The challenge for all Americans is to make the US a union that provides equal opportunity for all, says James Zogby.
50 years after rights bill, equality in US is still work in progress
These days mark the Black History Month in the United States – a time to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made to the nation’s history and on the progress towards racial equality and the challenges that remain.
A special focus of this year will be on the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, signed by then president Lyndon Johnson. That legislation was a turning point in American life, ending racial discrimination in public. In this context, Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on a past Americans should never forget and the extent to which the legacy of racial inequality is still with them.
Growing up in the north in the 1950s, I was mostly unaware of the segregation laws that governed the southern states. In school, we were taught about the nation’s long civil war and the abolition of slavery – but not much more. With the advent of the civil rights movement, my generation was shocked into an awareness of the reality of racism and its impact on the lives and fortunes of black Americans.
Our schools didn’t teach us about “white-only” water fountains and restrooms, lunch counters, businesses, schools and housing. They didn’t teach us about the restrictions placed on the right to vote. Nor did we learn about the brilliant black writers, artists, scientists, explorers and other heroes who had contributed to so much, only to be denied recognition and the fruits of their labours.
This is what made Black History Month useful. It was not to teach a separate history, but to provide a corrective to the skewed history we had been taught, so as to ensure that future generations benefited from a more complete telling of the story.
Legislation banning discrimination, ensuring the right to vote and creating new opportunities for those who had been victims of discrimination created new possibilities for African Americans. Colleges and universities were forced to open their doors; hiring practices were changed; a new generation of African Americans won elections to public office; and through the efforts of civil rights pioneer Jesse Jackson, businesses were pressed to award franchises to entrepreneurs helping to create a new black middle class.
But progress has been incomplete. The legacy of racism persists and profound challenges to equality remain.
Ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, some politicians played off the resultant backlash of white fears and resentment. Campaigns were waged and elections were won by those who exploited this sentiment, in ways that were subtle and not so subtle. Warnings about “welfare fraud”, “crime”, and the unfairness of “affirmative action” became coded ways of exploiting white fears.
Even today, with an African American in the White House, the shrill attacks from elements of the Tea Party establish the persistence of race and fear as factors in politics. Charges such as the president is “not like us”, “not born here”, “not a real American” emanate from a movement that polling shows is made up of individuals who are disproportionately white, middle-aged males who believe that blacks are favoured by government and have unfair advantages.
Discrimination and inequality still define American life. Most American cities, for example, remain racially divided, with blacks living in poor neighbourhoods, which often have substandard schools and inadequate healthcare facilities. Overall, black Americans are disproportionately poor and their unemployment is double that of whites. As a result of this endemic poverty and lack of opportunity, more than one-third of all African-American males under the age of 39 are in the US prison system.
Even with the progress that has been made, real work remains to make the promise of America real for all its citizens. Those who say that Black History Month makes us “colour conscious” or who decry civil rights legislation alleging that it favours one group over another miss the point. The goals of both are to erase the colour lines that have distorted our history and our present, to make the US a union that provides equal opportunity for all.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa