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This edition of Human Rights magazine provides an opportunity to examine American history through the prism of the African American experience.
Barack Obama’s election was a historic landmark, with Obama receiving more electoral college votes than any president in history and more popular votes than any president except Ronald Reagan. His taking office as the first black president was hailed as a racial breakthrough. And it was a unique moment, one even most civil rights progressives did not believe would occur in their lifetimes.
In 2003, after the Supreme Court limited race to one of many factors that could be considered in higher-education admissions, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted that affirmative action, born with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had at best twenty-five more years to live. She was too optimistic.
Affirmative action permits the use of “minority” factors, such as race, in decisions regarding allocations of government employment and other public benefits. Blacks overwhelmingly favor these programs, but whites substantially disfavor special preferences for minorities, although they support equal opportunity for all.
The education divide in America has long been rooted in the racial divide that allowed great resource disparities to exist in the social-construction context of “separate but equal.” Law as a race caste system (de jure segregation) reinforced educational disparities that, in many ways, still exist.
The formal barriers to residential integration have been lifted, but many African Americans still face limited housing choices and live in poor neighborhoods that lack the infrastructure and environmental safety of nearby affluent neighborhoods.
The predominantly African American residents of Coal Run, a small community outside Zanesville, Ohio, were refused water service from the local governments that provided water to whites on all sides of the neighborhood. After years of hauling water and being refused water service despite their requests, the residents filed discrimination complaints and won a $10.8 million verdict.
The health disparities that exist between blacks and whites are significant. The root of these problems is racism and inequalities in social determinants of care. Obama’s health care reform efforts are inadequate because they focus on lack of access caused by inability to pay. Essential to eliminating racial health disparities is an anti-discrimination law that addresses twenty-first-century discrimination.
Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president of the United States represents a profoundly important way station in the African American journey.