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In the struggle against racism, we haven't overcome yet

Some conservatives say the U.S. has won the fight against racism, but the battle still has many fronts.

July 09, 2009

If a visitor from the first half of the 20th century were plunked down in America today, he'd find, among other things, that drinking fountains in the South are no longer segregated, black women in the workforce are no longer overwhelmingly maids and baby-sitters, and interracial marriage is no longer against the law as it was in 30 states in 1950. When he figured out how to use a remote control and managed to get his TV tuned to CNN and saw the ubiquitous image of the country's new president, he'd no doubt collapse in shock.

The United States has undergone a profound and remarkable transformation -- but what exactly does it mean? To some Americans, it means that today, 145 years after the abolition of slavery, we can finally check race relations off the list and move our focus to the other pressing problems that face the country. Others say that's ridiculous and that, Obama or no Obama, the work of creating a truly egalitarian, nondiscriminatory society remains far from finished.

In its just-concluded session, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two major cases that touched on this fundamental disagreement -- an employment discrimination case from New Haven, Conn., and a voting rights case from Austin, Texas. In each, the plaintiffs challenged the wisdom of policies that had been designed to help undo past discrimination.

In the New Haven case, a group of white firefighters who had taken a test for promotion to captain and lieutenant were challenging the city's decision to throw out the results because no black candidates were among the high scorers. Wasn't it time, the firefighters asked, to acknowledge that disadvantaging whites in the interest of blacks is unfair and unconstitutional? In the Austin case, a municipal water district argued that it shouldn't be required to "pre-clear" even the simplest changes in local voting rules with the federal government just because Texas, back when Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act first became law, had been part of the then-racist South. "The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965," the district argued.

The two cases were the latest skirmishes in the broader conservative war to reframe the way Americans view the issue of race. As many conservatives see it, we're living in a chastened, post-racial America in which discrimination has been largely dismantled, Jim Crow is dead and gaps are being narrowed. With a growing black and Latino middle class -- not to mention a "beiging" of America thanks to intermarriage -- it's time to end our obsession with righting the wrongs of the past. More specifically, we should do away with morally troublesome policies such as affirmative action, minority set-asides and "pre-clearance" that aid minority groups at the expense of the majority, and revert, instead, to the sounder principle of colorblind justice for all.

Are they right? This page agrees that race-conscious policies such as affirmative action should be temporary -- existing only until they are no longer necessary because society's inequities have been addressed. But it is naive to think we have arrived at that moment. Despite the enormously significant changes since the civil rights movement, the simple fact is that the great American race problem has not been resolved. To be sure, it's different today than it was when 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman in 1955, or when Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered by the Klan in 1964 for trying to register black voters in Mississippi. That doesn't mean it's gone.

Although more blacks go to college today, and although they have more opportunity to compete for middle-class jobs, the black poverty rate in 2007 was still triple that of whites, and the black male unemployment rate today is still almost double the white male rate. Obama's election notwithstanding, the only African American currently in the U.S. Senate is the controversial (and non-elected) Roland Burris of Illinois.

Blatant, de jure racism has given way to a murkier variant. For instance, although the intentional segregation of public schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, UCLA's Civil Rights Project reports that blacks and Latinos attend schools today that are more segregated than they've been in 40 years. The academic achievement gap between the races is well documented. The disproportionate number of young black men in prison -- one in nine African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated -- has devastated black communities. What's more, race relations were once seen almost exclusively in terms of black and white; today, however, Latinos and blacks vie for political power in parts of the country (including L.A.). Indians and Pakistanis, East Asians, gays and lesbians -- all know the sting of discrimination.

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