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50 years after major civil rights reform
Fifty years ago, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The landmark law was designed to protect the ability of black Americans to vote, to ensure justice and to improve educational and employment opportunities. President Johnson (a.k.a. LBJ) was remarkable. He was from Texas, not exactly a particularly hospitable territory for blacks at the time and definitely not a state known for widespread enlightenment. Even so, LBJ rose to the occasion, even against the advice of his own staff.
Considered a masterful operator of the political machine, he was believed to have no moral compass. The Kennedys, in contrast, John F., the late President, and Robert F., the Attorney General, were considered to own political morality because of their refined upbringing. In reality, it was the other way around. The Kennedys were quite squishy and only dealt with the civil rights issue when there was absolutely no other choice.
President Johnson, faced with a series of shocking events, focused on the issue squarely. On the occasion of the signing of the Civil Rights Bill on July 2, 1964 he said “We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet, many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet, millions are being deprived of those blessings, not because of their own failures, but because of the colour of their skin.”
Those were remarkably clairvoyant words under any circumstance. And then he continued: “But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
What made his remarks before a national television audience so much more powerful was the fact that, in his physiognomy, President Johnson actually resembled the rough hewn, if not somewhat nasty looks of some of the most oppressive Southern officials. Whatever the case in any way, this happened 50 years ago. What really matters as far as African American concerned is the state of play at present.
It was a historic day when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009. The fact that a black man reached that nation’s highest office was a remarkable achievement. This is all the more gratifying when viewed against the backdrop of the often brutal oppression of blacks in the United States that had come to another violent culmination only four decades earlier.
The intriguing question, though, is this: What difference for African Americans has Obama really made in office, after reaching that initial milestone? Some African Americans lamented that in his six and a half years in the Oval Office so far, President Obama has been very hesitant to delve into African American issues with any depth. Some would even say that he has run away from them, in order not to get stigmatized or appear to play favorites.
True, in February 2014, he finally launched the “My Brothers’ Keeper” campaign. It is designed “to help young minority men to succeed at critical stages in their lives from early childhood to college and career.” According to political observers, whatever the merits of that initiative, it has come too late. Washington is already full of talk of a “lame duck” president. Meanwhile, in the nation at large, a certain self-satisfaction about electing a black man as president prevails. It is as if many people believe that checking that box unmade all the sins of the past.
On a symbolic level, having a black man as president may be important, but on a practical level, African Americans’ very real problems remain. At best, Obama’s election can only be considered an interim point in a healing process that must continue. The core issue by which to measure progress is the actual situation of African Americans in the United States. On that front, the news is anything but positive. As the latest data of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Economic Policy Institute revealed it, the social and economic status of African Americans today actually is, truth be told, rather catastrophic.
African Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of white Americans. One of cornerstones of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which is tasked with eliminating discrimination in hiring based on race, as well as other forms of workplace discrimination. Even so, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate for black Americans since the 1960s has been between two and 2.5 times that of white Americans. This gap is apparent in the most recent unemployment statistics. In July 2014, the overall U.S. unemployment rate stood at 6.2%. However, the unemployment rate for white Americans was 5.3%, while it was 11.4% for black Americans.
African Americans are more likely to leave high school without a diploma. From the 1960s to the early 2010s, there has been a marked decrease in the gap between white and black Americans completing a high school diploma. However, there is still a significant gap between the races in terms of on-time graduation. For the graduating class of 2012, 20% of U.S. teenagers did not finish high school with their peers. Among white Americans, only 14% did not finish on time. By contrast, 31% of black students did not finish with their peers. Finishing high school on time can be more difficult for teen mothers and for children in single-parent households. Among black women who bore a child in 2011, 68% were unmarried, according to Census Bureau data. The figure for white women was 26%.
African Americans have significantly less wealth. As of 2011, the median household in the United States had $68,828 in net wealth. This means that half of U.S. households had higher net wealth (assets minus liabilities) and half lower. The median black household had much less debt than white households – $35,000 compared to $75,000. But this largely reflects the fact that black households carry much less mortgage debt than white households. Homeownership among white households is 73%, compared to 43% for blacks. However, black households carry significantly more debt relative to their household assets than white households.
African Americans are far more likely to be victims of serious violent crime. In 2012, 11.3 of every 1,000 black Americans age 12 or older were victims of serious violent crimes (rape or sexual assault, robbery or aggravated assault), according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The victimization rate for white Americans was nearly half that, 6.8 per 1,000 people. African Americans, especially males, are also far more likely to be victims of homicide.
African American males account for about 6% of the U.S. population, but 43% of the country’s homicide victims in 2011, according to the FBI. African Americans are also disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. According to BJS data, they accounted for 39.4% of the U.S. federal, state and local jail population in 2009, more than three times their 12.2% percent share of the overall population.
By contrast, white Americans accounted for 34.2% of incarcerated Americans, just over half their share of the population (63.7%). Since the 1980s, the U.S. Congress has required stiff mandatory jail terms for drug offenders, which is one of the key reasons behind the significant and disproportional increase in the incarceration rate for African Americans.