Legacy of Racism

PBS Documentary Separate but not equal

The white middle class suburbs of Baton Rouge voted to create their own city of St George 2015

The 1776 US Declaration of Independence declared that 'all men are created equal'. This was a fundamental principle upon which the Founding Fathers based the US political system. Part of this topic surrounds the contemporary American debate about the extent to which the history of racial discrimination, and lack of opportunities for significant racial and ethnic minorities, means that equality for all has been, and remains today, a distant dream for significant numbers of African Americans and Latinos.

The history of publicly-sanctioned discrimination, which effectively removed the civil rights of many racial minorities, has led many to question whether the USA is a genuinely meritocratic society. For many liberal commentators, the product of this history of racial discrimination is the continuing existence of institutional racism and lack of opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities. They would point towards the fact that these minorities remain at an inherent disadvantage with regard to their lack of economic progress and educational attainment. Conservative commentators, in contrast, argue that the USA has rid itself of racism and is today a post-racial society, in which there is a true equality of opportunity for all. They point towards the increasing economic achievement and affluence among minorities as well as their growing political success.

The second aspect of this topic is the political debate surrounding the strategies to remedy these past historical injustices. As can be expected, many conservatives do not feel there is any justification for, and fundamentally disagree with, any attempt by the government to introduce measures to rectify these historical issues of discrimination. For many liberals, however, this ignores the responsibility of the American government to remedy the problems. Liberals point towards the political and moral responsibility of the US government to redress the continuing barriers to educational and economic achievement facing minorities.

A final aspect of this topic is to consider the current debate surrounding immigration reform, which has increasingly come to the forefront of contemporary politics with the growing importance of the Latino vote in US elections. In particular, students will need to be aware of the reasons for this debate and the alternative reforms suggested. Many conservatives see immigration reform as strictly an issue of controlling immigrationand securing US borders from illegal immigrants. For them the focus should be on sealing the US border with Mexico, to prevent further illegal immigration, while also adopting a more proactive approach among law enforcement personnel to finding and deporting undocumented aliens working in the USA. In contrast liberals claim that immigrants are people with rights who are essential to a failing economy, and who therefore should be encouraged to integrate with US society through a nationwide amnesty programme. They support measures, such as the DREAM act, which would give these undocumented aliens a pathway to citizenship.

Many liberals point towards the continuing existence of inequalities in the political, social and economic life chances of minorities to suggest that minorities, especially those from Latino and African-American communities, are at a fundamental disadvantage in modern America. For them, the fact that many minorities remain under-represented at nearly every level of government, that there are more than twice as many blacks and Latinos living below the poverty line as whites, as well as the vast differences in educational attainment between ethnic and racial groups, are evidence of these ongoing inequalities.

Evidence of political inequalities

The lack of political representation for minority groups can be seen as evidence that there exists a fundamental difference between the dream of equality of opportunity and the political reality that exists in America today. There is a strong argument among many liberals that the barriers to minority political achievement demonstrate the failings of the American political system, which favours the wealthy white establishment at the expense of minorities. The following can be cited in support of this argument:

· Despite black people accounting for 13% and Latinos for nearly 17% of the US population, in the 113th Congress their share of the seats in the House was only 9.4% for African Americans (41 members) and 7.8% for Latinos (34 members).

Almost one-in-five voting members of the House and Senate are a racial or ethnic minority, making the 115th U.S. Congress the most diverse in history. And while Congress as a whole remains disproportionately white when compared with the U.S. population, the racial and ethnic profile of newly elected members more closely resembles the increasingly diverse populace, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

Diversity in 115th Congress

· Only eight African Americans and nine Latinos have ever served in the US Senate.

· Much of the minority political representation in America is secured as a result of preferential redistricting and the creation of majority-minority districts, such as the Latino 'earmuff district' in Illinois, rather than race-less voting.

Evidence of social problems

The life chances of many minority groups are seen to be severely limited, which would further suggest that minorities are at an inherent disadvantage compared to whites. It can be argued that the existence of institutional racism in the USA, especially within the education and criminal justice systems, continues to impact upon minorities today. Further examples of this enduring lack of social opportunity can be seen in the following:

· A 2013 report by the Education Trust found evidence of a 'glass ceiling' in the educational attainment of minority students. It highlighted a wide gap in attainment among fourth graders, with 1 in 10 white students achieving an advanced level in maths compared to just 1 in 50 Latinos and 1 in 100 African Americans.

· Recent data from the US census bureau shows a huge disparity in the levels of education among racial groups with just 8.2% of white Americans without a high school education compared to 16.2% of African Americans and 21% of Latinos.

· David R. Roediger, professor at the University of Illinois, referred to the 'highly racialised anti-crime political appeals' that caused a sevenfold increase in incarceration rates between 1975 and 2005. This has particularly affected minorities. A 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that while 1 in every 106 white males is incarcerated that figure is 1 in 36 for Latino males and 1 in 15 among African American males. The Fair Sentencing Act 2010 reduced the difference in mandatory sentencing for Crack Cocaine possession and powder cocaine possession, however, it was nor retrospective and thousands of mainly black people are serving long sentences for crack possession. ( A bill to make it retrospective was introduced 2017-but still not law March 2018)

· Following the 2012 Arizona v USA ruling, regarding the controversial Arizona SB1O7O law, many argued that it still allows law enforcement officials to stop and search anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, which will perpetuate state-sanctioned profiling. Even Obama's comments on the verdict echoed these concerns about racial profiling, when he stated that 'No American should ever live under a cloud of suspicion just because of what they look like'.

Evidence of economic disparities

In economic terms there still exists a huge variance in the positions of African Americans and Latinos when compared to whites. This is seen as a barrier to minority opportunity, and key economic data, including the following, highlight the prevailing problems.

· Recent unemployment rates stood at 13.8% for blacks, 9.7% for Latinos, but just 6.8% for whites.

· A 2013 report by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) found evidence of a growing wealth gap between white and African-American families, which nearly tripled between 1984 and 2009 from $85,000 to $236,500.

· In 2013 the research group United for a Fair Economy, in its annual State of the Dream report, made startling claims about the wealth and asset disparities among racial groups. It found that minorities were struck harder by the recent recession, with the average net wealth of whites falling by just 6.7% compared to a drop of 27.1% among black families and 41.3% among Latinos. It also found that the net worth of white families is nearly six times as large as that of other minorities, and in particular they have over ten times more financial assets than black and Latino families.

Post Race America?

In an article in the New Republic in 2000, entitled 'Race Over', black Harvard professor Orlando Paterson claimed that race is no longer an issue in America, given the dramatic gains made by African Americans since the 1970s. In addition to those who argue that racial and ethnic minorities have made considerable progress, other, largely conservative, individuals point to the successes of other minority groups in the USA, which they refer to as 'model minorities'.

Evidence of political success

There is significant evidence of minority political representation across America, which gives weight to the view that America has extinguished the legacy of slavery and discrimination to become a truly colour-blind society.

· As well as Obama's successful bid for the presidency, there are a number of leading minority politicians such as the Attorney General Eric Holder and Latino senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The success of two African Americans in the 2012 elections was also notable — South Carolina's Tim Scott and Mo Cowan in Massachusetts.

· Presidential appointments have also given the Supreme Court a greater degree of racial and ethnic balance, with justices such as the African-American Clarence Thomas and Latino Sonia Sotomayor.

· At a state level, minorities have also made good progress. In 2009 Colorado, despite having only a 4% black population, became the 'first state in which both the state legislative leaders were African American. Similarly, in the Deep South state of Alabama, where 26.5% of the population is black, African Americans hold 23% of the seats on the state legislature.

Evidence of social advancement

In their 2003 book No Excuses, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom argued that educational attainment is based largely on ethnic cultural factors. They refer to the positive work ethic of model minorities such as Asian Americans, when compared to the Latino and African-American communities, as a reason for varying achievement levels, rather than any lack of social or educational opportunities.

Further evidence of minority social advancement can be seen in the following:

· A 2013 Department of Education report showed the highest graduation rates among minorities since the 1970s, with 93.5% of Asian-American, 71.4% of Latino and 66.1% of African-American students graduating. Indeed research by the Pew Hispanic Centre found that in 2011 only 14% of Latinos dropped out of high school, half the level of 2000 (28%).

· In a 2007 article for the New York Times, Orlando Paterson argued that the disparity in black imprisonment rates may not be solely down to judicial bias or racism butto the high rate of violent crime within the community — the rate at which blacks commit homicides being seven times higher than whites.

· A number of states have introduced policies to advance racial diversity in education. For example, the Texan Ten Percent Plan guarantees students who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class automatic admission to all state-funded universities.

Evidence of economic achievement

Despite variances in the degree of economic achievement, many conservatives argue that the existence of an increasingly affluent black middle class, as well as the success of many other minority groups, is evidence that there are no longer any barriers to economic achievement.

· According to a report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, the buying power of minorities has grown hugely in the last decade with the Latino market accounting for $1.2 trillion in 2012 while African-American buying power increased by 73% between 2000 and 2012.

· The same report stated that there was a 61% increase in black-owned businesses in the 5-year period between 2002 and 2007.

· In 2010, 45.4% of blacks and 47.5% of Latinos owned their own home.

· Census data also show that between 1990 and 2009 the average household income for African Americans rose by $2,872, to $32,584, and by $2,514 for Latino households, to $38,039.