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The Cruel Irony of Politics

September 24, 2010

In 2008, most Americans, regardless of race, were proud that in our country Barack Obama could win election to the highest office in the land. His election as President represented a historic milestone in the struggle for racial equality in America. Indeed, there were some who suggested it signaled the dawn of a post racial America.

This, of course, is a grievously simplistic view of contemporary America that ignores the crippling legacy of centuries of racial injustice and the lingering bias of many.  The era of Jim Crow may be over, but the shameful image of protesters hurling racist epithets at black Congressmen and spitting on Representatives on the steps of the United States Capital earlier this year during the debate over health care reform served as a stark reminder that we have far to go.  Earlier this year, Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for the Senate from Kentucky suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went too far when it barred discrimination by privately owned businesses that serve the public.  In the ensuing firestorm, he has backpedaled.  We also had to bear sad witness to the Shirley Sherrod debacle, which featured a startling overreaction by an Administration fearful of being labeled as biased.  These episodes confirmed, once again, that the notion of a post racial America is a myth.

Beneath the headlines, is the less covered, more fundamentally shocking reality.  On May 17th, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University released a study that found that the wealth gap between white and black households in America has nearly quadrupled between 1984 and 2007.  In 1984 the average white household had $22,000 in assets and the average black household just $2,000.  By 2007, the disparity rose sharply with the average white household assets quadrupling to $100,000 while those of the average black households rose slightly to $5,000.

The study found that racial discrimination bars black Americans from equal access to economic opportunity.  According to IASP Director Tom Shapiro, “even when African Americans do everything right – get an education and work hard at well paying jobs – they cannot achieve the wealth of their white counterparts”.   He attributes this to persistent discrimination in employment, credit, and housing.  Simply put, blacks are more likely to be paid less, denied loans or charged higher interest rates, and barred from housing in areas near better jobs and schools.

And this was the situation before the onset of the current recession.

According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in August was 9.6 percent.  For whites, it was 8.7 percent, Latinos 12 percent, and 16.3 percent for blacks, the only segment of the population to suffer an increase.  In states such as Illinois, Ohio Alabama and South Carolina, the unemployment rate is estimated to be above 20 percent.  In Michigan the figure is 27 percent, and in Detroit a staggering 50 percent.  And these are the official rates that do not include so-called “discouraged workers” who have stopped looking for employment.

The impact is devastating for black Americans already blocked from building a strong economic foundation for themselves and their families.  One statistic stands out: according to a report released by the Economic Policy Institute in January of this year, the poverty rate for black children, already at an unacceptably high rate of 34 percent in 2008, will rise to 50 percent by the end of 2010.  What is a troubling recession for the majority of Americans is a disastrous depression for the average black family barred from accumulating the wealth that would have protected them from being forced into poverty. 

I have been a civil rights activist all my life and the Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law for more than 21 years.  I know full well that the disparities afflicting minorities in this country will not be eliminated easily or quickly.  The barriers to full racial justice and equal economic opportunity are so high that this President, like all who have come before him, cannot dismantle them through Executive action alone. 

He is advised by some that as the first black President he should be cautious in his approach to addressing the causes and effects of discriminatory policies and practices, and that he must be seen as a leader for all Americans and not advance policies that benefit one group more than others.  This last point is nothing less than a cruel irony, that politics could constrain a black President from being as effective as he could be in attacking the injustices that disproportionally effect black citizens.

Those who support racial justice and equal opportunity have fought this false premise from the very first days of the Obama Administration.  The leadership of the civil rights community has strongly and consistently communicated that this President must be a fierce advocate for all Americans, including black Americans.  Indeed, we have made it clear that this is among the greatest responsibilities of all Presidents: to push hard for the policies and programs that target barriers to equality.  In modern American history, perhaps the best example of principled Presidential leadership in the face of racial politics is President Lyndon Johnson’s relentless drive for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other landmark legislation that quickly followed.  Of course Reverend Martin Luther King was a strong ally in advocating for this landmark legislation and other key civil rights measures that quickly followed, but he took his own principled stand against that President’s mistaken and ultimately disastrous escalation of the war in Vietnam.

In his noted March 17th, 2008 speech on race in America, then candidate Obama characterized the differing views and sometimes divisive debate his candidacy generated as reflecting “complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care or education or the need to find good jobs for every American”.

The leadership of the civil rights community has never left the ring.   We struggle every day to deliver our message and perspective, even to the Administration of the first black President.  The fight goes on because the needs are so great and the cause of racial justice inseparable from the common goal that benefits all Americans: equal opportunity.

Barbara Arnwine

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