“We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”
In 1849, when Frederick Douglass wrote those words, he was responding to a proposition by Southern American senators for a vote to establish funding for government involvement in the recolonization of freed American slaves to Liberia, in the event that America decided to free them.
They argued that any other solution that involved freed slaves remaining in America simply posed far more problems than slavery itself. The cure can’t be worse than the illness after all. It’s a conservative mantra that’s alive and well in 21st century America.
The cure would turn out to be far worse than anyone thought. Better still though, as time would prove, than an illness fatal to the notion of liberal government. 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 though.
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 it’s fair to ask that we reflect on a burning question. Where are we on our journey as a country towards a post-racial society?
At the time of the passage of the 13th Amendment, over four million men, women and children were in bondage. It was the largest state sanctioned slave population in the history of the world. It was a population of unprecedented magnitude assimilating into an industrial society near uniformly illiterate, devoid of education and lacking in requisite skills for broader employment.
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 a population of American Citizens in need, a cruel and 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, 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; to 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.
The majority opinion delivered by Justice Henry Brown is tough to read through a contemporary lens. It is racist, to its core. And it’s delivered by the highest court in the land.
“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 in their labor, no resources as a consumer or no voice as 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 after slavery, Jim Crow was the law of the land. By the 1950’s it existed in some form in every state in the union. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 wouldn’t be passed for 99 years after the end of the Civil War.
Its passage signaled the official end of the Federally 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.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the legislation that created the modern American framework. For the first time in our history as a nation built on ideals, we would make at least say we intended to make good 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.
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.”
There was no political price to be paid for supporting segregation in America. Paying a price for the being on the wrong side of history is the promise of accountable government.
By 2008, America had elected out first African American president. 10% of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives were 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.
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.
We have black districts. And white districts. And they don’t turn over. It’s an electoral canceling function.
The 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. The Senate is the senior chamber of our legislative body. It is the premiere deliberative body of representative government on the planet. And it’s entirely white.
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 emancipation, it doesn’t look like it’s likely to change any time soon.
On top of prejudice and racial bias, the math of demographics is an unforgiving enemy of any minority population.
The story of personal wealth and employment is just as bleak.
The single most effective predictor of financial status is education. PHD’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 worse, and complete in some domains. In 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.
This was my parent’s generation. I have grade school children. Which means that we’re two generations removed from systemic exclusion from education and trade unions for African Americans. Systemic racial inequality has deep and recent roots. The outcomes of the justice system may be worse.
Today, 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.
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.
American metropolitan areas are now less than 50% white.
Every day, 720,000 mostly white police arrest 39,000 people concentrated in urban, disproportionately in low-income, disproportionately African American communities. Prejudice, profiling, abject racism and all other dynamics of in-group, out-group human behavior are without a doubt a part of that dynamic. The system perpetuates.
Systems are a set of things working together as a part of a network to drive an outcome. And it’s not hard to see how forces act upon African Americans to drive poor outcomes. It’s harder to see what’s not there.
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.
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. I wasn’t a rich kid. But I had parents whose social network was built on centuries of inclusion and opportunity. It was generations in the making. It was a generational social network that no African American, by law had access to.
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 basic rights closer to livestock than citizens until just after lunch. They gained access to equal education and protection of employment and hiring rights by about 8:15PM.
Education and employment are the fuel and engine behind economic progress. With access to both, progress is just a function of time. Without it, eternity isn’t long enough. I have heard more than once in my lifetime, an expression of the idea that slavery has been dead for 150 years. And that 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. This is the root of systemic racism.