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Still Grappling with Racism “In the Age of Obama”

October 30, 2009

This country has celebrated some proud moments in recent history, including the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President, the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as only the third woman and the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and Eric H. Holder Jr. as the first Black U.S. Attorney General.  Nevertheless, we certainly have not achieved a post racial world.  The racial contradictions in our society are in many ways waxing instead of waning.   Forcing us to grapple with many “reminders” that issues of race and equality still persist in our society. 

In my last Executive Director Letter, I pointed out several issues of race during the summer of 2009 which presented fundamental challenges to racial equality.  Issues of race and equality were placed back on the national stage in September following Representative Joe Wilson’s heckling of President Obama during a speech before Congress and former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that Wilson’s comments were based on racism.  However one may weigh the events over the last several months, it is clear that a good segment of our society has not come to grips with having and the opposition of too many to the President, a black President. 

We must all work together to urgently renew efforts to promote racial healing and understanding to lay the groundwork for a future in which racial justice and equality is an embraced goal of all Americans.  We still have a long way to go in addressing and discussing foundational racial problems. 

Over the coming months, I will expound upon the following topics, which I believe are some of the essential components of ongoing conversations of race and equality in our country  with civility and truth, on systemic and legislative levels:

  • Restoration of the U.S. Department of Justice Department (DOJ) – U.S. Attorney General Holder is to be applauded for strides being taken in restoring the Civil Rights Division, but there’s much more to be done. Another step in the right direction is the immediate confirmation of Tom Perez as for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
  • Barriers to Voting and Protect Voting Rights of Disenfranchised Communities – Voter registration remains the single greatest barrier to enfranchisement. To promote the fundamental right to vote, the Lawyers’ Committee has urged Congress to pass voter registration modernization and antideceptive practice legislation.
  • Fair Housing and Fair Lending Practices – We must address issues such as predatory lending and the foreclosure crisis which continue to pierce minority and low-income communities. African-Americans and Latinos were the disproportionate targets of unfair, deceptive and reckless lending practices that triggered the foreclosure collapse and imploded credit markets. According to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, blacks lost $71 billion to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans from 1998 to 2006 (before the subprime crisis).
  • Unfinished Business of the Gulf Coast – We must continue to address the longstanding adverse impact on poor and African-American residents. While President Obama is to be commended for signing an executive order that extends for six months the federal office in charge of coordinating recovery and rebuilding efforts on the Gulf Coast, countless low-income and minority communities remain in disrepair four years following the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
  • Unemployment – We must continue to remedy unemployment matters primarily affecting communities of color which includes barriers to employment such as unfair and unnecessary background checks, often including credit checks. The jobless rate for black Americans has remained much higher than that of whites since at least the 1960s.
  • Environmental Justice Issues – Increased attention, enforcement and education by federal agencies and the Administration is crucial, including a renewed focus on creating green jobs, particularly in minority communities.
  • Disparities in Health Care – Persistent, and sometimes substantial, differences continue to exist in the quality of health care and access to health care. African-Americans continue to experience higher rates of disease and death. Even though Blacks account for about 13 percent of the US population, they account for about half (49 percent) of the people who get HIV and AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Equalized Criminal Justice System and Advance Educational Opportunities – At the turn of the century, there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college. A complete reversal from just 20 years before (1980), where there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college. And, We spend more money to incarcerate than to educate.

Prison spending increased 127 percent from 1987 to 2007, and at least five states – Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont – now spend as much or more on corrections as they do on higher education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers and the Public Safety Performance Project.

These issues and others must be addressed in our conversations of advancing racial justice.    And we must recognize that, although our nation has made tremendous progress in eradicating racial and ethnic discrimination since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, these gains are fragile and unfinished. 

As President Obama stated in a campaign speech last year, “there are complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.”  With civility, we all have a role to play in aggressively propelling this nation toward equality and justice for all.

Barbara R. Arnwine
Executive Director

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