The civil rights movement illuminated the hypocrisy of the liberal promise. It made overt, and recorded on television for the world to see, an old daily fact of American life: that a black person who protested his condition, or moved one step out of line, would be arrested, or beaten, or inundated with water hoses, or killed, and the national government of the United States…would not act to save him.
— Howard Zinn, “Howard Zinn on Race,” Seven Stories Press (2011).
The gateway to the South is Nashville, Tennessee. For five years in the mid nineties I was privileged to live in that sprawling city of over a million citizens. While distinctly southern in culture, its status as a center of music and a magnet for talented and diverse musicians gives Nashville a more tolerant and enlightened feel.
In many ways, Nashville is less symbolic of the South than it is representative of America and like so many cities across the nation, it is home to two distinct and largely separate communities.
As an itinerant public schools employee, most of my tenure I was responsible for serving two schools: Across the street from Vanderbilt University, Eaken Elementary was perhaps the highest achieving elementary school in the city. Across town, newly constructed Cockrill Elementary was among the lowest achieving schools.
As you might have guessed, Eaken was predominantly white and affluent while Cockrill was predominantly black and poor.
I enjoyed my work in Nashville. In 25 years of experience, I have found educators to be largely selfless and dedicated no matter how trying conditions of employment may become. Teachers regularly absorb budget cuts, endure increased class sizes and tolerate demands of administrators and politicians for better results with fewer resources.
At some point in my Nashville sojourn I was startled to read a story in the Banner that the school district was awaiting word from the Justice Department on its application for exemption to the Supreme Court order to integrate the schools (Brown v. Board of Education 1954).
How could it be that after four decades the city of Nashville, perhaps the most enlightened city of the South, was not a step closer to ending segregation in the schools? And yet I saw it with my own eyes. The schools were a mirror of the society they served, a society so segregated that you knew at first glance whether you were in a white neighborhood or a black neighborhood.
I reflected on my upbringing in central California and realized that it was not substantially different in my own hometown. We had three high schools and one of them (mine) enrolled all but one black student. It was pretty much the same for the Latino population.
The revelation was a shock to my vision of the world for like most of white America I had assumed things had changed for the better after the Civil Rights movement, after Watts and the summer of flames, after Selma and Montgomery and Little Rock, Arkansas, after the jails were filled with black activists and the streets were red with blood. After Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and most of the Black Panthers sacrificed their lives.
After all the protest, struggle and social upheaval, neither the schools nor the society in which they existed had made any noticeable progress. Separate but equal was still the operating principle but its fallacy was more apparent than ever.
I realized then that racial integration and equality were only myths meant to pacify the minorities, appease the liberal intelligencia, and shelter the government from criticism. If we can maintain the myth that things are getting better, then we can maintain the social order without the violent outbursts that marked the sixties.
If we can sustain the myth of equality and progress, then poor whites can blame blacks and Latinos for their misfortunes. If we can sustain the myth, then whites can demand redress of grievances for reverse discrimination and the courts can uphold them.
I can hear the white liberal voice in the back of my mind: But things have changed for the better. We have minorities and women on the highest court in the land and in 2008, a first in the western world, we elected a black man president.
Of course things are better. But are they?
Things are certainly better for the Obama family but by what measure are things better for the black or Latino community at large? Unemployment? According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, blacks had an unemployment rate of sixteen percent in 2010, virtually unchanged since 1975. Hispanics were at 12.5% while whites and Asians were at 8.7 and 7.5 percent respectively – all unchanged in the last 35 years. According to the Census Bureau, in the year 2010 over 27% of blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics lived in poverty.
The numbers on Asians are somewhat misleading as the subgroup of Southeast Asians (Laotians, Hmongs, Cambodians, Vietnamese) are disproportionately poor. Data are difficult to track down but estimates range from 25% to 43% below the poverty line in these subgroups.
The most forgotten of all minorities are the Native Americans. When we think of them at all we think of casinos and assume that our penchant for gambling has solved their economic woes. That assumption would fall under the label of mythology. According to the Census, 28.4% of Indians on the reservations and 22% overall fell below the poverty line with an estimated 4-6 times the national average living in extreme poverty. An estimated 14% of homes on the reservations are without electricity, 18% are without adequate sewage and 20% are without indoor plumbing. Reservation lands have been used for garbage dumps, nuclear waste and extensive mining. According to an Economic Policy Institute report (November 2010), unemployment is at 15.2% and things have not improved over the last forty years.
That disproportionate numbers of blacks, Latinos and other depressed minorities live in poor neighborhoods, attend poorly funded schools and suffer every form of discrimination from housing to employment cannot reasonably be questioned.
There is a paradox effect that takes place whenever persons from an oppressed community assume positions of power. Because critics expect them to favor their community in decisions and policies, they tend to do the opposite. They go one step beyond to prove that they hold no bias and will not abuse their power.
Anyone who expected the first minority president in history to press forward in the cause of civil rights has been disappointed to the point of frustration. We can make the case that this administration has held back the wave of rightwing oppression that his opponents would surely pursue but we cannot make the case that he has pushed for equal rights. The Justice Department has finally started fighting back against massive Republican disenfranchisement campaigns but even that seems more like self-preservation than positive action.
What can be done?
It is hardly useful to acknowledge the myth of equal rights (or if you prefer non-discrimination) if all we can do is lament. But the first order of the day is to acknowledge reality: Racial discrimination remains pervasive in American society and it is tolerated as much now as it was in the 1950s.
If the president will not act, the liberal establishment must do so by fighting back against outrageous measures enacted at the state level that legalize discrimination by forcing Latinos to prove their citizenship and compelling blacks to document their right to vote.
We must support amnesty for illegal immigrants whose only crime is to place greater importance on the welfare of their families than on the laws of the American government. They followed the law of supply and demand with the blessings of employers anxious to exploit their labor at substandard wages.
We must support jobs and business development programs targeted to centers of poverty and minority communities. We must provide incentives for businesses to hire minorities and we must not apologize for doing so.
We must restore funding to public education beginning in impoverished neighborhoods and stop the funding of private schools from public coffers.
We must rebuild low-income housing programs that enable minorities to integrate affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods. We should train and employ minorities to build these homes and they should be built in a manner that inspires pride in residency and in the greater community.
The liberal establishment must demand that organizations like the ACLU stop defending reverse discrimination claims and start fighting for the rights of minorities.
If we do not start now to dispel the myth and begin again the struggle for equal rights and equal treatment under the law, we will be condemned to repeat the decade of turbulence that shattered the illusions of those who came before us.
Oppressed communities, especially considering that they will soon be a majority in our society, will not wait forever for deliverance of what was promised and what is rightly theirs.