It has been 51 years since the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march of 1965. That (Bloody Sunday) was one of the turning points in the civil rights movement because TV captured the sheer brutality of white rule in the South. So after 5 decades have we achieved racial equality in the South, or anywhere else in America for that matter? Hardly! Not even close!!
To be sure there has been substantial progress for a significant minority of black citizens. There are many more black politicians, professors, doctors, other professionals, and middle class black Americans than then. And they generally enjoy far more respect in the white community than 50 years ago.
But progress has only been around the fringes of the larger black population. The vast majority of black Americans are still at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder with little hope for a better life even for their children. They have less access to quality education, and face discrimination, however subtle, in the work place, the market place, and in institutions of American government and society that their white counterparts can’t even imagine.
Continued progress today in some ways is even more hopeless than it was in the ‘50s and ’60s. In those days most everyone knew that racial segregation and subjugation of blacks was a legal and social institution that must not and inevitably would not stand. However grudgingly, white Americans were beginning to face and adapt to a new national order demanding racial equality. That was then!
Now after fifty plus years most white people act as though racism in America is a thing of the past that has finally been fixed. They have a sanitized academic idea of what it was like then. And today’s racial reality is just too inconsistent with white America’s idealized view of our democracy for them to accept.
Today’s young and middle aged white people seem to think that current racist events are isolated and rare. Reenforced mostly by conservative political rhetoric they see complaints of racism by black people as exaggerations or attempts to game the system. Though videos of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens may shake their confidence a bit white people take comfort in rationalizing such events as rare anomalies or that a particular black victim somehow brought it on him/herself. They can’t admit or maybe don’t even comprehend that institutional racism is alive and well in America, and that they are a part of or complicit in it.
In American society today the quality of life for people of color is far worse than for white people. They are underserved by government at all levels, institutionally discriminated against, and exploited by commercial interests in ways that few of the poorest white people are.
Factual information abounds from governmental agencies, university studies, and other research organizations that demonstrates the inequality between black and white citizens’ access to the American Dream. All such statistics from reputable sources point to a common reality of racial relations in America – black citizens are seriously unequal with white citizens in nearly every measure of the quality of life. Further, white American society seems to see black citizens as less valuable than white citizens! Following is a small sample of the economic inequality black citizens suffer:
1) Since the turn of the 21st century the racial wealth inequality in the United States has substantially increased base on inflation-adjusted dollars. The median white family held a net worth six times greater than the median black family at the end of the 20th century. That reflects 400 years of black exploitation by whites.
That gap though has now more than doubled to 13 times in just the last 15 years. The median net worth of a white household is more than $90,000; the median black household net worth is a bit more than $6,000. Net worth includes bank accounts, retirement accounts, cash, and financial investments; it also include vehicles, real estate, and business ownership interest.
2) The median income for black households is only about 60% of that of white households; annual white household income is almost $60,000 while in black households it is a bit more than $35,000. Of course that inequity results from poor quality education, limited job opportunities, and the lack of well connected social networks that whites use to secure employment and financial advantage.
3) Home Ownership is about 73% for white families but only about 43% for blacks. Of course home ownership is a major source of wealth accumulation. Black families were much more likely to have been exploited by unscrupulous lenders before the “great recession of 2008” and therefore suffered disproportionately from plunging home values and foreclosures when the housing bubble burst.
4) Unemployment among blacks is typically twice that of whites (11.4% for blacks and 5.3% for whites in July 2014). Among many other factors this reflects the concentration of black families in communities with little commercial or industrial activities to generate jobs, limited transportation to other job locations, and limitations in “connections” to access many job opportunities including the skilled trades.
5) More than 27% of black citizens live in poverty while less than 10% of whites do.
Economic inequality inevitably spills over into health and life expectancy inequalities for black citizens. Often poor blacks cannot afford health insurance or preventive health care readily available to their white counterparts. Though challenged at every turn the ACA is leveling that field a bit. But the gap is wide, will take decades to close, and shows up glaringly in the health statistics:
6) Infant mortality among black children is more than twice that of white children – 11.3 per 1000 for blacks; 5.1 for whites
7) Black citizens are 3 times more likely to die from asthma, 80% more likely to die of stroke, and 30% more likely to die of heart attack than their white counterpart.
8) Blacks are 50% more likely to suffer from hypertension and twice as likely to suffer from diabetes as whites.
9) Blacks are far more likely than whites to suffer from undiagnosed or untreated chronic illnesses such as hypertension because they lack medical insurance or financial resources to seek medical services.
Bad as basic economic and health inequalities are the American criminal justice system may represent the worst and most destructive inequality between black and white citizens. And much of it is legal racial discrimination. Federal drug crime initiatives have decimated the viability of many black communities.But it does not stop there. The job market, public education infrastructure, housing, and financial institutions are all linked to the justice system and heavily stacked against black citizens. That to a large degree is true for Latino and native Americans as well but I am focusing here on African-American inequality.
There has been a lot of journalistic treatment of this subject in the last 3 or 4 years. One book I recommend for anyone who actually cares is titled “The new Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in a Color Blind America” by Michelle Alexander. Though she brings her own personal perspective to the table Ms. Alexander does a good job of objectively documenting the disparity in justice meted out to members of black and white communities. She has done the research and presents the continued significantly higher rates of incarceration, policing, and sentencing to death of people of color over those of their white counterparts.
Disparate treatment in the criminal-justice system really exploded in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s “war on drugs”. Sadly the war on drugs was launched at the very time when drug use and trafficking was declining in America. But it was part of the dismantling of much of the federal affirmative action initiatives and good politics at the time!
That federal program provides economic incentives for local law enforcement departments to raid inner-city neighborhoods looking for drugs, users, and dealers. The federal program does not specify an inner-city focus but that is where police can be most efficient with the least push back. Those people are predominantly poor, black, and with little economic or political power.
Studies have shown that drug abuse in the suburbs is equal to or more prevalent than in the inner-city. But the suburbs are more affluent, mostly white, and have more political power. They are more likely to challenge police efforts. Of course the statistics also show that even when drug arrests are made in suburban areas white defendants are either not prosecuted or given lighter sentences than blacks for similar crimes.
The war on drugs has simply exploded the prison population (disproportionately black men) and has threaten the economic and social viability of entire communities of color. The family unit is destroyed because thousands of husbands and fathers are in prison or disenfranchised. Voting rights are denied as well as equal access to employment, housing, public benefits, and education. In light of these disparities, it is imperative that criminal-justice reform evolve as the civil rights issue of the 21st century. It is not clear yet if the current increasing awareness and attention will bring about real reform!
Take a quick look at the desperate treatment between black and white citizens in the criminal justice system and try to contemplate the devastating impact that has had on the black communities over the last 30 years. Again a few criminal justice statistics tell the story of inequality:
10) 1 in 15 African American men is incarcerated; only 1 in every 106 white men are put in prison. African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
11) African Americans are equal or less likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. Yet while blacks comprise 14 percent of regular drug users they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
12) Blacks are approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested during encounters with police, and they are almost 4 times more likely to experience use of force by police. However black citizens are less likely than whites to be found with contraband during such searches.
13) African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants for the same crime and are 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison.
I could go on and on listing additional racial inequalities. We could debate minor differences and variations of the statistics among different studies. But the truth is they all consistently show an awful reality that we should be addressing as a society but are not, at least not adequately. The statistics are especially damning for the richest country in the world, especially one that touts equal opportunity.
I have not even addressed educational inequalities in this piece. I’ll deal with that another time.
Many politicians, particularly extreme conservatives, are fond of saying that anyone who works hard can succeed. They love to use code words like “law and order”, “welfare moms”, or “deadbeat dads” to place poor black victims in an unfavorable light and blame them for their plight. They imply blacks are lazy and trying to game the system. To be sure there are some of those in the white as well as the black community. But when the numbers as shown above are so lopsided there is clearly something else at work.
That “something else” is institutional racism in our governmental and other public entities as well as among many, probably most, of our white politicians, at least at the national level. That helps promote continued segregation of American communities and reinforces the racial thinking of most white Americans. With more right-wing politicians spouting religious prejudice it is easily predictable, but sad nevertheless, that our churches remain the most segregated institutions in America.
It is not limited to the politicians either. The vast majority of white Americans practice a form of white supremacy. In most cases we don’t even realize it. We see a white man on the street and we just think of him as a “man”. We see a black man on the same street and we categorize him as a “black man”. In most cases it is probably more habit than conscious thought. We even refer to President Obama as our first “black president” though he is at least as white as he is black.
We have had ages of prejudicial training and exposure to stereotypical thinking about black people. We love to deny that we are racist in our thoughts and behavior but it shows up in our politics, social interactions, religious lives, where we choose to live, and how we think of black people in general and poor black people in particular. Worse yet we are unwilling as a nation to face that fact and open a serious dialogue focused on fixing the abuses we have caused and continue to perpetuate. Such an initiative might threaten our white supremacy and bring about real equality!!!
I have tried to make the case here that the United States of America remains a racist society. I submit that white people and institutions are primarily responsible, and only whites can change that paradigm. Though they are proving to be a poor roll model the white religious community should be a major leader in the fight to bring about real equality.
If you think I am off base in my claim then answer the question yourself: why do black and white people remain so unequal in our democracy where we all supposedly have the same opportunities? Are blacks just less intelligent, less civilized, or more violent than white people? Is there a genetic defect in the biology of blacks that renders them inferior to whites? Are whites just God’s chosen Americans? Is it God’s plan for whites to maintain dominion over blacks as we have for 400 years?
If non of the above explains the inequality between blacks and whites in your mind then what is your explanation? Is the status quo satisfactory to you? If not what are you prepared to do to help change it?