Infuriatingly, we’ve known about the deleterious effects of racial segregation for decades. In the aftermath of nationwide civil unrest — including the 1965 Watts Rebellion, triggered by racially biased policing practices, as well as 1967 uprisings in Detroit, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey — President Lyndon B. Johnson charged a panel of civic leaders with investigating the genesis of racial inequities in the United States. The Kerner Commission, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, released a chilling report.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies,” the report stated, “one black, one white — separate and unequal.” It concluded, “Equality cannot be achieved under conditions of nearly complete separation.”
Fast forward five decades, however, and this unequal separation continues to exist. Such “conditions” are, of course, not happenstance but rather the result of policies that have systematically favored the social well-being of white people at the expense of people of color.
“These are good questions. They’re also not new ones. The historian W.E.B. Dubois asked them more than 80 years ago in his seminal work on Reconstruction, when he posited that working-class Southern whites were complicit, or at least passive instruments, in their own political and economic disenfranchisement. They forfeited real power and material well-being, he argued, in return for the “psychological” wages associated with being white.
“Since then, the issue has inspired a vibrant debate among historians. Until last year, most agreed with DuBois that the answer to the question was not so simple as “yes” or “no”—that whiteness sometimes conferred benefits both imaginary and real.
“In the age of Trump, we’re once again pressure-testing DuBois’ framework. As one might expect, it’s complicated. White identity pays dividends you can easily bank, and some that you can’t.”