Book details

Separate and Unequal

The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism

By Steven M. Gillon

About the Book

The definitive history of the Kerner Commission, whose report on urban unrest reshaped American debates about race and inequality

In Separate and Unequal, historian Steven M. Gillon offers a revelatory new history of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders--popularly known as the Kerner Commission. Convened by President Lyndon Johnson after riots in Newark and Detroit left dozens dead and thousands injured, the commission issued a report in 1968 that attributed the unrest to "white racism" and called for aggressive new programs to end discrimination and poverty. "Our nation is moving toward two societies," it warned, "one black, and one white--separate and unequal."

Johnson refused to accept the Kerner Report, and as his political coalition unraveled, its proposals went nowhere. For the right, the report became a symbol of liberal excess, and for the left, one of opportunities lost. Separate and Unequal is essential for anyone seeking to understand the fraught politics of race in America.

About the Author

Steve M. Gillon is a scholar-in-residence for the History Channel and a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. The author of several books on American history, he lives in Miami Beach, Florida.


"Steven Gillon's timely book, Separate and Unequal, is a compelling reminder that America remains a racially divided country. As so often in the past, this divide has economic and moral consequences that undermine our hopes for the future of a united progressive society. Every lawmaker and every fair-minded citizen should read Gillon's history and turn their attention to a problem that blights the country's standing as a beacon of justice around the world."—Robert Dallek

"Separate and Unequal is an enormously impressive book. Steven Gillon tells a compellingly granular story about the so-called Kerner Commission's inner workings in 1967-1968, a tale rich in human drama, clashing philosophies, and telling anecdote. And he employs his formidable story-telling skills to draw out the lasting historical consequences of the Commission's daring and unfortunately still relevant conclusion: 'Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal.' Required reading for all who seek to fathom the depths, darkness--and durability--of American racism."—David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University

"Steven Gillon delivers a riveting read about a devastating challenge to the confident liberalism of the sixties. In 1968, the Kerner Commission famously declared "Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal." Fifty years later, the racial divide that commissioners blamed on white racism persists. This fascinating book illuminates both the 1960s and our own times."—Laura Kalman, Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Separate and Unequal crystallizes a pivotal moment in American history. At its center is the gripping story of the eclectic team that comprised the Kerner Commission, individuals who confronted the raw realities of a nation torn by racial strife in the wake of historic civil rights victories. In his richly researched history of this infamous report, Steven Gillon captures both the promise still viable in 1968 as well as the emergence of the "post-civil rights" racial and political order that dominates American life today. It is a timely and essential book."
—Patricia Sullivan, author of Lift Every Voice and professor of history, University of South Carolina

"In our toxic and dispiriting time, Separate and Unequal is an important reminder that social and racial progress is uneven and subject to setbacks like the one suffered after the release of the Kerner Report. But Steve Gillon's surprising story of dogged liberal politicians and journalists also shows that well-framed social arguments can change the debate forever."
—Jonathan Alter, author of The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies

Gareth Davies, Associate Professor of American History, Oxford University

"When the African American freedom struggle moved north, the Great Society coalition fell apart. Fifty years on, Steven Gillon reconstructs that dramatic story with his trademark brio and deep research, chronicling both the immediate and the enduring political consequences."