C. Modern Era--1954-2018

By the middle of the twentieth century, some four score years had passed since the Nation's ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, which had been designed with the express purpose of placing African-Americans on equal footing with whites. And yet, as discussed above, these decades were marked instead by the systematic oppression of people of color.

The middle decades of the century saw the emergence of advocates like Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose efforts helped spawn the Civil Rights Era (following in the footsteps of the likes of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois). The U.S. Supreme Court's school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which struck down Plessy v. Ferguson's holding of "separate but equal" was key, although it took another ten years and the involvement of Congress for true progress to be seen in integrating schools and society. Specifically, two provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had big impacts: (1) allowing the Attorney General to intervene in lawsuits on behalf of black students, and (2) prohibiting schools receiving federal funds from discriminating. Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal for States to engage in many of the tactics--some that Southern States had employed virtually since the Civil War--used to systematically disenfranchise African-Americans, thereby allowing greater representation in local, state and national legislatures.

And so, approaching today, the third decade of the twenty-first century, we can agree that much progress has been made. And yet, despite the progress, rampant systemic racial injustice continues.


1. Modern-Day Issues: Criminal Justice; Policing

If there is one thing in America still as certain as the sunrise, it is the regularity of incidents of racial discrimination in the Criminal Justice system. The news sometimes comes inbunches--police killings of unarmed black men, for example, and then the acquittal of the responsible police officer--but make no mistake: systemic racial injustice is playing out day in and day out like a repeating thread in the American social and legal fabric.

In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander explains:

The majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights--including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits .... We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Bryan Stevenson adds:

This country is very different today than it was forty years ago. In 1972 there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today there are 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have 7 million people on probation and parole, and mass incarceration has fundamentally changed our world. In poor communities and communities of color, there is this despair, this hopelessness, that is being shaped by these outcomes: that one out of three black men between ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, or on probation or parole. In urban communities across the country--Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington--50 to 60 percent of all young men of color are in jail or prison or on probation or parole ....

[Moreover, m]y state of Alabama, like a number of states, permanently disenfranchises you if you have a criminal conviction. Right now in Alabama, 34% of the black male population permanently lost the right to vote. We're actually projecting in another ten years that the level of disenfranchisement will be as high as it's been since prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And there is this stunning silence.

Systems of policing are, and have long been, heavily skewed against the rights of people of color. A sampling of reputable studies, as well as data from the FBI and elsewhere, shows "evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average." And, according to a Washington Post summary of a Stanford study of police practices in Oakland, California:

Regardless of the area of the city, disproportionate treatment by race was similar and the raw totals were stunning ... 2,890 African-Americans [were] handcuffed but not arrested in a 13-month period, while only 193 whites were cuffed. When Oakland officers pulled over a vehicle but didn't arrest anyone, 72 white people were handcuffed, while 1,466 African-Americans were restrained .... [Moreover, u]sing only the words an officer uses during a traffic stop, we can predict [with 66 percent accuracy] whether that [officer] is talking to a black person or a white person.

Clearly, America needs to think hard about alternative approaches to policing.


2. Modern-Day Issues: Economic Injustice

Some of the more insidious effects of decades and centuries of racial discrimination are economic. The sobering fact is that, despite some progress in racial justice in the last half-century, African-Americans still lag shockingly behind whites in economic terms, due to the endemic, systemic discrimination they have always faced, and continue to face to this day. As Paul Campos reports in a July 29, 2017 article in The New York Times:

The income gap between black and white Americans remains every bit as extreme as it was five decades ago, at every income level. (Black households in 1967 earned an average of between 55-67 percent as much as white households. Those ratios remain the same today.)

The median white household has about 13 times the wealth of the median black household--and much of that wealth is transferred between generations. This remarkable gap helps perpetuate the consequences of centuries of social and economic injustice.

Many black children attend schools that once again are as segregated as they were in the 1960s, and they are far more likely to become trapped in a prison-industrial complex.

Recent research shows black job applicants for low-wage jobs receive callback interviews or job offers at half the rate of equally well-qualified white applicants and that black and Latino applicants with clean records "fare no better" than white applicants just released from prison.

"These numbers should shock us," Campos suggests. "Consider that in the mid-1960s, Jim Crow practices were still being dismantled and affirmative action hardly existed. Yet a half-century of initiatives intended to combat the effects of centuries of virulent racism appear to have done nothing to ameliorate inequality between white and black America." How can it be that these efforts have had so little effect? The deep roots of centuries of racism "offer more than adequate explanations for what should be considered a scandalous state of affairs in regard to race-based economic inequality." Campos concludes, adding that "[a] genuine populist movement would unite working- and middle-class Americans of all backgrounds, rather than dividing them by exploiting false beliefs about the supposed loss of white economic privilege."

These economic inequalities exist throughout the nation, regardless of geography. From around 1916-1970, huge numbers of African-Americans (more than six million) moved in the "Great Migration" from the South to the North, Midwest and West for jobs in factories and relief from the indignities of Southern racism. While migrants were able to escape the overt discrimination of the South, they encountered more subtle, but no less damaging, discriminatory practices in the North.

One such practice that has greatly hindered generations of African-Americans' financial well-being is the so-called redlining of neighborhoods, where the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation long required that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant; and real estate agents--even long after the practice was banned in 1968--guided prospective buyers, based on their race, only to certain neighborhoods. This process triggered a self-fulfilling prophecy of lessened economic prospects for black people. First, they are guided to less affluent, more economically depressed areas, which forces them to resort to more risky loans provided by lenders engaging in an array of predatory lending practices.

People of color were disproportionately affected, for example, by the 2008 recession and foreclosure crisis, when millions of Americans lost their homes under the terms of subprime mortgages and other risky loan practices. Ta'Nehisi Coates explains:

In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself "the nation's leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers," the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate blacks on building "generational wealth." But the "wealth building" seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness .... According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their black customers as "mud people" and to their subprime products as "ghetto loans."

"We just went right after them," Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told The Times. "Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans ...."

In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose owners had been granted loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.