‘Two societies, one black, one white’ – the Kerner Commission’s prophetic warnings


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National Guardsmen move into Detroit’s riot-torn area, July 23, 1967.

Donald Nieman, Binghamton University, State University of New York

On July 23, 1967, Detroit exploded in rioting. Five days later, 43 were dead, 7,200 had been arrested and US$22 million worth of property had been destroyed.

It was just the latest in a string of more than 100 disturbances that shook American cities during “the long, hot summers” of the mid-1960s.

Before the embers cooled, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate. The panel became known popularly as the Kerner Commission, after its co-chair Otto Kerner, the Democratic governor of Illinois.

Johnson announces the establishment of the Kerner Commission in 1967.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 29, 1968, the commission issued its report. As a historian of civil rights in the U.S., I’m struck by how the power of institutional racism so trenchantly revealed by the report constrains efforts to advance racial equity 50 years later.

Taproot of violence: White racism

As the report masterfully described, these “racial disorders” were really urban uprisings. They were sparked by poverty, unemployment, discrimination in housing and education, police brutality and a sense of powerlessness among inner city residents.

The taproot, however, was white racism, which the commission found “responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

The situation was dire. According to the report, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

To avert this catastrophe, the commission demanded “a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale.”

Riots erupted in New York’s Harlem neighborhood in July 1974, after a white police officer shot a black teenager.

It recommended creation of public-sector jobs, construction of low- and moderate-income housing, urban school desegregation, expanded early childhood education, welfare benefits at least equal to the poverty level and legislation to end housing discrimination.

Recognizing the role of the police in sparking violence, commissioners urged development of “innovative programs to insure widespread community support for law enforcement” and the hiring of more black police. They also demanded that police cease using massive force in the form of “automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks.”

The report seized public attention. Covered widely in the press, it was issued as a paperback by Bantam books and sold 740,000 copies within two weeks of its release. Its chilling “two societies” phrase became part of the national vocabulary.

Harsh words, but little action

Impact was another matter.

President Johnson, confronting budget deficits, rising inflation, defeat in Vietnam and growing criticism from the right and left, offered tepid support. And his successor, Richard Nixon, rode to victory promising to restore law and order, not to support an ambitious civil rights agenda.

During the ensuing 50 years, retrospectives on the report surfaced on anniversaries and in the aftermath of highly publicized urban uprisings in Los Angeles, Ferguson, Baltimore and Staten Island.

Its effect on policy, however, has been modest. It helped spur passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which aimed to end the residential segregation of American neighborhoods. Coupled with additional legislation passed in the 1970s and 1980s and the growth of the black middle class, the act has facilitated modest gains in residential integration.

Demonstrators across the street from the Ferguson, Missouri, police department in March 2015.
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

There are now far more African-American police officers than in 1968, but this is due more to litigation and political gains by African-Americans in major cities than the report’s influence. White officers still make up a disproportionate share of police, especially in inner suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri, where the recent movement of black families into the city has changed the racial demographic.

Other recommendations obtained even less traction. Welfare has become less generous, thanks to the welfare reform adopted in 1995 under President Bill Clinton, and police are as much of a flash point as they were in the 1960s, exacting a terrible toll on urban and suburban black communities.

Why the lack of action?

Five decades of uneven economic growth and federal budget deficits bred resistance to expensive new programs. In addition, the commission’s recommendations on law enforcement relied on action by state and local government, which were often reluctant to act.

But racism is the most important factor.

Has racism diminished?

Polls reveal a decline in racist sentiments among whites since the 1960s.

Nevertheless, a 2012 AP poll found that 56 percent of non-Hispanic whites held explicit or implicit anti-black attitudes. Other recent polls have revealed that a majority of whites believe that whites work harder than blacks and that the country talks too much about race.

Persistent racism has been exploited by many Republicans – Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump to name a few – to woo working-class white Northerners and turn the South red.

Republican resurgence after 1968 – Democrats have controlled both Congress and the White House for only for only six of the past 50 years – has created partisan gridlock on civil rights, killing serious consideration of the commission’s bold recommendations.

Sadly, the report’s fundamental insight remains as relevant today as 50 years ago.

“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report asserted.

“White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The ConversationI’m encouraged by how Black Lives Matter has once again shattered the nation’s complacency about race. The movement reminds Americans that we have not overcome and that institutional racism remains an intractable barrier to equity. It has shattered illusions that the U.S. has become a post-racial society and challenged the nation to grapple with the ugly realities the Kerner Commission laid bare.

Donald Nieman, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Schools shouldn’t wait for red flags to address student mental health needs


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Students who need mental health services rarely receive them.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com

Nathaniel von der Embse, University of South Florida

One out of every 4 or 5. That’s how many students will display a significant mental health problem over the course of their lifetime.

Such students can be identified early with considerable accuracy if educators are given the right training and tools. Unfortunately, most schools rely on reactive methods, like office discipline referrals, to figure out which students need behavioral and mental health services.

Research shows this approach of waiting until students act out in school is inefficient and leads to as many as 80 percent of those with mental health needs to fall through the cracks.

Such concerns have heightened in the wake of the Parkland high school massacre. News reports indicate the alleged shooter exhibited a number of troubling behaviors, raising questions about his mental health status and whether more could have been done to help him sooner.

To address the issue of students falling through the cracks, more schools should adopt proactive, universal screening tools.

Universal screening typically occurs three times throughout the school year: fall, winter and spring. Screeners are brief assessments that take no more than a few minutes to complete. They include approximately 20 questions and are given to each student in the elementary classroom. These tools ask students to indicate things such as “I lose my temper” or whether they are “adaptable to change.” The questions are purposefully broad and are meant to identify students who may be at risk for either internal problem behaviors, such as anxiety or depression, or external problem behaviors, such as aggression toward others. The screenings are scored and used to prioritize which students need intervention.

Screeners are typically administered without parental consent if they are embedded into the general school curriculum.

Research shows that screening tools can help educators identify students with mental health needs with far greater accuracy and speed, rather than waiting for a severe problem behavior, such as a school fight.

I developed one such tool – the Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener, or SAEBRS – with the help of several grants, including $1.4 million from the Institute for Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.

If society is serious about preventing severe mental and behavioral health problems, it must take a critical look at the current state of mental health supports in the nation’s schools. Doing so will bring the value of screening tools into sharper focus.

School mental health stretched thin

First, let’s consider the service provider side of the equation. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 1 school psychologist for every 500-700 students. However, the reality is that states on average have ratios of nearly twice that amount. Simply put, schools rarely have the staff necessary for comprehensive mental health services.

Second, only a small number of students who need mental health services will receive intervention in a timely manner. Due to the amount of time that teachers spend with students, teachers are the critical link to identify which students need help and to refer students to school psychologists, counselors and social workers. The question is: Do teachers know what to look for?

Silent issues overlooked

Consider a typical elementary classroom with 30 students. Approximately 6 students, on average, will have a critical mental and behavioral health problem such as anxiety or aggression, yet less than half will receive timely intervention. Who are those students? Typically those that exhibit more outward types of problems, such as aggression, problems paying attention and disruptive behavior.

Students with harder-to-see issues, such as withdrawal, anxiety and social isolation often get overlooked and rarely receive essential services. Teachers often lack the training or tools necessary to know which students may need help, beyond those that are disruptive to instruction.

These screenings are not part of the process for comprehensive special education evaluations, so the concerns about schools having to offer special education services as a result of the screening do not come into play.

While screening tools can help identify troubled students sooner, it is important not to oversell the usefulness of these tools. To be clear, there are no research-validated tools that can reliably identify which students may commit violent acts.

Toward universal screening

Currently, less than 15 percent of schools engage in some form of behavioral or mental health screening. However, more schools are adopting universal screening.

The ConversationAs the developer of a screening tool, I have seen rapid adoption of the tool over the last four years from two elementary schools in rural North Carolina to hundreds of schools across 28 states. As schools consider how best to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of their students, screening can provide crucial information to guide the way.

Nathaniel von der Embse, Assistant Professor of School Psychology, University of South Florida

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.