For Juneteenth, heed ‘Separate and Unequal’ warning and move forward together

June 17, 2021

Our Chief Diversity Officer Greg Cunningham reflects on the historic Kerner Commission – and expresses optimism that this time will be different.

In August of 1965, just five days after the historic Voting Rights Act was signed into law, a violent incident between white police and Black residents broke out in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Five days of unrest occurred, and it spread throughout the summers of 1965 and 1966, culminating with one of the worst civil unrests of the decade, the Detroit riots of 1967 that left 43 people dead. 

In the aftermath, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a government review of the causes for the uprisings in American cities. In the fall of 1967, the Kerner Commission, more formally known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, was convened.  

The commission findings were a startling admission by the U.S. Government of the role that racism played in “producing the conditions that were at the heart of the riots.” The report traced the problems occurring in cities all the way back to slavery. The point was not that white Americans were intentionally committing racial injustice against Blacks, but that racism was “embedded” in institutions. 

However, for all of its provocative findings and hotly debated conclusions, the report is best known for a singular yet unmistakably powerful sentence that served as a historic warning to us all: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” 

As we prepare to commemorate Juneteenth 2021, also known as “Freedom Day” and “Emancipation Day,” the words and findings of the Kerner Commission are fresh in my mind. They serve as a haunting reminder that over 50 years later we still experience unspeakable racial inequality. There is staggering evidence to this. Consider the racial wealth gap. According to the Brookings Institute, the $171,000 median net worth of a white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family (whose median net worth was calculated at $17,150). And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, disparities in home ownership continue to worsen, with Black homeownership hovering around 45% (the lowest of any ethnic group) and white homeownership near 76%. In Minneapolis where I live, work and play, there is a homeownership gap of 50% between Black and white households, per the Urban Institute.

I’d encourage all of us to look at these sobering facts and resist the urge to call this a “Black” problem. It isn’t. This is an “all of us” challenge. Extreme disparities and their persistent harm reach into every American’s future. And yet, we can all be energized by the opportunity to ensure access to the tools of financial prosperity for Black families and other historically disadvantaged members of the American fabric because those benefits will be felt throughout our country as well.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more of what the team at U.S. Bank is doing to address the racial wealth gap. Over a year ago, alongside many companies, we made some very public promises. I’m proud to say we have met and exceeded our commitments and are looking forward to sharing our results publicly. We know this work must continue, and that we must continue to be held accountable for it.

I encourage other leaders to increase their transparency on the work being done to address racial disparities. An authentic dialogue grounded in trust is essential so that communities know that they will not be forgotten, and that we are focused and committed to this work for the long-term. We have a long way to go and we will not let up.

On this Juneteenth, let’s heed the half-century-old warnings of the Kerner Commission and move forward together from the bleak picture it painted. Juneteenth is an opportunity for all Americans to pause and reflect. Despite the painful origins of the holiday, its significance and what we as a nation stopped by ending legal slavery should be owned and celebrated by all. We can do that best by making this the moment of building strength together. By recommitting to actions that spread the promise and potential of our democracy to more, we will all reap the benefits of living in a healthier, safer and more fruitful nation.

This week, the U.S. Congress voted to make Juneteenth a national holiday. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law soon. In commemoration of the holiday, all U.S. Bank branches will be closed on Saturday, June 19.

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