and the Founding of Community Change
The Kerner Commission, released in 1968, found that “…our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” Furthermore, it found that “…what white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro 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.”* One month after this report was released, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
In this troubled climate of 1968, Horace Seldon founded Community Change, driven by the realization that for years people had been talking about the “Black Problem” in the U.S., while the Kerner Commission made it clear that what our nation has is a “White Problem.”
2014: The “White Problem” continues
The election in 2008 of our nation’s first African American President offers a hopeful image reversing the movement toward “two societies, one black and one white – separate and unequal.” At the same time, this hopeful image is contradicted by the failure of the U.S. to meet the goals of the Kerner Commission “to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens.” Today, disparities persist as evidenced in the following areas (to name a few):
- Education: The wealthiest 10% of school districts in the U.S. spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10% of school districts. Large disparities remain in the U.S. between the learning opportunities and thus the educational achievement of White students compared to African American and Latino students. School integration has declined in the last 2 decades.**
- Criminal (In)Justice: People of Color on average receive longer sentences than Whites for the same crimes. African American men aged 25-29 are almost 7 times as likely to be incarcerated as their White counterparts.**
- Housing: Levels of residential segregation remain high for African Americans and Latinos. Many real estate agents steer People of Color to less desirable locations, compared to Whites; lenders treat People of Color differently than Whites in terms of percentage of mortgage applications accepted.**
- Poverty/Unemployment: African American unemployment has continued to be twice as high as White unemployment during the 4 decades since the Kerner Commission. The economic condition of African Americans is worse today than in 2000.**
A high quality education, a healthy and safe environment, sustainable employment, political empowerment, and outlets for building wealth are the essential opportunities needed to succeed and thrive in our 21st century society. Racialized isolation from these structures of opportunity is very evident in Massachusetts, where structural discrimination, segregation and housing inequity concentrate low income people of color into the most opportunity-deprived communities in the nation.***
CCI's work in 1968 through to today is to meet the challenge of “the White Problem.”
- We at CCI understand racism to be more than individual prejudice and discrimination based on race.
- We believe that racism occurs when one group has the systemic power to institutionalize its prejudice in the forms of laws, policies, and ideologies that exclude and oppress other groups.
- Historically, and presently in the United States, white men of wealth and property have had this power to create and control the institutions that govern the lives of all who live here.
- This has produced a system of advantage for white people who benefit from unearned privilege at the expense of people of color.
- We believe that this systemic or institutional racism is largely invisible to the white community.
To counteract some of the devastating effects of systemic racism, many organizations provide essential human services to those in need. While we wholeheartedly support this work, our approach is different. We address the systems that create those needs in the first place.
Former Executive Director Paul Marcus uses the following oft-told analogy explain the distinction:
Imagine a river full of struggling, drowning people. Many organizations do excellent work saving them or teaching them to swim so they can save themselves. Community Change takes a different approach; we look upriver to see why people are being thrown into the river in the first place, and we work with white people and communities of color to prevent this from happening at the source.
This focus on “The White Problem” informs all the programs of Community Change. With an emphasis on white people taking responsibility for identifying and dismantling racism in the institutions that affect all of our lives, CCI works with a multi-racial constituency to equip people with the knowledge and skills necessary to take effective action, to support movement building tied to an action agenda, and to educate policy makers on institutional racism and its public policy implications.
* United States. Kerner Commission, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.
** What Together We Can Do: A 40 Year Update of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders; Preliminary Findings, The Eisenhower Foundation, Nov. 2008.