12/07/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2015

Ferguson and the Kerner Commission

The United States is one of the few advanced nations that still practices capital punishment. Indeed, some states such as Texas seem to relish keeping score and trying to execute as many as possible, including the mentally retarded. This practice continues even as some of those convicted and on death row are exonerated. But at least such convictions are the result of a deliberate judicial process no matter how flawed it may be.

But the United States has effectively practiced a parallel system of capital punishment for African-American males. Under this system, you can be "legally" put to death for wearing a hooded sweat shirt in an upscale Florida neighborhood, jaywalking in Ferguson, having a toy gun in Cleveland or selling individual cigarettes on Staten Island. These heinous crimes are punishable by vigilantes and policemen who act as judge, jury and executioner. And so long as the victim is black, they are not held accountable. There is no penalty for shooting first, even six times, so long as the perpetrators claim to feel threatened.

There is something larger going on here. The 1968 Kerner Commission report, put together in the wake of rioting in Detroit and other cities, described America as "moving toward two societies, one black, one white separate and unequal." The rioting was based on black frustration and a lack of economic opportunity. What has changed in nearly half a century? For blacks, very little. Frustration, especially with the justice system abounds. And do not believe that the lack of economic opportunity did not play a large part in Ferguson where half the mortgages are under water and in Staten Island, a most affluent area, where a 43 year old man has to resort to selling cigarettes to the homeless one at a time to survive and elsewhere.

But there is also something different. The two separate and unequal societies are no longer only racially divided. With burgeoning inequality due to stagnant middle class income and the top income groups amassing an increasing share of wealth, we are seeing the development of a clear separation of citizens based on a widening income gap. With a stagnant minimum wage, dismantling of unions, and outsourcing jobs overseas, the middle class is under severe duress. And the trends are not encouraging. America, the land of opportunity, now is at the low end of social mobility among advanced nations, and much of our mobility seems to be downward. Is this the reason for the multiracial character of the protesting crowds?

It has long been axiomatic that a strong middle class is key to a democracy. Is there a corollary describing the affects of the atrophying of the middle class? Can our experiment with a democratic republic thrive, or even survive if a major portion of the population see no economic opportunities for themselves and their children? If a significant portion of the white population comes to doubt the fairness of the system and the conclusion that many blacks appear to have reached, that there is no chance for economic security or dignity under the present system, what are the implications for our political stability?

Add to this the concentration of political power that comes with the concentration of economic power and attempts to restrict voting by the less well off and a picture of America as no longer a democracy, no longer a land of equal opportunity emerges. And is the continued granting of tax breaks to the upper income special interests while the safety net for the less well off is being frayed the sign of an emerging oligopoly or plutocracy ?

The current multiracial protests over police lack of accountability for the deaths of black males may be the canary in the coal mine. Much larger and more explosive forces may be at work. Can our broken political system respond or will the two nations, separate and unequal, continue toward disintegration?