Continuing Challenges for African Americans
The civil rights movement for African Americans did not end with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For the last fifty years, the African American community has faced challenges related to both past and current discrimination; progress on both fronts remains slow, uneven, and often frustrating.
Legacies of the de jure segregation of the past remain in much of the United States. Many African Americans still live in predominantly black neighborhoods where their ancestors were forced by laws and housing covenants to live.
Even those who live in the suburbs, once largely white, tend to live in suburbs that are mostly black.
Some two million African American young people attend schools whose student body is composed almost entirely of students of color.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, efforts to tackle these problems were stymied by large-scale public opposition, not just in the South but across the nation. Attempts to integrate public schools through the use of busing—transporting students from one segregated neighborhood to another to achieve more racially balanced schools—were particularly unpopular and helped contribute to “white flight” from cities to the suburbs.
This white flight has created de facto segregation, a form of segregation that results from the choices of individuals to live in segregated communities without government action or support.
Today, a lack of high-paying jobs in many urban areas, combined with persistent racism, has trapped many African Americans in poor neighborhoods. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 created opportunities for members of the black middle class to advance economically and socially, and to live in the same neighborhoods as the white middle class did, their departure left many black neighborhoods mired in poverty and without the strong community ties that existed during the era of legal segregation. Many of these neighborhoods also suffered from high rates of crime and violence.
Police also appear, consciously or subconsciously, to engage in racial profiling: singling out blacks (and Latinos) for greater attention than members of other racial and ethnic groups, as FBI director James B. Comey has admitted.
When incidents of real or perceived injustice arise, as recently occurred after a series of deaths of young black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland, many African Americans turn to the streets to protest because they believe that politicians—white and black alike—fail to pay sufficient attention to these problems.
The most serious concerns of the black community today appear to revolve around poverty resulting from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. While the public mood may have shifted toward greater concern about economic inequality in the United States, substantial policy changes to immediately improve the economic standing of African Americans in general have not followed, that is, if government-based policies and solutions are the answer. The Obama administration recently proposed new rules under the Fair Housing Act that may, in time, lead to more integrated communities in the future.
Meanwhile, grassroots movements to improve neighborhoods and local schools have taken root in many black communities across America, and perhaps in those movements is the hope for greater future progress.
One of the major controversies regarding race in the United States today is related to affirmative action, the practice of ensuring that members of historically disadvantaged or underrepresented groups have equal access to opportunities in education, the workplace, and government contracting. The phrase affirmative action originated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 11246, and it has drawn controversy ever since. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment, and Executive Order 11246, issued in 1965, forbade employment discrimination not only within the federal government but by federal contractors and contractors and subcontractors who received government funds.
Clearly, African Americans, as well as other groups, have been subject to discrimination in the past and present, limiting their opportunity to compete on a level playing field with those who face no such challenge. Opponents of affirmative action, however, point out that many of its beneficiaries are ethnic minorities from relatively affluent backgrounds, while whites and Asian Americans who grew up in poverty are expected to succeed despite facing many of the same handicaps.
Because affirmative action attempts to redress discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity, it is generally subject to the strict scrutiny standard, which means the burden of proof is on the government to demonstrate the necessity of racial discrimination to achieve a compelling governmental interest. In 1978, in Bakke v. California, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action and said that colleges and universities could consider race when deciding whom to admit but could not establish racial quotas.
In 2003, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Bakke decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which said that taking race or ethnicity into account as one of several factors in admitting a student to a college or university was acceptable, but a system setting aside seats for a specific quota of minority students was not.
All these issues are back under discussion in the Supreme Court with the re-arguing of Fisher v. University of Texas.
Should race be a factor in deciding who will be admitted to a particular college? Why or why not?
Following the Civil War and the freeing of all slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment, a Republican Congress hoped to protect the freedmen from vengeful southern whites by passing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, granting them citizenship and guaranteeing equal protection under the law and the right to vote (for black men). The end of Reconstruction, however, allowed white Southerners to regain control of the South’s political and legal system and institute openly discriminatory Jim Crow laws. While some early efforts to secure civil rights were successful, the greatest gains came after World War II. Through a combination of lawsuits, Congressional acts, and direct action (such as President Truman’s executive order to desegregate the U.S. military), African Americans regained their voting rights and were guaranteed protection against discrimination in employment. Schools and public accommodations were desegregated. While much has been achieved, the struggle for equal treatment continues.