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April 28, 2022

African American Affairs

Refusal of Service

Q: Are businesses such as insurance agencies or banks legally allowed to refuse service for someone because of the color of their skin, or where they are from/where they were born?  Nikki from California

A: Federal law prohibits intentional racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of contracts. This means that banks and insurance companies cannot refuse service to customers because of their race. Although the law refers to “race,” courts have interpreted this to mean discrimination because of a person’s ancestry or ethnic characteristics. The protection extends to the “privileges, terms, and conditions of the contractual relationship.” Exactly how far that goes is a matter of debate in the courts. Some courts have found that companies cannot legally impose additional requirements on customers because of their race, such as requiring an African-American bank customer to take off his sunglasses and wait in a different line when white customers were not treated that way. But another court has held that although an African American customer had to wait longer than white bank customers to cash his check while background checks were being performed, because he was able to complete his transaction, the bank had not unlawfully discriminated against him. 

Additionally, other federal laws enacted to address discrimination in lending prohibit banks and others from discriminating against a person seeking credit on the basis of their race, color, or national origin (among other characteristics like religion, sex or marital status, and age). Banks are more strictly regulated than many other businesses, especially at the federal level.

5 Questions about Inequality

Thank you all for your relevant and important questions. Since the five questions posed by you all are similar in nature, they are being addressed collectively. The questions are:

  • Q: Why is there so much police brutality towards black men? Aniyah  from Washington, D.C.
  • Q: My question is why do a lot of people hate African Americans and just kill them or arrest them just because they are black? Jesus from Nevada
  • Q: How did we return to a state of racial discrimination since the day of the 60’s Civil Right Movement? Steven from Nevada
  • Q: Everyone is supposed to be treated equally, why does racial discrimination tie into violence against minorities? Aaron from California
  • Q: Why do White people who do bad things not get in trouble but Black people who don't do anything bad get in trouble? Carson from Virginia

A: Inequality is part of the history of America. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that citizens are treated equally under the law. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed to ensure that Black people were not targeted by laws that treated them differently from others. For example, before the Amendment, there were laws that prevented Black people from going to certain public places, while White people were allowed to go to these places. The Amendment says that laws can’t target people like this because of their race. Unfortunately, that was and is not reality. Black Americans, along with other oppressed groups, have used the Fourteenth Amendment to fight for equality in accommodations, treatment, education, and other areas of persistent inequality. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s was ignited in response to the continued racism, segregation, police brutality, and discrimination in the United States, but primarily in the South. Although the Civil Rights Movement birthed needed change in our country—eliminating segregation in schools (Brown v. Board of Education), dismantling Jim Crow Laws (Civil Rights Act of 1964), and protecting the right to vote (Voting Rights Act of 1965)—the underlying issues between America and Black Americans remained unresolved. 

Although laws changed, beliefs did not. The same prejudices and racist thoughts and actions that sustained Jim Crow laws exist today. To be clear, not everyone is racist. However, there are unconscious prejudices that can impact the way people think about and interact with Black people and other minorities. Prejudice is an assumption or belief a person has about someone, simply based on a group they belong to. Prejudice is dangerous because it can shape someone’s idea about one person, based on that person’s skin color, religion, gender, etc. 

Racism and prejudices against Black Americans, whether conscious or unconscious, has created a space where people treat Black Americans, and other minorities, in harmful ways simply because they are Black. This applies to Black people’s interaction with the police. 

With the rise of social media and the latest technology, there has been overwhelming documentation of police encounters with citizens across the country. Some of these encounters show individuals being abused, threatened, and harmed by the very people who swore to protect and serve the community. Often times, those individuals on the receiving end of police brutality are Black men and women. Police brutality against Black Americans is not a new public crisis that has emerged with the creation of social media. Terror at the hands of law enforcement officers can be traced throughout America’s history. Advanced technology simply allows the documentation of these acts to be preserved more effortlessly.  

When prejudices and racist ideas go unchecked, people can take hold of false narratives and unfounded beliefs that Black people are criminals, more violent, and dangerous, and as such, they need to be treated a certain way.  In turn, this thinking leads to law enforcement perceiving Black people as a threat. These false ideas, rooted in racism and prejudice, can be the obstructed lens in which law enforcement officers view Black people when interacting with them. After conducting a study, Harvard School of Public Health found that Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police. Prejudices need to be reevaluated and exposed, and racism needs to be eradicated (wiped out so it no longer exists as part of our society).

We all must continue this dialogue, fight for justice,  and empower the next generation of thinkers and change agents. 

To provide a more thorough explanation and analysis of race and how it shapes Black American’s experience in this country, feel free to read a book entitled Stamped: Race, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

Civil Rights Leaders

Thank you all for your relevant and important questions. Since the three questions posed are similar in nature, they are being addressed collectively. The questions are:

  • Q: Who had the biggest impact on the Civil Rights Movement? a high school student from New Jersey
  • Q: Who are some activists that fought for people’s civil rights? Sammy from California
  • Q: What was the news and press like during the 60’s Civil Rights Movement? Who are other activists of the civil rights movement other than Martin Luther King? Leslie from Nevada

A: Depending on who you ask, the list of important civil rights leaders everyone should know about will differ. There is a tendency with history to highlight a few and the foot soldiers go unrecognized. This can leave communities waiting on another person to come save them. It’s important to note that the civil rights movement has been going on for hundreds of years in the United States and continues to evolve, even though many people think of it as starting in the 1960s.

A true analysis of the Civil Rights Movement would show many local movements with local leaders who worked for many years before people like Dr. King came on the scene to highlight and build upon what they were already doing. For example, in the Selma Voting Rights Movement, the leaders of the Dallas County Voters League, known as the Courageous 8, worked for decades before inviting Dr. King to Selma. Knowing the history in this way encourages people not to wait on another person like Dr. King to lead or do the work but that they have the power to transform their own communities. When they start the work, others will come to help. For example, Amelia Boynton is considered the Mother of the Voting Rights Movement and she began organizing in the 1920s after being encouraged by her eventual husband Samuel Boynton. In fact, Samuel Boynton’s memorial was the first mass meeting of the Selma movement at the request of Rev. Bernard Lafayette who was, himself, another important civil rights hero. He was a leader in the Nashville Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Selma Movement (the first to come and stay in Selma while turning organizing into a movement), and the Chicago Movement. Dr. King also appointed him to lead the Poor People’s Campaign. In his final conversation with Dr. King the day he was assassinated, Dr. King told Rev. Lafayette that the next battleground was to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence. Rev. Lafayette continues to dedicate his life to just that all over the world! We'd also suggest you study the work of A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height, and Diane Nash, keeping in mind these are only a few of those who have had an impact on civil rights.

To answer what the news and press were like during the Civil Rights movement, the book, The Race Beat , by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff, which won a Pulitzer, highlights the important role of the American Press during the 1950's and 1960's. 

Impact of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Q:What specific laws were changed by the events of the Montgomery bus boycott? a High School Student from Arkansas

A: The Montgomery bus boycott led to a number of laws and practices being created or changed because of the economic pressure of the bus boycotts and the large amount of national publicity it created. However, most notably the mass protest against the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, that lasted for 381 days led to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring that Montgomery’s segregation laws on buses were unconstitutional, providing important federal support for desegregation efforts.

Protecting or hindering Civil Rights

Q: How might campaigns and movements to defund the police help protect or hinder civil rights? A middle school student from Connecticut

A: This question does not ask about a specific law but is more philosophical in nature. Therefore, the following answer represents the opinion of this author only and not of the ABA or any of its entities. Answers to the question will differ depending on who responds.

Campaigns and movements to defund the police have become a hot button social topic since light has been shined on police-related acts of violence.  Countless videos documenting police misconduct showing unfortunate deaths of African Americans throughout the country have had negative effects on the relationship between police and local communities. These events climaxed in May 2020 with the harrowing video release showing the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Shortly after, many political activists and civil rights groups called for a review of local police budgets to analyze the effectiveness of those budgets in bringing about systemic change and, hopefully, repairing and mending the relationships between police and the public.    

Unfortunately, we live in an extremely political world. An issue about which we should seemingly all agree with morphs into an argument between politicians and lawmakers where branding, rather than substance, drives the narratives of both sides.  The same is true of this issue.  “Defund the Police,” is an extreme version of what citizens in cities across the country actually desire. While there were some limited examples of cities looking to remove police and their power entirely, this is not the usual case. Therefore, “defund the police” could be understood as a movement to “better prepare the police” to protect the populous. 

Civil society needs to enforce the rule of law. Therefore, we need something like the police to keep us safe by equitably enforcing our laws. When laws are not equitably enforced or police abuse their power, they rupture rather than repair society. “Better prepare the police” to protect the populous would help police more effectively achieve the need for fair law enforcement, thus protecting civil rights established by law. Allocating financial resources to police training is of utmost importance. Instead of allowing Police Departments to spend taxpayer resources on more weapons and intense enforcement mechanisms, budgets should be allocated to focus on police training in de-escalation tactics and identifying and rooting out officers unfit for the job or who are apt to abuse their authority.

De-escalation tactics teaching officers to use words to reduce the tension of law enforcement circumstances with an actual focus on only using force, deadly or not, in absolute and extreme circumstances, is critical.  Many of the videos we see on the news reflect instances where words and mutual respect would go further toward preventing use of force and loss of life than an officer brandishing his firearm minutes into an interaction. 

Police are allotted great power to stop and investigate ongoing criminal activity. With great power, of course, comes great responsibility. Much of what I see in violation of individuals’ rights comes from a misunderstanding of the power entrusted in police officers. Allocating resources to continued training to ensure police officers understand the limits of their power would naturally result in less abuses of that power.

Finally, we should change the way we investigate police misconduct to eliminate circumstances where investigations and discipline take too long and leave police officers who may require additional training or reassignment on the streets enabling them  to further violate individual rights. Resources should be expended to greater incentivize becoming an effective police officer. Higher salaries and raised educational requirements would increase the quality of candidates available for police forces. This, in turn, would allow for a better and mutual understanding of why officers who commit wrongdoing should be rooted out of police forces. For too long, in many Police Departments around the United States, there has been a “boys club” mentality. Historic or systemic problems do not get solved by keeping in place the old policies and procedures that lead to the problems. Instead, reshaping the discipline procedures of police by increasing resources to place officers on leave, conduct swift and thorough investigations, and levy real, lasting penalties for violation of police powers will act as a deterrent to police misconduct. 

There is no straight answer to the question posed here.  De-politicization of the issue is the first, and most important, step to be taken to see that “better prepare police” becomes the narrative. Implementation of these three strategies, I believe, would go a long way to protecting individuals’ civil liberties and rights in the long-term, while also creating a better, more effective police officer; ultimately achieving the goal of a more trusting relationship between police officers and the community.