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The Legacy of Racism in the Southern Region of the United States of America
The economy is booming, and United States citizens are experiencing an unprecedented level of economic prosperity. Median income in the US is $37,800 annually and in 1999 the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent. This is the story of the hot "new" cconomy as reported by the media, despite the fact that its only true for the wealthiest 20 percent of the population.
The United States is a racially and ethnically diverse nation. As of 1999, according to Ameristat, the population was 71.9% White, 12.1% African-American, 11.5% Latino, 3.7% Asian Pacific Islander and .7% Native American. It is here that the story becomes more complex. Just as internationally there is great economic disparity between the nations of North and South as reflected in quality of life indicators like life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy and others, there is also a South within the North.
Nationwide, research indicates that people of color are far more likely to be poor and have a lower quality of life than Whites. African Americans earn 62 percent of the median income for Whites, the lowest median income nationally. Hispanics follow, with 66 percent of the White median income.
While people of color are worse off than Whites in general, people of color in the southern United States have it even worse, as do White people in this region. Project South believes that the worse conditions for southerners are statistically linked to the racial makeup of the region, home to over half (53 percent) of the nations African-American population.
"The South" is defined as the old Southern states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. It is a region that still inspires sad and sickening headlines, when black men are dragged to their death behind pickup trucks or found hanging in their front yards from pecan trees.
Based on statistics from human and civil rights organizations, research institutes, and the government, southerners of all races are more likely to be poor, uneducated, unemployed, incarcerated and politically disenfranchised than in any other part of the country. If they are people of color, they are also more likely than whites to live near a toxic waste dump or an industry producing cancer-causing toxins(1)
In the United States, it is the region where violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) are most evident.
1. Based on a three year average 1996-98.
II. Historical background
The South has a special history that differentiates it from the rest of the U.S. Slavery was widespread and more deeply rooted, since the plantation economy was based on slave labor. It became part of a culture immortalized and romanticized in Hollywood films like "Gone with the Wind."
Slavery gave southern state institutions a more oppressive and brutal character. Local law enforcements first duty in this region was to capture runaway slaves. Even though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, a system of laws known as "Jim Crow" perpetuated a relationship of colonizers and the colonized between ruling class Whites and Blacks until the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.
The South is also home to the nations first organized hate group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In some Southern states, for decades membership in the KKK was the key to a successful political career. Many elected officials and law enforcement personnel belonged to the group.
Public lynchings were another hallmark of Southern life. According to the World Council of Churches, between 1889 and 1940, 3,833 lynchings took place in the United States: 80 percent of the victims were African Americans. Historians estimate that between 85-90 percent of lynchings nationwide took place in the South, often with the complicity of local law enforcement.4
These factors have made racial hate and institutional discrimination more deep-rooted in southern culture.While laws and state structures changed dramatically following the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, culture dies hard. It was not until November 2000, that Alabamans finally voted in favor of repealing a constitutional ban on interracial marriage.5 In the year 2000, thousands of whites still marched in the streets of the South in defense of the Confederate flag, a symbol of oppression and slavery for African Americans. Racism is masked in the mantle of a historical "cultural heritage" movement.
The vestiges of brutality, white supremacy and impunity are still evident. Just 19 years ago, in March, 1981, two klansmen kidnapped and lynched a young African American in the streets of Mobile, Alabama. Nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was walking to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes when he was attacked, his throat slit and he was hung from a tree. The two klansmen were members of the United Klansmen of America -- a group that once had 41 chapters in 12 states. In this case, they were caught and convicted. Other prominent cases from the civil rights era remain unresolved.
3Scott, Jerome and Kaltz-Fishman, Walda, "The Southern Strategy: Then and Now Freedom is Through the South," Working Paper, Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide.
'According to EM Beck, co-author of Festival of Violence: An analysis of Southern Lynchings this figure is a "guesstimate" since lynchings were underreported nationally.
5And even then, nearly 41 percent still voted in favor of keeping the ban.
III. The legacy
A. Hate Crime:
The legal category of hate crime in the United States is only a decade old. The U.S. Congress defines it as a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the roperty that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person.
The number one problem today with hate crime is underreporting according to the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR). The federal government counts hate crimes nationally, but state law enforcement agencies can choose whether or not to do so. CDR reports that hate crimes are far more common than the public realizes, that many victims are afraid to report these crimes, and that some local government agencies and university authorities do not like to report hate crime incidents for fear of bad publicity.
The problem is particularly acute in the South, where some law enforcement agencies view this category as a form of affirmative action, another "benefit" for people of color.6
The case of Alabama is striking. In 1998, Alabama did not report a single hate crime. Just one year later, in 1999, a gay man in northern Alabama was badly beaten and burned to death on a pile of tires because of his sexual orientation. This same year a cross was burned on the lawn of an African-American man in the state capital. In August 2000, new Salvadoran immigrants living in Mobile find KKK literature outside their home. And in November, 2000 an African American family that moves into a predominantly white neighborhood in Montgomery finds a KKK note outside their door.
In other parts of the country hundreds of hate crimes are reported. This data collection allows citizens and government officials alike to design programs to combat this phenomenon and prevent it.
The hate crimes reported in the South are alarming. CDR found that between 1990 and 1997, more than 400 black and multiracial churches had been burned or firebombed in the United States, the majority in the South. This constitutes a direct violation of Article 5 of CERD. During this period more than 20,000 people of color had their churches destroyed at property damages exceeding $US 25 million. Attacks on churches over a century old were particularly devastating to Black communities in what was seen as an attempt to obliterate their history and culture.(2)
The Souths special history makes hate group activity, hate speech and hate crime, particularly menacing for victim groups. While the KKK is no longer part of the state in the South, even as recently as 1998 over two dozen state legislators in Mississippi were members of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a well--known hate group.(3)
'An attitude expressed to CDR during recent interviews with law enforcement officials in Alabama.
B. Criminal Justice
1. The death penalty
State governments may not fully count hate crimes in the South, but they do count executions. Since 1976, 650 people have been executed in the United States; 44 percent were people of color. Only 27 percent of the total national population resides in the South, yet this region has the grim distinction of accounting for 77.5 percent of these executions. Eight of the ten leading states in executions are southern according to the Death Penalty Information Center.10
Alabama sentences more people to death per capita than any other state, followed by Texas. Equal Justice Initiative reports that Blacks in Alabama account for two percent of prosecutors, four percent of criminal court judges, 66 percent of those in prison and nearly 70% of those executed in this state in the past two decades.1
2. Incarceration and political disenfranchisement
Nationally the number of people in prison has increased dramatically in the past decade. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents increased 60 percent for men and 84 percent for women. The racial/ethnic breakdown of inmates is extremely disproportionate to the racial/ethnic breakdown of the US population, indicating institutionalized racism in law enforcement. African Americans only make up 12.1 percent of the total population, yet 45.7 percent of the prison population is Black.12
Over nine percent of the African American male population (aged 25-29) is in prison, versus one percent of white men in the same age group and three percent of Latinos. Black women are twice as likely as Latino women and eight times more likely than White women to be incarcerated.
In the South the prison population jumped 87 percent overall between 1990 and 1999, more than any other region of the United States. Forty percent of all Federal and State prisoners in the US are in the South. Eight of the top ten states in terms of incarceration rates are Southern: Louisiana and Texas are the top two.
Racism within the criminal justice system is causing the political disenfranchisement of a significant number of African Americans. In the United States, people in prison or with felony convictions are not allowed to vote.13 According to the Sentencing Project, nationally this means that 13 percent of all Black men cannot vote.
The figures skyrocket in the South. In Alabama, 31 percent of the Black male population has permanently lost the right to vote. Florida is a close second with just over 30 percent disenfranchised according to Human Rights Watch.4
'Whites, 33 percent and Latinos, 17.9 percent.
"(exception of states of Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts where convicted felons are allowed to vote). "Advocacy groups believe this had an impact on the last presidential election, particularly in the hotly contested state of Florida, where nearly one in three black men could not vote. Election figures show that 92% of black voters in the South backed Al Gore.
C. Economic rights and development~ poverty, unemployment and education.
Nationally, African Americans and Latinos are three times more likely to be poor than other racial group. Just 12.1 percent of the population is Black and yet 27% of the nations poor are African-American. The pattern is similar for Latinos who make up 11.5% of the national population and 23 percent of the poor.
The South leads in some of the most depressing statistics: lowest in income; highest in unemployment, infant mortality, hunger, poverty, food stamp recipients and births to women under 20." The 11 Southern states are home to 27 percent of the total national population, but 35% of the nations poor and 33 percent of the unemployed.
High levels of African-American unemployment (nearly twice the national average) are found in the majority of Southern counties. 16 Nationally, 14% of workers are unionized. For every Southern state the percentage of unionized workers is below the national average, faUing as low as 3% in North Carolina.17 The weakness of unions here is reflected in the high concentration of low wage jobs in this region.
In 1998, nearly 14 percent of the national population had dropped out of high school and did not earn a degree. Forty percent of this group lives in the South. In the South, education is strongly associated with unemployment and poverty. This educational disadvantage leads to occupational segregation, with people of color much more likely to work in lower-paying, semi-skilled or service jobs.8
Latinos are one of the most vulnerable communities of color in the South. Florida and Texas have the greatest Latino populations, but this group is rapidly increasing in other southern states due to job opportunities. Latinos face the same problems as other racial and ethnic groups, compounded by the language barrier and their often undocumented status. The precarious legal situation of many new immigrants makes them more vulnerable to exploitation by employers. According to union leaders, violation of labor laws is routine at southern worksites where Latinos are employed, leading to serious injury and even death.9
D. Environmental Racism
"Race and ethnicity, not simply differences in income, are the key indicators of whether a community is adversely affected by environmental hazards. At all income levels, African American children have higher lead contamination levels in their blood than white children," according to the National Black Economic and Environmental Justice Coordinating Committee. 20
"Wimberley; Ronald C. and Libby V. Morris, 1997, The Southem Black Belt A National Perspective, Lexington, Kentucky; WA Rural Studies. "These figures are gross underestimates as unemployment statistics often do not count people in prisons and jails, federal aid recipients, farm workers and those in the informal economy.
"Population Reference Bureau, 2000.
"On April 24,2000,16-year-old Antonio Reyes-Garcia, a Mexican construction worker, plunged to his death while working on a college dormitory building site in AJabama. The 16-year-old should have been wearing a safety harness according to government Investigators. Alabamas Child Labor Inspector said Reyes employer tried to evade responsibility when first questioned about the accident. ""Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in the United States," pg. 93.
Environmental racism is another form of discrimination. Recent government studies have shown that nationally there are more hazardous and toxic waste facilities, landfills, chemical plants and other polluting industries close to communities of color causing elevated rates of cancer, lead poisoning, asthma, birth defects and other serious health problems.2
With this correlation, it should come as no surprise that government and industry have used the South as a national dumping ground. The five most hazardous waste landfills nationwide are in the South, according to Glenn Johnson, an expert on environmental racism Johnson said Alabama is number one in the nation in terms of the largest and most toxic landfill.
The Southern state of Louisiana has become known as the "cancer alley" of the United States. Cancer alley refers to an area of the state where 138 petrochemical and other industries are clustered around predominantly African American communities. The National Black Economic and Environmental Justice Coordinating Committee reports that contamination from these industries have established Louisiana as one of the most polluted states in the country with nearly 200 million pounds of toxic chemicals released in 1998.22
7A11 of these incidents were reported by the press with the exception of the harassment of Salvadorans in Mobile. This last incident was reported to CDR by the Catholic Church.
'From "Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in the United States," pg. 141.
IV. Conclusion: Challenges for regional NGOs
The Center for Democratic Renewal is planning to form a coalition of southern NGOs to monitor compliance with CERD. A steering committee has been set up with 40 member organizations. These groups represent all 11 southern states and are working to eliminate racism and discrimination through monitoring, research, lobbying, lawsuits, grassroots organizing and community development and empowerment projects. Many of these organizations date back to the civil rights movement and have been working for decades to eliminate the roots of racism.
With globalization, we have been pitted against each other in a race to the bottom. But we have the power to redefine this term. One of our coalitions goals is to connect to the international NGO community, globalize our experiences and triumphs, and learn from the struggles of the poor and people of color everywhere. One day, in both North and South, and in the South within the North, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we all shall overcome.
"Ibid, pg. 103.