“…the fight over Civil Rights is basically over. The Supreme Court struck down public discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 struck down private discrimination, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 instituted protections of minority voters in the South, lynching and burnings are essentially over…”
– “The Confederate Flag You Never Knew,” The YU Commentator, November 2016.
Is the fight for civil rights for African Americans in this country “basically over”? Do the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, or Fair Housing Act of 1968, as well as numerous progressive rulings of the Supreme Court in that same period constitute a job well done? Have we finally rid our country of violations of voting rights, all public or private discrimination, and violence against the African American community?
The answer: a heavy-hearted no.
While these laws and rulings are all landmark achievements, worthy of our appreciation and our praise, there is still much work that lies ahead. The job has been done well by many noble and courageous leaders, but it is certainly not done.
The success of the movement cannot solely be measured in the success of these laws; inter-racial relations, the experiences of daily life, communal perceptions and attitudes, as well as certain behaviors of citizens which cannot be regulated by laws are all major factors to be considered in discussing the current state racial equality. Indeed, in considering these many factors, a June 2016 Pew study found that 61% of all Americans and 88% of African Americans agreed that more change is needed to achieve racial equality.
But even if the success of the civil rights movement were to be evaluated solely on the success of these laws, this would be sufficient to prove that the civil rights movement is not over, “basically” or otherwise. While some see may these laws as a happy ending in the fight for civil rights, the unfortunate reality is that, although these laws are all on the books, the sanctity of many of the rights protected within them are currently under siege.
The voting rights of African Americans in states across the U.S. are deliberately being silenced by legislators trying to maintain their electoral majorities. North Carolina’s 2013 voting law, purportedly passed to curb voter fraud, was a particularly deliberate affront to the supposed voter equality that exists in that state. In the months leading up to the passage of the law, a top aide to the Republican Speaker of the State House requested a “breakdown, by race, of those registered voters in your database that do not have a driver’s license number.” Another staffer for the state legislature asked for a “breakdown of the 2008 voter turnout, by race (white and black) and type of vote (early and Election Day)?”
The ensuing law stitched together a number of voting restrictions into a single Frankenstein’s monster: a shortened early voting period, the elimination of out-of-precinct voting, and the requirement for voters to show specific types of photo ID when voting, to name just a few.
As the requests of legislative staffers above indicted, these laws directly targeted African American voting habits. For example, African Americans are far less likely to have government issued photo IDs and more likely to vote early. The law’s early voting restrictions cuts off one of the two Sundays famously used by black church leaders in their “Souls to the Polls” drives to get African Americans out to vote.
A number of civil rights activist organizations took up the case, which eventually made its way to a federal appeals court, where it was invalidated. In their ruling, the judges referred to the law as “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” While it did not invoke the classic voting restrictions of the past—the Grandfather Clause, literacy tests, or the poll tax—it managed, in a coordinated and meticulous fashion, to repress the voting of African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Even after the law was invalidated, a number of counties still tried to enforce some of its restrictions. The judges restored the original length of early voting period, but did not specify what times or places this voting would take place. Wake County, for example, tried to restrict all the re-instated early voting days to a single location that had limited parking.
In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, fourteen states enacted some form of voter restriction, including voter ID laws and the curbing of early voting periods. We can and should praise the achievements of the 1964 and 1965 laws passed to protect the voices of African American voters. But it’s clear that, at least in some circumstances of voter restriction laws, those voices are being deliberately silenced. We need to stand up and enforce these laws, not claim the job is over simply because, at some point our recent history, they were successfully passed.
In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned their famous “separate but equal” ruling with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, outlawing this form of public discrimination. Public schools could no longer racially segregate, as this policy constituted a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In reality this ruling did not lead to the desegregation of all public schools. The 1964 Civil Rights Act sought to address the issue and actually enforce the Brown vs Board ruling.
In the ‘60s, the Supreme Court also invoked the the Thirteenth Amendment, which bans slavery, as a justification for prohibiting private discrimination based on race. In the 1968 case of Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. the Court ruled that a landlord could not refuse to rent to a person based on his or her race.
Both the notion of public school segregation and of housing discrimination are critical to understanding the resonance of public and private discrimination today. America is experiencing de facto racial segregation of schools; the number of schools which have just 1% or less white students has more than doubled from 1988 to 2011, mushrooming to 6,727 schools.
Despite the illegality of public discrimination, this racial segregation of schools persists because public schools generally cull students from specific districts. If a district is entirely white or entirely African American, the public school of that district will reflect that racial makeup. Nearly six in 10 African Americans live in segregated neighborhoods. These racially monolithic pockets were often formed, at least in part, due to deliberately discriminatory housing policies enforced over many years, which only perpetuates the cycle. Because race and class are so inextricably linked, most of these all-African American schools have access to substantially less resources and funding, and thus offer a substantially inferior education. For example, African American children are more likely than white children to attend schools with inexperienced teachers and without college-prep offerings.
While housing discrimination is not as blatantly prevalent as it once was, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found in a 2013 study that minorities seeking to purchase or rent a home are told about and shown fewer homes than their white counterparts in the same socio-economic bracket.
De facto housing and school segregation are complex and multifaceted issues, and they are issues of this moment. They are critical to conversation about race and civil rights in today’s America, and for one to shrug them off as problems of the past hurts not only those minorities facing discrimination in securing homes, but also the thousands of children receiving an inherently unequal public school education.
Perhaps the most pervasive and divisive issue related to the current day struggle for civil rights is the violence against African Americans perpetuated by some members of the police force. We have certainly rid ourselves of the evil scourge of lynching and burning, but this is a low bar with which to measure the achievement of equality. As recent events have brought to light, one can still face unprovoked aggression in this country simply for living in an African American body.
On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice, a 12 year old African American boy, was shot by policeman while reaching for a toy gun in a Cleveland park. The officer had arrived on the scene only moments before he chose to fire. Although the Rice family will be paid $6 million from the city in a wrongful death suit, the policeman was not indicted for his actions.
On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28 year old African American woman, was pulled over by state trooper. The exchange between the two grew heated and the trooper demanded she exit her car. According to dashcam footage, when Bland refused, the trooper threatened to “light” her up with a taser, after which she exited her car and was told she would be going to jail. Bland was found dead three days later in her cell at the county jail, with county officials claiming it was a suicide. Although the details of Bland’s alleged suicide remain hazy, the aggressive, discriminatory behavior displayed by the trooper is inarguable. Bland’s parents settled a wrongful death suit for $1.9 million; the trooper was indicted for perjury and fired.
Among Americans killed by the police, African Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed than their white counterparts. According to the most recent US census data, African Americans account for just 13% of the total population, and yet they make up 24% of those fatally shot by the police.
It is patently obvious that not all police officers are racist; in fact, the police force is one of the most racially diverse workforces in the country. Even amongst the small number of officers who could be considered racist, the majority are not maliciously so. Still, it is time for the force to take a long look in the mirror. Because even if the majority of police officers are brave and just men and women who risk their lives to keep us safe, the system has clearly produced a few too many bad apples to completely exonerate itself.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court overturned Section 5 of the Votings Rights Act of 1965, which, in an attempt to further protect minority voters in the south, required Southern states with a history of voter discrimination to gain the approval of federal officials before changing their election laws. A few short weeks later, the proposed North Carolina voting bill had been revised to include an additional 50 parts. It would be voted into law exactly one month after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
In explaining the court’s decision, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “history did not end in 1965.” Roberts’ meant that the civil rights issues facing African Americans in 1965 no longer apply and thus, the restrictions on Southern states can no longer be justified in the name of a minority protection that is no longer required. Yet, when we consider the current reality of the civil rights struggle, his words take on a greater, albeit opposite, meaning. The struggle for equality did not end in 1965 with the passage of those seminal laws and rulings. Rather, the current struggle builds on those past achievements in the ever-forward march towards full equality. The civil rights movement is not “basically over.” Its history did not end in the 1960s. It continues to our present moment. Unless we open our eyes to this fact and deal with the reality, it will continue on into the future as well.