“Our nation is moving toward two societies: one black, one white — separate and unequal.” That’s how the Kerner Commission described the United States in 1968. Unfortunately, it still characterizes the St. Louis region in 2009.
Yes, some progress has been made in closing racial disparities and lessening racial polarization. Several dedicated organizations and many committed individuals have worked diligently to make a dent. But the gaps and misunderstandings are still vast. The average white household’s median income is 187 percent higher than the median black household’s. The unemployment rate among African Americans is over three times that among Caucasians. Candid conversations among blacks and whites are still the exception, not the norm.
The St. Louis area still has not fully realized that the challenge is enormous — overcoming the deep divisions created by over a hundred and fifty years of slavery and legally mandated segregation. A few decades of sporadic well-intentioned initiatives is not enough. Addressing racial issues both directly and indirectly needs to be at the very top of the region’s agenda. It is not simply a matter of justice — it is also the key to prosperity.
We begin both a new year and a new decade Friday. Let us resolve as a region to make it ten years of intensive and extensive work to narrow substantially the racial divide. It is both the right thing and the smart thing to do.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Terry Jones is Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.