A Nation Divided

May 03, 1992

Out of the anger, anguish and ashes of Los Angeles, America again needs to take a look at itself. A generation ago, after Newark and Detroit were torched in racial riots, President Lyndon B. Johnson established a National Advisory Commission Civil Disorders, the so-called Kerner commission, which came to its famous verdict that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

This judgment, from a biracial group of political leaders, was in keeping with a national mood that produced the great civil rights laws of the 1960s and launched LBJ's "Great Society." The general assumption in those days was that massive infusions of federal money would go a long way to reduce tensions and bring the country together.

Neither of these lofty goals has been achieved. Yet some progress has been made. The intervening quarter-century has seen the explosive growth of a black, college-educated, affluent middle class. African Americans now find easier access to places of public accommodation, employment and suburban housing.

Yet these 25 years have also been witness to the deterioration of family life for many members of the black underclass still stuck in the slums of large cities. Poverty, teen-age pregnancy, crime, fetid housing, AIDS, drugs, single-parent or no-parent households -- all have been the lot of these unfortunates. During the past decade, the cities in which they live have been overwhelmed by a decay that is beyond their resources to combat. The federal government has become increasingly indifferent, as has a white majority that has grown skeptical about the practical effects of welfare payments and affirmative action.

Andrew Hacker, author of an influential new book, "Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal," finds racial separation at this moment in history "pervasive and penetrating." His emphasis is on the alienated mind-set of white Americans, and from this he draws the dreary conclusion that nothing much can be done for the time being.

We cannot accept so negative a conclusion any more than we can accept the scenes of a burning Los Angeles as an accurate picture of American society. But we are forced to the judgment that if a new effort is to be made to deal with the nation's racial ills, it would be most effective coming from African American leaders whose knowledge of inner-city troubles is unsurpassed.

For this reason, The Sun proposes the establishment of a national commission comprising the most widely respected black mayors in the country -- New York's David Dinkins, Los Angeles' Tom Bradley, Washington's Sharon Pratt Kelly, Atlanta's Maynard Jackson, Detroit's Coleman Young and Baltimore's own Kurt Schmoke. This commission should be given all the staff and financial support it needs to deliver a report by year's end. Once again, America needs to look at itself.

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