50 Years After Jim Crow

The 1960s was a time of great upheaval and change for both the United States and the entire world. Countries that were once European colonies had declared their independence, the United States was knee-deep in the Vietnam Civil War, and the Cold War superpowers were threatening to annihilate all life on Earth a few times over. Perhaps the most pivotal moment that occurred in the United States during that decade was the passages of two monumental pieces of civil rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After nearly 100 years of de jure discrimination at the hands of Jim Crow laws, it was finally over. The United States could finally move past that dark moment in our national history; white America could finally right the wrongs of centuries of slavery and de jure discrimination towards African Americans.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, effectively ending racial segregation at schools, workplaces, and public facilities. President John F. Kennedy first called for the bill in his civil rights speech of 1963 and the U.S. Attorney General bolstered his request by pursuing lawsuits against state governments that operated segregated public schools. But when JFK was assassinated later that year, its future seemed shaky. His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, threw his support behind the act by saying “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”

President Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Martin Luther King Jr. was present.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was groundbreaking, it did not do enough to protect voting rights of African Americans or other minorities.  A year after the bill was signed into law, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pushed congress to protect the voting rights of racial minorities. On the heels of marches and demonstrations throughout the south, particularly in Selma, Alabama, President Johnson addressed a joint session of congress and urged them to pass extensive voting rights legislation.

Images from the 1965 march on Selma.
Images from the 1965 march on Selma.

This would eventually lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited the use of voting prerequisites such as literacy tests or poll taxes. The bill included a provision in which southern states had to have a preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General if they were going to make any changes to their voting procedures.

Both acts did not come about simply because the white American legislators had changed their minds on the subject of discrimination and equality. Rather, this victory for humanity came after a decade of direct-action campaigns such as bus system boycotts, sit-ins at racially segregated restaurants, marches, and other forms of civil disobedience that pressured white politicians to accept these laws.

50 years later, and the world has radically changed. China has replaced the role of the Soviet Union as global superpower/America’s rival, we have more computing power in the palm of our hands than what first landed us on the moon, and the United States has a (half) black president. But did the institution of racism simply vanished into thin air after the passage of these two pieces of legislation?

The election and subsequent reelection of President Barrack Obama led some Americans to believe that our country has transitioned into what they call a post-racial America. These people believed that Obama had ushered in an era in which the there is no longer racism, discrimination, or prejudice. Suddenly, the damage of slavery, institutional racism, and systemic discrimination was forgotten and all was well.

Contrary to popular belief, having a black president does not mean that racism is a thing of the past. In fact, it would appear as if the opposite were true. Despite the leaps and bounds we have taken as a society to become more inclusive and less discriminatory, racism seems to be alive and well.

President Obama’s election into office did very little to alter race relations in the United States. If anything, anti-black sentiments only got stronger due to Obama’s election into office. Those who have negative feelings towards Obama and his policies often extrapolate that anger to all African Americans. After Obama’s election into office, the number of so-called ‘Patriot’ groups rose 813 percent, from 149 in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012. Obama’s victory to some signified the end of a white America. No longer were whites the majority race, no longer were they in control of their country. This lead to a deep resentment and feeling of disenfranchisement among some white Americans. They felt obliged to “take their country back” from President Obama; in other words, they wanted to keep the US under white rule.

The social construct that is race distributes vulnerability to state and private violence, presumption of innocence (or guilt), legibility of one’s suffering, and the grievability of one’s life. While institutional, de jure racism ended half a century ago, there are plenty of examples to prove racism and discrimination still happens in our contemporary society, even if we refuse to acknowledge that it exists.

The case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman is perhaps one of the most poignant examples of the social mechanism of race at work. When neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman spotted the hooded Trayvon Martin in the Sanford, Florida gated community, he immediately began following him around. After all was said and done, Trayvon Martin lost his life, with Zimmerman claiming he thought Martin might have been a burglar and that he shot in self-defense. But the question remains: would Zimmerman have suspected Trayvon of being a thief if Trayvon were white? Would the outcomes have been the same?

Trayvon Martin

Or take the case of John Crawford III. Crawford entered a Walmart near Dayton, Ohio and picked up an unpackaged airsoft rifle that was on the shelves. Ronald Ritchie, a customer inside the Walmart, saw Crawford and called 911 and informed them that Crawford was aiming the weapon at people who were passing by. Keep in mind that Ohio is an open-carry state. The police were promptly on scene and shot Crawford dead a few moments later. Despite claims by the police that they told Crawford to drop the weapon, video footage of the incident shows that Crawford did not aim the weapon at them or otherwise do anything that would the use lethal force on behalf of the police officers. After the incident, Ritchie would recant part of his story saying that “At no point did he [Crawford] shoulder the rifle and point it at somebody”.

John Crawford III

If you don’t believe that race played even a slight part in John Crawford’s death, consider a very similar case that had very different results. Two intoxicated white men entered a Walmart in Idaho and unboxed a pair of airsoft rifles. In a call to a 911 dispatcher, a member of Walmart’s security said that the two men “started shooting the gun in the store and made comments that they were going to shoot the store up.” The men were able to exit the Walmart before the police showed up, but the cops had formed a perimeter around the building and subsequently captured the two men without incident.

The cases of Trayvon Martin, John Crawford, Michael Brown Eric Garner, and countless other black men all have a common theme. All were assumed to be guilty of some crime or another. These men’s blackness is what condemned them to their deaths. Their blackness made it difficult for white America to comprehend their suffering. Their blackness made it difficult for whites to contextualize the death of these men in 21st century America. Some believed that these “thugs”, which appears to the term assigned to black men who in one way or another make white people more uncomfortable than they would like, asked to be killed. Their supposed actions led to their own deaths. But how do these people explain all the white men who were placed in similar situations and yet managed to get away with their lives?

The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa has also fueled racist and xenophobic sentiments among some Americans. Most of us didn’t pay much if any attention to the Ebola outbreak when it was ravaging West African countries across the Atlantic. As soon as we got word that two American missionaries contracted the virus, everyone went nuts. People started preparing for the end of the world, fearing that the virus would cause a global pandemic that would annihilate the human race. Since the Ebola virus originated in Western Africa and, barring a few exceptions, has been contained to that part of the planet, some westerners see Ebola as a “black” disease, when in fact, it infects and kills the same regardless of race.

The West's reaction to Ebola in a nutshell.
The West’s reaction to Ebola in a nutshell.

Take the case of Liberian Ebola patient, Thomas Duncan. Duncan was the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola, which he contracted while in Liberia. Despite receiving treatment at a Dallas hospital, Duncan died a week after his initial diagnosis.

After Duncan’s death, it was revealed that his girlfriend had pleaded that he be given the same experimental drug that was given to two white American missionaries who also contracted the disease. The company that makes the drug claimed that they did not have enough of the drug to be given to neither Duncan nor anyone else. But still, the racial undertones are bothersome and difficult to ignore. No expense is spared when treating white westerners, but when thousands of Africans die from the disease, we simply react in fear for our own selves.

The fallout of Duncan’s diagnosis and death was almost immediate. Residents of African descent in immigrant neighborhoods in Dallas suffered mass discrimination. They were labelled as potential Ebola carriers simply because of the color of their skin and the fact that they’re foreign.

A group of Somali women wearing traditional headscarves received more than their fair share of odd looks after the diagnosis of Duncan. Despite being from countries on the opposite side of where the outbreak is occurring, the immigrants are lumped into a black mass and subjected to dirty looks, finger pointing, and other forms of discrimination.

“People are looking at us in a bad way. We didn’t have anything to do with this. Somalia does not have Ebola. It is on the other side of Africa,” said Shadiya Abdi, 27, an immigrant from Somalia.

In light of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, some Republican congressmen have asked President Obama to ban any incoming flights from infected Western African countries on the somewhat irrational basis that the Ebola virus will decimate the United States, despite our much more advanced medical infrastructure. Billionaire and potential presidential candidate Donald Trump echoed the sentiment of some republicans, including Representative Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), when he tweeted the following:

Donald Trump: either the biggest troll in history or a bigoted ignoramus.

The 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County V. Holder took a closer look at the 1965 Voting Rights Act, particularly the constitutionality of two of the main provisions of the law. The provisions in question were section 4(b) and section 5, the former of which is a coverage formula that determines what jurisdictions are subject to preclearance based on their histories of voter discrimination. While the Supreme Court Justices did not strike down section 5, the actual provision, they did vote on a five to four margin to strike down the coverage formula. Since the provision was last amended in 1975, the majority opinion argued that it is unconstitutional to force states to comply “based on 40 year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day”. Unless Congress creates a new coverage formula, section 5 of the 1965 Civil Rights Act has become impossible to enforce.

The dissenting opinion argued that while voting discrimination in United States had gone down, it was largely in part due to sections 5 and 4(b). The dissent also noted that “[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

In a similar vein, Republican politicians have been trying hard to pass what are called “voter ID laws”, which would require voters to have some form of government-issued identification in order to vote. They claim that having voter ID laws in place would reduce the amount of voter fraud that takes place, but studies have shown that voter fraud rarely (if ever) happens and when it does, it’s usually a clerical error rather than an organized effort to skew election results.

While on the surface these laws appear innocuous enough, the politicians pushing for them might have ulterior motives. Voter ID laws disproportionately affect minorities, the poor, and people living in rural communities. Getting an ID card can often times be costly and bothersome, especially for those who don’t have cars or other modes of transportation, thus preventing certain eligible voters from actually voting.

If Republicans hope to swing elections in their favor by making it more difficult for blacks and Hispanics (groups that typically vote for Democrats) to vote, they might find voter ID laws don’t always help them by a landslide amount. It is unclear how many eligible people are actually dissuaded from voting by voter ID laws; some studies suggest that they can decrease voter turnout anywhere between 0.8 percent and 2.4 percent. While this may not seem like much, the effects can be noticeable in close elections. Voter ID laws might mean the difference between having a Democrat in office and having a Republican in office.

Voter ID laws throughout the country.

Blacks and minorities are not only being discriminated against politically, but also financially. Minorities are often the victims of what are called predatory lending: loans that impose unfair or abusive terms on the borrowers. African Americans and Latinos are 30% more likely to be offered a high interest rate subprime loans that their white counterparts. The practice of predatory lending hit minority communities especially hard during the economic recession of 2008. A 2012 study done by the Charlotte Otabor of Howard University and Jessica Nehmbhard the City University of New York revealed that predatory lending had cost the African American and Latino communities a staggering $570 billion between 2006 and 2012. Many blacks and Latinos lost their houses and businesses due to outrageously high interest rates on their mortgages. Families lost their homes and life savings and many of them saw their once good credit tank.

Americans have long hailed this country as being the land of the free and home of the brave, but a look at the number of people in American jails will make one think otherwise. Despite only having 5% of the world’s population, the United States is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. This unnerving statistic has not always been so: the number of Americans in jail began increasing exponentially in the 1980s, which happens to coincide with the beginning of what is now known as the “War on Drugs“.

40 Years of the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs created a prison system that operates somewhat like a hotel chain, with states paying companies to run prisons on the condition that the states will keep prison cells full. Companies, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), make billions of dollars in revenue a year running prisons for states.

For those of you who don’t know, the CCA (Corrections Corporation of America) is a private business that owns and manages prisons and detention centers, with more than 60 facilities throughout the United States. What they do is essentially convert prisons into for-profit businesses.

Since many states are having financial woes, the CCA seems like a savior, as they are proposing to buy their prisons and run them in turn for state and federal money. Many of the contracts they sign include lockup quotas, where the states guarantee to keep the prisons anywhere between 80 to 100 percent occupied. Since the CCA profits off the amount of beds they fill and the duration of the prisoners’ stay, these quotas create a perpetual demand for prison inmates. This demand for prisoners is fueled by the DEA and the sometimes ludicrous laws for petty possession. The CCA itself listed the following as its risk factors to the Security Exchange Commission (SEC):

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.”

The victims of the CCA’s business method are predominantly minority males. African Americans and Latinos make up roughly 58% of all prisoners, but only a quarter of the US population. While white Americans use illicit drugs at a rate five times higher than African Americans, African Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested for using or possessing illegal drugs.

If I were to include every single example of racism, institutional or otherwise, in our contemporary society, I would have more than enough material to write a book of Biblical proportions. But seeing as how I do have a life outside of this blog, I will not be doing that. Rather, by providing some of the most poignant examples, I hope to draw attention to the persistent problem that is racism. Instead of fading away into the annals of history, racism has reared its ugly head once more. Many would like to believe that the election of President Obama as the first non-white president in American history had propelled the United States into a “post-racial” society. This is a deep dichotomy from the reality of 21st century America; examples such as the War on Drugs, predatory lending, institutional violence on behalf of the police, voting restrictions, and a host of other hurdles would suggest that this view of America is a disillusioned and ignorant one. By denying that racism exists in our contemporary society, we further perpetuate the ignorance and bigotry of it.

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

3 thoughts on “50 Years After Jim Crow

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