6 Civil Rights Issues That Never Went Away

Photo: AP Photo.
It’s an old cliché, but it's still true: Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. That’s why we have events like Black History Month: to acknowledge the ugliest parts of America's past and try to incorporate them into our nation's sense of self.

For many young people, Black History Month is mostly focused on the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and '60s and the victories won by that generation. But as we pointed out on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it’s not enough to cheer for the wins without also acknowledging that the struggle remains. Many of the issues that our parents and grandparents fought for are still unresolved. Some have taken new shapes. Here are six lingering problems that we'll probably still be talking about for years to come.

Educational Segregation

While segregation in education has been illegal since 1954's Brown v. Board of Education decision, the reality is that de facto segregation is very much the norm in many school districts nationwide. A 2014 study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that despite great strides for integration in the first few decades after Brown, the past 20-plus years have seen extensive backsliding. School segregation continues to be a issue in the states of Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, among others.

The problem exists even in the most racially diverse parts of the country. Late in 2015, a New York Times article found that educational segregation persisted, and had even worsened, in many racially heterogeneous neighborhoods in New York City. Gentrification patterns in the city mean that white and middle-class families are happy to move into Black and Latino areas, but they are unwilling to send their children to the lower-income schools in those neighborhoods. Affluent white children were enrolled in charter schools or specialty programs, while their Black and Latino peers attended the local public schools.
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Mass Incarceration

Slavery is something (most) people agree to be a blight on America’s history, but even a century and a half after the Civil War, its legacy is still with us. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Black Americans, and particularly Black men, suffer from a presumption of guilt in the criminal justice system that is a direct result of racial biases that justified slavery. Statistics from the NAACP have found that Black Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans; and when it comes to drug convictions, 10 times the rate. The organization estimates that one out of every three Black men born in America in the 21st century will be incarcerated.

A conviction means that living a normal life becomes vastly more difficult. A prison record makes it harder to get a job and some types of housing will not rent to former convicts. Add to that the fact that most felony convictions also come with a suspension of voting rights and the result is that Black individuals who have been through the prison system are in large part excluded from a normal life and the political system.

Young people of color are more likely than white youth to be asked to prove their identity before being allowed to vote.

The Black Millennials In America Report

Voting Rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most famous achievements of 20th century civil rights activism. But in 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated a key part of the law. Now, states with long histories of racial inequality can make changes to their election laws without federal approval.

Since then, many of those states have enacted changes, including strict voter ID laws while restricting access to IDs, which critics say disproportionately affect citizens of color. IDs are much harder to obtain for the elderly, the poor, and youth voters. A long-term study on Black youth found that voter ID laws were applied disproportionately across racial groups, with people of color being asked to produce ID far more often. According to the study, “The uneven application of these laws suggests that polling-place workers exercise a high level of discretion in requesting ID from potential voters. Unless all polling places — and all poll workers — apply voting laws in a consistent manner, the very existence of identification laws implies that young people of color are more likely than white youth to be asked to prove their identify before being allowed to vote."

Public Health & Community Resources

Black communities have limited access not just to wealth and political power, but also to natural resources that wealthy communities take for granted — resources like clean water, clean air, and safe public spaces. Minority communities are more frequently subject to environmental public health risks than more affluent or white communities. Black communities are also more likely to be overlooked when they complain about conditions.

The ongoing Flint Water Crisis, where an entire city was exposed to poisonous lead-contaminated water, is only one example of this contrast. The city of Flint is majority Black and overwhelmingly poor — more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line. After the city made its switch to the lead-contaminated water source, residents who complained of tainted water supply were repeatedly brushed off by local officials. It took over a year and the involvement of national media for officials to acknowledge the unsafe conditions.

In the presidential debate on January 17, Hillary Clinton pointed out the racist roots behind the crisis going unaddressed for so long. “I'll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action,” she said. Which leads us to...

Income & Wealth Inequality

The average Black household has fewer resources than the average white one — and the disparity is only getting worse. In 2015, the median wealth of white households was 16 times that of Black households, according to a study from Brandeis University and public policy organization Demos. The numbers are stark — while the typical white household has more than $100,000 in assets, the typical Black household has just over $7,000. Lack of homeownership and limited access to higher education play a large part: the study cites discriminatory lending practices, lack of enforcement of anti-discrimination laws in housing, and continued educational segregation as key factors behind those disparities.

This lack of assets means that Black families can be hit harder and more lastingly by economic downturns. The Pew Research Center found that during recession recovery between 2010 to 2013, while white households increased their median wealth by 2%, Black households’ wealth continued to drop by more than 33%.

Violence & Policing

Of all the issues, the subject of police violence has become the become most associated with modern civil rights activism. Black Americans are disproportionately subject to violence — in some cases lethal violence — by police officers. Over the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has protested the deaths of many young Black men and women at the hands of police officers.

In 2012, the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watchman, began a discussion about race that evolved into a national movement. Protests around the highly publicized deaths of other Black men and women, such as Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, helped propel the issue into the mainstream as the Black Lives Matter movement, a national push to address the role of racial profiling in the American justice system.

The movement has since grown to the point that it has become a major issue in national politics. In last month’s presidential debates, both Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Rand Paul took strong stands on inequality in our policing.

We must demand more from our leaders and local government.

DeRay Mckesson

None of these issues can be solved overnight — or even over a few years. It will take long, persistent effort, and a willingness to talk, and think, and acknowledge when we are wrong. It will take work. It may, in the end, take as much work as any of the major shift changes in our previous efforts for racial equality. But work that begins as a grassroots effort can quickly become mainstream. On Thursday, DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders behind the Baltimore protests that helped found Black Lives Matter, announced via Medium that he will be running for mayor of Baltimore.

"I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs," he said in his announcement. "We must demand more from our leaders and local government."

History is not only about looking back, after all. What changes we work for today will be history next year. Whether they will be worth celebrating is up to us.
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