“We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”
The common path for opposition to societal progress follows a consistent pattern. It begins with the denial of a need for change. It transitions into the admission of a problem, but with it, an insistence that any solution is worse than the problem. At last, resistance to change becomes its most dangerous when change is imminent, but resistance lives on in the hope of failed outcomes. This is the arduous, sometimes violent path of change.
By 1849, when Frederick Douglass penned those powerful words referenced above, the opposition to the abolitionist movement had reached a critical tipping point. Slavery was the dominant political issue in America during the 19th Century. We had missed our opportunity to extinguish it in concert with the birth of our nation, denial of a problem-phase one- and ever since, it had simmered below the surface of every political debate until it boiled over. By the middle of the 19th Century, even in the most pro-slavery regions of the South, few would openly admit that slavery, in its practice and impact on those in bondage, was not on some level, a moral affront to our society. What people would debate, however, was what needed to be done about it.
In that quote referenced above, Douglas was responding to an argument, made by sitting Senators from the South. They proposed a vote to establish funding for government involvement in the recolonization of freed American slaves in Liberia, in the event that we freed them. They argued that any other solution that involved freed slaves remaining in America simply posed far more problems than slavery itself-phase two of opposition to change.
After we resolved the question of slavery, at the cost of 600,000 lives, about half of all Americans killed in war in our history, we still weren’t done. Enter phase three, the one where we find ways to make sure the solution isn’t successful. In this case, it took hold in the form of segregation-first legal, then illegal, then underground, then subconscious. And as hard as it may seem in comparison to the concrete destruction of the Civil War, this phase has cost us a great deal more. And it’s still costing us today.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th Amendment. After a century and a half of slow, and often unwilling progress, I think its fair to ask that we reflect on two burning questions. Where are we on our journey as a country towards a post-racial society? Where do we realistically have a right to believe we ought to be, based on the actions we have taken as a people and a nation?
At the time of the passage of the 13th Amendment, over four million men, women and children were in bondage. It is, to date, the largest state sanctioned slave population in the history of the world. Never before or since has a population of such magnitude been assimilated into an industrial society uniformly illiterate, devoid of education and lacking in requisite skills for modern employment. In his historical account, Democracy in America, the French political historian Alexis de Tocqueville expresses the prevailing opinion of his time, 1835, towards the great dangers of emancipation.
“If he becomes free, independence is often felt by him to be a heavier burden than slavery; for, having learned in the course of his life to submit to everything except reason, he is too unacquainted with her dictates to obey them. A thousand new desires beset him, and he has not the knowledge and energy necessary to resist them: these are masters which it is necessary to contend with, and he has learned only to submit and obey. In short, he is sunk to such a depth of wretchedness that while servitude brutalizes, liberty destroys him.”
His concerns were real and not fundamentally based on racist ideology. If we free these people, what will become of them? 150 years ago, with such a truly dire societal problem on our hands, and a once in a history opportunity to enact measures to protect, elevate and support this population of American Citizens in need, the last and most effective phase of resistance to change took hold, with disastrous consequence. Post Civil War, with much of the country’s attention focused on Southern reconstruction and the creation of a post-bellum economy, a dark of enemy of progress entered in the form of Jim Crow.
State by state, laws were passed to ensure that racial equality stood no chance. They took many forms and were enforced with varying degrees of local or vigilante justice but their aim was clear. Deny freed slaves the ability to assimilate into white American society. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States institutionalized Jim Crow when it issued its landmark decision in Plessy -v- Furgeson.
The ruling declared federal intervention to eliminate segregation unconstitutional, effectively eliminating the intended application of the 13th and 14th Amendments. If you take the time to actually read the majority opinion delivered by Justice Henry Brown, you can see that our highest court, nine white men, appointed for life by our elected executive leadership, was clear and unambiguous in its intent. This is not our problem. It’s yours….
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it…..If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
By segregating or prohibiting access to education and employment, Jim Crow laws sealed the fate of generations of African Americans to toil without hope below the poverty line. By prohibiting participation in local economies and enforcing “poll taxes” for voter registration designed to eliminate African American voters, the gap widened further. When a people have no value as a consumer or a constituent, we have taken away from them the first thing we declared we could not; the “inalienably rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For a hundred years, progress was halted. Four generations passed with the same dim future. The opposition to progress had won a costly victory. Where might we be today, if we had not lost those four generations to the forces of inequality?
The Winds of Change Blow Again
By the 1950’s, Jim Crow existed in some form in every state in the union. After a little short of a century, the dialogue for progress began again. Thanks to the courage and sacrifice of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the countless voices that shouted down oppression, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed 99 years after the end of the Civil War. Its passage signaled the official end of the state sanctioned opposition to the application of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Though separated into 12 chapters, the most effective functions of the Act served to eliminate segregation of any kind in schools or public venues. It also ensured equal opportunities for employment and eliminated unfair voter registration. Many consider the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be the legislation that created modern America. For the first time in our history of a nation built on ideals, we would make due on our promise to protect them for all of our citizens. The struggle however, rarely ends with a vote.
As is the case with change, even if it was change that was changed a century earlier at the cost of over a half million American lives, there was, once again, opposition. 27 Senators voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though many assume it was partisan dissent, most “nays” were not from one political party but rather from a region, the South. Of those who intentionally cast their vote for all history to remember them to be against the equal treatment of American citizens based on the color of their skin, more than half continued to hold office until the 1970’s. Seven of them served in the U.S. Senate until the 1980’s. At least two never lost an election but either retired or died in office after the turn of the century. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was re-elected without defeat before dying in office in 2010. Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi voted “nay”. He had an aircraft carrier named after him in 1993. Senator Albert Gore Sr. lived to see his son serve two terms as Vice President. He voted no, as a Democrat. Which means he really disagree with the legislation…not the idea of legislation. Finally, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, do in no small part to his “nay” vote, secured the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 1964, running under the campaign slogan, “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right.”
Why bring this up? Because this matters. It matters because we need to be reminded that, when my parents were graduating from high school, we were still debating racial equality. And those against it continued to garner support well into the frighteningly recent history. Over the last fifty years, we have progressed. But the ground we tread over is far more distant in our memories than it is in time.
Where are we today?
Politically, who could argue with the election of the first African American president as a show of progress. In 2008, we showed that as a nation, as a whole people, we can behave post-racially. We have an African American president, and 10% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are also African American. At first glance, it appears that we’re moving in the right direction. If we look closer though, the story gets much less post-racial. On a national level, when you line up all our minority population and our white population that has evolved past considering race as a factor in their political choice, we can elect an African American man president. This is especially true if we have a sound target to vote against.
If we shift our scrutiny to congress, however, a very different tale unravels. Of our 44 African American members of the House of Representatives, two thirds represent districts with over 50% African American population. Of the 29 congressional districts with majority African American populations, African American congressmen represent 28. Which means that, of the 407 districts with minority African American populations, African American congressman represent three percent. The United States Senate takes it even further. In its 220-year history, the Senate has had nine African American members. Of those nine, only four have ever been elected (five were appointed). Of the 114 U.S. Congresses that have ever legislated this great land of ours, we elected 112 of them before we had more than one African American Senator in office at the same time. To put it in perspective, more white men have walked on the moon, than African Americans have walked to their seat in the United States Senate.
What does the laundry list of data on our Federal political system mean? It means that we are still quite segregated in our voting patterns. Which means, mathematically, we’re stuck with under representation for African Americans in white congressional districts, few politically relevant African American majority congressional districts, and no African American presence to speak of at all in the Senate. This is repeated with consistency at the state and municipal level. Which ultimately results in a muted voice for the African American community as constituents. Since that population hasn’t grown significantly as a percentage of the whole since the days of the great emancipation, it doesn’t look like it’s likely to change any time soon. Even more than prejudice and racial bias, math is always the most unforgiving enemy of a minority population.
Education and Employment
The single most effective predictor of financial status is education. Doctorate’s make more than masters make more than bachelors make more than associates, make more than high school graduates etc. The single largest predictor for a person’s chances of graduating from college is whether or not a person’s parents graduated from college. At the time that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Brown -v- The Board of Education, effectively eliminating segregation in schools by declaring that separate was inherently not equal, roughly 90% of African Americans enrolled in college were enrolled in black only colleges. Their enrollment overall relative to the general population was almost non-existent at less then 5%. Outside of higher education, in skilled trades, the exclusion was consistent. According to The Long Shadow, a book chronicling the experience of urban youth in Baltimore over a 25 year span, by 1965 African American representation in skilled trade unions was non-existent. In cities like Chicago, where the population of African Americans was 25% of the whole, they represented less than one percent of the skilled trade unions. In the cities of Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Baltimore there were no, as in zero, black members of skilled trade unions.
I could state a half dozen clear statistics about the state of economic inequality amongst races in America from the time of emancipation to today. From income inequality to unemployment, the African American community lags significantly. These are widely known and broadly discussed facts. The view from the top of the food chain however, is even more remarkably telling. Of the 547 individuals with net worth over a billion dollars in America, two are African Americans. Oprah Winfrey, with a net worth of just over $3 billion, is the wealthiest African American. She ranks 220th on the list. The other African American billionaire is Michael Jordan. He just made the team this year. An ethnic culture that arrived on the continent earlier than any other ethnic group except the original Jamestown settlers from England, represents one third of one percent of the wealthiest people today. That is the economic legacy that we the people created, and we the people own.
The rest of the meaningful data shows a legacy of segregation. Our metropolitan areas have seen an increase in minority population over the last twenty years. Now, for the first time in our history, urban areas in America are less than 50% white. As is the case in every society on earth, lower income demographics are subject to higher crime rates, no matter what the race. There are over 720,000 police officers in America. One out of every 220 people is a cop. If you are wondering, this puts us squarely on par with the rest of the industrialized world. What we do more than any other country on the planet, however, is arrest and incarcerate our people. Presently, the United States has more people in prison than China and Russia combined. If you want to ensure few people make it out of destitution, make sure you have more laws that lead to more long prison term than anywhere on the planet. For our part in this, we have created laws that create criminals where perhaps they would not be if not for that law.
Nationally our police force is 12% African American, aligned with the per capita population. Of the major metropolitan areas in the country, only one, Atlanta, has a police department with a majority of African American officers. Remember, metropolitan areas are now less than 50% white. Every day, 720,000 mostly white police arrest 39,000 people, disproportionately in low-income areas which are disproportionately African American. Prejudice, profiling and sometimes abject racism are without a doubt a part of that dynamic. Not because police are inherently racist. Because when 720,000 people do anything 39,000 times a day, there’s a little of everything just about everywhere. This is no commentary at all on the character of the men and women of our police force at large. Having been armed alone and afraid for a living in my life, I can tell you that fear, suspicion and inexperience drive more poor decisions by police than overt racism. It is never alright when it happens. It is important to understand the scope scale and root of the problem though. Numbers will tell you, it’s more math than racism.
The Long Shadow of Segregation
Beyond the straight-line economic impact of limiting access to jobs and education, there is an equally important destructive force that has contributed greatly to the state of racial inequality today. At the same time that my parents were applying and enrolling in college, African Americans had no access to integrated higher education or skilled trades. Which means that the parents of African Americans my age had, with few exceptions, clearly limited access to academic or professional networks outside of the African American community. This was the intentional outcome of segregation.
One day, if I’ve completely lost my mind and decide to run for office, it is likely that some campaign manager will attempt to weave a narrative about my own personal struggle that goes something like this. Raised by a single mother in a working class neighborhood, I joined the military and returned from three tours of war to self-made success in corporate America; living proof that rugged individualism is the true path to prosperity. It’s a fine narrative.
It’s nonsense. Though my parents divorced when I was young, my father was a part of my life my whole life. Neither made a lot of money and the cost of divorce strained us economically. As schoolteachers though, both of my parents were college graduates and respected, active members of the community. That matters tremendously. I never played on a little league team or Pop Warner football team in which the coach didn’t know my dad. Every job I’ve ever had, since I was 15, has been a result of family or college relationships.
The question of where I would be today without the influence of the social and professional network my parents provided for me is one I am grateful that I never have to answer. For most of the history of our country, this network was intentionally non-existent for African Americans. I would like to reserve the “self made” label for the kids who make it out neighborhoods where FitzSimons Middle School was, where my father taught in North Philadelphia. It’s a burned out war zone I wouldn’t see the likes of again until I post invasion Iraq. Show me someone who makes it out of there and I will show you a self made man.
It’s Not All Bad
Acceptable, overt racism is dead. There is no hard data to support this but there is little doubt about it. Clear, intentional expressions of racism are uniformly condemned in both private and public enterprise. I can presently think of no other legal activity that would result in a more immediate dismissal from my employment than to express to anyone, anywhere, anything that resembles hate speech or bigotry. When an idea is uniformly condemned openly, it begins to die where it stills exists, behind closed doors. As a white man of 37, I remember racism in the open as a child. I remember the words used regularly by the parents of my friends and then of course, by my friends. This is the pattern. I remember the things said across the field in high school football games. I remember being nearly run out of my nearly all white working class Catholic school by my classmates because I dared to express interest in a girl who was not white. This was not Alabama in the ‘60’s. This was New Jersey in the 80’s and 90’s. Closed-door racism is alive, but it is dying; dying a slow, shameful, lonely death. This is the area we are making significant progress within the last twenty years or so as a society. This is good. This is where the hearts and minds of people change, and with it our politics, laws and economy.
Where Do We Deserve To Be?
If you collapsed he 239 years of our country’s existence into a normal day in your life, our African American population would have had the same basic rights as livestock until just after lunch. They gained access to equal education and protection of employment and hiring rights by about 8:15PM, just as I would be collapsing into my recliner, clicking on the TV and zoning out for two hours before I nod off to sleep. Education and employment are the fuel and engine behind economic progress. With access to both, your progress is but a function of time. Without it, eternity is not long enough. I have heard more than once in my lifetime, an expression of the idea that slavery has been dead for 150 years. If a culture has not been able to overcome the injustices of their past in that time, six generations or so, then it is their fault. More importantly, it is their problem to solve. If true, we’ve given then two hours in the day that has been the existence of America to solve it.
Where Are We Really?
So where are we really today? And where do we have any right to expect that we would be based on what we’ve done? I use the term “we” as in “We the People.” Democracy is a responsibility and there are consequences for our votes. So where are we? We’re getting there. But we’re not there. And it’s not going to get there on it’s own so we have to get there on purpose, with the same or greater resolve than we had when we tried to keep us from getting there. We have to pay attention to the root cause of problems, not the rhetoric. We have to act with our votes and speak with our voices to ensure that progress continues. If this means that some people get favor they do not deserve, let’s assess the impact of that in context of all that we have done and now have to undo in order to get there. The economic fall out from American apartheid is a hard problem that we spent centuries creating. Our shrinking middle class continues to make upward mobility for every American a challenge. This problem isn’t over yet. But I like the discussions on how to fix the problem a lot more than I like the discussion on if there is a problem. Remember, change has a path.