By Rowan Kane
“All men are created equal.” Forgetting for a brief moment the contemporary paradox between those words and their author, it’s safe to say that that phrase is the foundation upon which the American Society is supposed to be built. American Society has continually abdicated the tenets outlined in its founding documents. Its most recent excuse is a misguided faith in “the private sector” or “the invisible hand” which have been erroneously conflated with “freedom” and “liberty”. Despite what current conservative pundits say, equality and its inherent partner opportunity have only ever been secured, truly, by governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” To cite those most esteemed examples from high school American History class: it was not the private sector that was able to win the revolution, it was not the private sector that abolished slavery or that secured (eventually) universal suffrage, and it was certainly not the private sector that outlawed segregation. Is it possible to say that, if left to its own devices, the private sector could or would have done all these things? Absolutely. But to say that it did is revisionist history and worse, it is ignoring the modern socio-economic and racial inequality that is the direct and real descendant of this country’s greatest injustices.
That ignorance of reality came to the forefront again in the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which upheld a referendum in Michigan that outlawed affirmative action for college admissions. The law had passed with 58% of the vote, by no means a small margin, but as one writer at The Atlantic put it, “Does anybody else think it could be a problem to put the question of minority rights to a majority vote in state initiatives?” Effectiveness and constitutionality of affirmative action itself aside for a moment, the Supreme Court, whose raison d’étre alongside interpreting the Constitution is to ensure minority rights, has never been exempt from the hypocrisy that has permeated American Society in its race-relations. Indeed the Court has often been American Society’s bellwether and Schuette is the latest incarnation of this and, combined with the gutting of the Civil Rights Voting Act last year, it has been made clear that for the majority of the Supreme Court, racism in America no longer exists.
In the antebellum United States, the Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857)decision ruled that slaves were property and further undermined the Missouri Compromise, which had placed a temporary, albeit immoral, truce between slave and abolitionist states that disintegrated 4 years later. After the Civil War, the issue became further convoluted, first with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld “separate but equal” segregation as constitutional before a later court struck it down in a series of cases including Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) and the famous Brown v. Board of Education (I, 1954 and II, 1955). In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Court even went as far as to rule that the proactive method of school desegregation, busing, was constitutional, before limiting that method to within city-limits in Milliken v. Bradley (1974). Since the advent of affirmative action, which began as an Executive Order from President Kennedy in 1960 to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin”, the Court has ruled on the matter no less than a dozen times, most recently in the aforementioned Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
This legal tug-of-war reveals, at least partially, American Society’s relationship with its checkered (to put it lightly) past of racial oppression as well as its current injustices. While students are taught throughout their education the importance of the “Dred Scott Case” leading up to the Civil War and perhaps the legalization of Jim Crow Laws in Plessy v. Ferguson, the popular history of race in America ends with Brown v. Board of Education and the successes of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While history becomes more controversial and cloudier the closer it is to the present, we are now 50 years removed from the end of this discussion and it is time that we start seriously talking about racial realities in this country.
A good place for the conversation to start would be education. Indeed many historical attempts to transform racial inequality, and thus most Supreme Court rulings on the subject, have dealt with children and/or their education. For the vast majority of its history, the United States federal government has left the majority of education spending and thus the country’s curricula, to more local government; the states and municipalities. Over the past several decades, this system has resulted in the US spending a reasonable amount on education for a “developed” nation as a whole, but has left the country in a decidedly average position among countries studied as part of a recent OECD report. This is especially the case for math and science levels.
Now why is this the case? Segregation Now, a recent multimedia report by Nikole Hannah-Jones of ProPublica, sheds a good deal of light on the re-segregation of American schools, the failure to fund and support those schools in which the poor, especially African American poor attend and thus the potential source of this mediocrity and decline. Referencing Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Hannah-Jones describes how a “story of city financial interests, secret meetings and angry public votes…shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight” created a situation where “In Tuscaloosa today, nearly 1 in 3 black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”
Segregation Now, which borrows its title from the infamous speech given by Alabama governor George Wallace in 1963[i], traces the story of three generations of the Dent family; James, Melissa and D’Leisha, through the Tuscaloosa school system. James, 64, the grandfather grew up and graduated high school in the Jim Crow Era. While he graduated high school over a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, “Dent would never attend school with a white classmate.” Melissa, James’ daughter, on the other hand, would attend a newly integrated (by judicial force) Central High School. During its two-plus decades of integration, Central would become a state “juggernaut”, both academically and athletically, before it was officially closed in 2007 by the forces of re-segregation. Melissa’s daughter and James’ granddaughter, D’Leisha will graduate from the new Central High School this spring. Central now falls under a new term, apartheid school, “meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less.” According to ProPublica, “the number of apartheid schools nationwide has mushroomed from 2,762 in 1988 – the peak of school integration – to 6,727 in 2011.”
Much like the ante-Brown v. Board of Education world, these apartheid schools have been promised equality by the authorities but, as the ProPublica analysis reports, these intentions, genuine or otherwise, belie the reality. The apartheid schools of today are not only segregated by race but also by income and social class. Students with families in the bottom 20% in terms of income five-times more likely to drop out than those in the highest 20%, and thus “High-poverty, segregated black and Latino schools account for the majority of the roughly 1,400 high schools nationwide labeled ‘dropout factories’—meaning fewer than 60 percent of the students graduate.” In 2007, the old Central High School was split into two schools: the majority white school, Northridge, which offers “a dozen Advanced Placement classes”[ii], and the new Central, predominantly black and providing no Advanced Placement classes and does not even “have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.” Most importantly, the new Central has consistently one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. Because of this disparate reality, D’Leisha, and millions of other black and brown high school students throughout the country have little to no chance of getting into college, let alone completing a four-year degree.
Educational segregation is not just a problem in the South. Some of the most segregated areas of the country are the wealthiest (and most liberal). Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts are all top-five states for economic inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient), which in turn is highly correlated with racial segregation. Indeed New York has the most segregated schools in the country and Connecticut and Massachusetts are not far behind in terms of apartheid schools. The facts of “educational attainment” on individuals’ futures speak for themselves. FiveThirtyEight.com published data from the Census Bureau that while roughly 40% of whites between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelors degree or higher, only about 20% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics had achieved the same level of education. When it comes to future income and quality of life, one’s level of education is all-important.
The evidence seems to suggest that, after nearly six decades of both direct and indirect efforts by the federal government to integrate the public schools of America that goal has remained out of reach. Indeed this is one of the only areas in which race has been confronted in the public forum. Yet in Tuscaloosa, Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and other flashpoints of racial tension throughout the country local governments as well as, white, and at times black, parent constituencies are removing themselves from integrated schools. But this is only a single factor, a symptom, in the retreat of American Society from candid racial debate. Currently covering this retreat from integration on the micro level and the larger subject of racial inequality on the macro level is a thin line of self-proclaimed post-racial rhetoric that surrounds words like “welfare”, “entitlement” and “dependency”, all of which are often put in the context of a “culture”. This fill-in-the-blank “culture” is then placed in direct juxtaposition with the American Myth; the presumption being that there is only one acceptable American Culture, one American History, one American Society.
This singular America is one in which We fought for Independence, We fought each other over slavery (or “states’ rights” depending on your region of origin) and then abolished it. Meanwhile, We, as immigrants, came in waves, German, Scandinavian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, who were able to provide better lives for their children and integrate their way into American Society. We then made the world safe for democracy, beat Fascism and well into the 20th century, The American Century, ensured voting rights for all of our citizens while confronting and then beating Communism. That is where American History ends. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, American Society has ridden a wave of self-righteous patriotism that has seen military adventurism abroad based on the notion of American Exceptionalism, that is; the ideals that the United States stands for and (allegedly) upholds make us a unique and exceptional nation. Domestically, this has meant an inability to comprehend or discuss the reality that there are a multitude of cultural and historical narratives that have created and continue to create American Society. One of those narratives is that of Black America.
It is relatively clear, if one is willing to look, that there is a large swath of the US population that does not view American history as American History, and with reason. The treatment of and policies toward minorities and immigrants since the American continent was colonized, while not unique, forces those who believe in American History, and its Exceptionalism, to do so in an almost ahistorical vacuum. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” Coates’ statement comes from his recent and moving argument supporting reparations for African Americans from American Society. When reading Coates’ article it becomes clear that affirmative action, while perhaps intended to support diversity in American society, it, as he says, “only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people – the problem of what America has taken from them over several centuries.” Affirmative action has been a single stone in a forceful current that African Americans must swim upstream to achieve what White Americans feel they are entitled to.
Coates’ focuses much of his case on the fact that African Americans have been continually deprived of right to home ownership, that icon of the American Dream, due to a series of predatory lending scams that specifically targeted people of color. These schemes came alongside and were allowed, if not encouraged by regulations from the Federal Housing Authority that “redlined” those neighborhoods in which African Americans lived, essentially creating the ghettoization of cities across the country. Coates uses Chicago as his prime example, where Southern blacks literally fled in order to avoid the oppression, disenfranchisement, outright violence, and legalized theft in their home states. They were met with home “ownership” schemes called “contract sales”. As Coates explains:
“In a contract sale, the seller kept the deed until the contract was paid in full—and, unlike with a normal mortgage, Ross (the individual Coates uses as an example) would acquire no equity in the meantime. If he missed a single payment, he would immediately forfeit his $1,000 down payment, all his monthly payments, and the property itself.”
While the majority of American Society prospered thanks to the social safety net and regulatory agencies created in the New Deal and the G.I. Bill, which aided veterans with both tuition for college and mortgages. Except African Americans were, for all intents and purposes denied the latter at every turn, while White America moved to the suburbs, Black America was kept out by a combination of public, private and grassroots organizations that allowed race to determine property values (if blacks lived nearby it went down) and enforce the segregation of neighborhoods (often by violence that regularly went unpunished).
African Americans have fought against the current of racial prejudice in America for the entirety of their existence on this continent. That current is just as strong today as it ever was. The gaps that exist between White and Black America are clear. Beyond the Education Gap explored above, in health, African Americans’ life expectancy is four years less than whites, rates of overweight/obesity is nine points higher and rates of infant mortality more than twice as high. The Education and Health Gaps are truly just symptoms, however, of the Wealth Gap that is stark today as it was while Jim Crow still stalked the South. In terms of unemployment, levels of poverty and household income Black America lags significantly behind White America. Yet, as the Supreme Court has shown us, it seems a majority of American Society does not deem racism to still be a significant factor in the United States.
With those Gaps, especially Wealth in mind, Coates argues for a discussion about and towards reparations for the institution that begat both the United States we see today and the modern ills its society, American Society faces; slavery. This would, by necessity, force that American Society to reckon with a history that does not align with its Myth. It would force, as Coates puts it no less than “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of history.” American Society’s relationship with race has been destructive to its families, to its cities, to its economy and to itself. In the 21st century, race often disappears from the national discussion as quickly as it appears, catalyzed by some statement like those we heard from Nevada rancher and short-lived conservative hero Cliven Bundy or by soon-to-be-former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The words, and perhaps more importantly the sentiments, of Bundy and Sterling represent the missing link between the racism of segregation and the pre-Civil Rights era and the racism of today, equally as real and, while perhaps not as physically harmful, as socially and economically violent as ever. It is easy to tell ourselves that they are simply fossils from a passed era but that would simply be continuing the lies American Society has told itself for nearly 400 years.
[i] In his later years, Wallace recounted his racism and was even honored by the Tuskegee University, the Historically Black University in Alabama.
[ii] Advanced Placement (AP) classes, as the name suggests, are high-level courses at the conclusion of which a paid-for test is given to often secure college credit. At the very least, the inclusion of these classes on a student’s transcript is seen as proof of scholarly achievement.