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January 07, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Our Nation in Crisis

by Juan R. Thomas

I wish this was my idea, but my friend and immediate past chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Wilson Schooley, beat me to it with his vision to draw our attention to the state of African Americans in America and our current state of race relations. Please do not read this volume II of “Black to the Future” without reading volume I, which starts with an insightful, thought provoking, and compelling introduction from our immediate past chair. Wil brings all his talents as a lawyer, scholar, and teacher to “telling the story” of the African American experience in what the late Maya Angelou called “these yet to be United States of America.”

By reading part I of our Black to the Future series, I am reminded of a lesson I learned years ago that we mistakenly assume “people know history.” Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the two most dangerous things in society are sincere ignorance or conscientious stupidity. The tension and struggle in race relations today are rooted in these two states of mind. Millions of Americans are sincerely ignorant of the complete and accurate history of race in the United States. They have been miseducated by an American school system that teaches U.S. history from a Eurocentric perspective: Columbus discovered America; George Washington never told a lie; Lincoln freed the slaves; and MLK had a dream. Or those who play the dangerous game of conscientious stupidity, meaning they know the truth but choose to ignore that truth.

Our nation is amid a crisis: a crisis of consciousness, a crisis of competence, and a crisis of character. Much of this crisis is the backlash from the two-term presidency of the first African American, Barack Hussain Obama. Ask any African American where they were on Tuesday night, November 4, 2008, and you will get a smile and an immediate answer. I was at the Chicago Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue in a suite with all the “who’s who” in Chicago and Illinois democratic politics. The Chicago Hilton is across the street from Grant Park, where the new president-elect would address a crowd of thousands cheering him and his family because of his election as the first African American president of the United States of America. All were there that night (in Grant Park), where we saw Jesse Jackson shed “tears of joy” and where one of my colleagues from the National Bar Association stood, having traveled to witness history all the way from New York City. What a joy to witness history! Our ancestors were rejoicing! We have overcome!!! Or, at least, we sure acted like it.

Barack Obama rally in Grant Park, Chicago, on November 4, 2008.

Barack Obama rally in Grant Park, Chicago, on November 4, 2008.

In the midst of the celebration, there was the systematic effort to halt any effort that would be deemed as Obama’s success: backlash. Again, referencing the history of our country reminds us that this backlash is nothing new. The first white backlash came after the Civil War when African Americans made significant gains politically and economically. In his classic work, Before the Mayflower, Dr. Lerone Bennett Jr. records that the first African American elected to Congress was John Willis Menard, who defeated a white candidate, 5,107 votes to 2,833 votes on November 3, 1868. Menard was elected to fill an unexpired term in the Second Congressional District in the state of Louisiana, but his election was contested, and he was never seated because of the general belief that it was “too early to admit a Negro to the U.S. Congress.”

Starting with the Florida Constitution of 1885, white Democrats passed new constitutions in 10 southern states with provisions that restricted voter registration and forced hundreds of thousands of people from registration rolls. These changes effectively prevented most blacks and many poor whites from voting. Many whites who were also illiterate were exempted from such requirements as literacy tests by such strategies as the grandfather clause, basing eligibility on an ancestor’s voting status as of 1866, for instance.

Southern states and local legislatures also passed Jim Crow laws that segregated transportation, public facilities, and daily life. Finally, racial violence in the form of lynching and race riots increased in frequency, reaching a peak in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

The last African American congressman elected from the South in the nineteenth century was George Henry White of North Carolina, elected in 1896 and re-elected in 1898. His term expired in 1901, the same year that William McKinley, who was the last president to have fought in the Civil War, died. No African American served in Congress for the next 28 years, and none represented any Southern state for the next 72 years.

The second backlash manifested itself after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act when white southerners left the Democratic Party and became Republicans. President Lyndon B. Johnson is believed to have said to an aide after signing the Civil Rights Act that he had delivered the South to the Republican Party for a generation. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s famous “southern strategy” was focused on obtaining the votes of the southern white majority by appealing to their racist views.

As part of his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan made an appearance at the Neshoba County Fair, where he gave a speech on August 3, 1980. Critics claim that Reagan’s choice of location for the speech, the fairgrounds, about seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town associated with the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964, was evidence of racial bias. During his speech, Reagan said:

I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level, and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

Today, America is facing a “third backlash,” where white nationalists are empowered to openly protest the “browning of America” and want to “Make America Great Again.” Police officers shoot unarmed black men and ask questions later. We have been socially conditioned to believe that white is superior and black is inferior. Still today, African Americans are undervalued, underestimated, and marginalized. Sadly, racism is so engrained into the American ethos that if you call it out, you will be branded unpatriotic (just as Colin Kaepernick has).

Moreover, as one part II contributor, Howard University School of Divinity Professor Dr. Barbara Fears notes, if “Black Lives Matter,” white critics’ response is “All Lives Matter.” Any effort to focus on black people is seen as exclusive or offensive to whites, or it is called “reverse racism.”

Matthew Delmont, who is now the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College, wrote in The Atlantic in 2016 that

as more groups—evangelicals, gays and lesbians, and gun owners, among them—lobby for specific policies, black voters have seen their interests deemed too ‘special’ for consideration by a democratic administration. President Obama has felt the pressure to connect with black voters while distancing himself from black interests. Although his signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, will surely benefit black Americans, he has been reluctant to endorse policies that cannot be pitched as universal. In a 2012 interview with Black Enterprise Magazine he said, ‘I want all Americans to have opportunity. I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.’

Each year, the National Urban League (NUL) produces a report titled “The State of Black America.” In it, the NUL provides a detailed analysis of the progress or lack of progress (or perhaps, the “current state of affairs”) in Black America. The NUL released its 2017 report titled “Protect Our Progress, The State of Black America.” Since 2013, the NUL has provided the rankings of unemployment and income equality between whites, blacks, and Hispanics in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Comparisons of the 2016 and 2017 Metro Unemployment Equality Index rankings reveal that some of the lower- ranking metro areas from the 2016 Index rose to the top of the 2017 Index as the recovery finally started reaching people of color in some of America’s hardest hit communities. In both the black-white and Hispanic-white rankings, no more than half of the cities in the 2016 top 10 were also in the 2017 top 10. At the same time, many of the metro areas at the bottom of the 2016 rankings remained at the bottom of 2017 rankings.

The report shows the black unemployment rate in all metropolitan areas listed (22 in all) continues to be significantly higher than whites. In the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois, metro area, the unemployment rate for blacks was 16.2 percent, compared to whites’ 4.7 percent. In the Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Michigan, metro area, the unemployment rate for blacks was 17 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for whites. In the Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, Wisconsin, metro area, the unemployment rate for blacks was 13.8 percent, compared to 2.7 percent for whites.

Perhaps even more perplexing is that the African American unemployment rate is higher than the Hispanic unemployment rate. Again, in the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metro area, the Hispanic unemployment rate was 7.6 percent (black unemployment rate was 16.2 percent). In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area, the unemployment rate for Hispanics was 5.9 percent, while the black unemployment rate in this area was 12.9 percent, and in Los Angeles the rate of Hispanic unemployment was 7.3 percent, while for blacks it was 11.2 percent.

Accordingly, the 2017 NUL report showed that income levels for blacks continue to lag far behind whites. In the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metro area, the median black family’s income was $34,937, whereas for whites, the median income was $76,869. In the New York-New Jersey City metro area, the median black family income was $47,173, compared to whites, for which it was $87,186. Even in the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia, metro area, the median income for blacks was more than $26,000 lower than whites: $72,792 for whites and $45,799 for blacks. As this report demonstrates, economic indicators show that while our country continues to make progress since the Great Recession, for many African Americans and others in urban and low-income communities, wide gaps of inequality in income, housing, and education remain.

These statistics are not new and continue to shed light on the fact that we are not in a post-racial America. The current “State of Black America” is a result of what Jim Wallis calls America’s Original Sin: racism. Wallis argues that the heart of racism was and is economic. America suffers from a two-tiered economy: one tier is mostly white and is composed of lucrative high-paying jobs in law, medicine, financial services, technology, and business. In the other tier, African Americans make up a disproportionate number and are underemployed, unemployed, or hold unskilled labor jobs.

Dr. Noel Leo Erskine, who is a professor of theology and ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, would agree with Wallis in his analysis of the conditions that created the economic gap between African Americans and whites. Erskine contends that the basic fact of our existence for African Americans in the United States is poverty. He maintains that even though African Americans live in a country of abundance, their rate of unemployment in many cities is twice that of whites. If the color line was the Negro problem of the twentieth century, then, according to Erskine, the problem for black people in the twenty-first century is poverty.

In late March 2015, I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend the National Bar Associations of Governors Spring Meeting. While there, I, along with approximately 60 other African American lawyers and judges, traveled to Ferguson to the location where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9, 2014, by 28-year-old Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer. Teddy bears, cards expressing condolences, and pictures of Michael and his family still laid in the middle of the street where Michael laid under the heat of an August sun for nearly four hours before an ambulance arrived to retrieve his body.

What was not heavily reported during the nights of protest that followed Michael Brown’s shooting was that Ferguson had been suffering from a dramatic economic decline in recent years. The city’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2000 to over 13 percent between 2010 and 2012. For those residents who were employed, inflation-adjusted average earnings fell by one-third. The number of households using federal Housing Choice Vouchers climbed from roughly 300 in 2000 to more than 800 by the end of 2010. Amid these changes, poverty skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2012, Ferguson’s poor population doubled. By the end of that period, roughly one-fourth of the residents lived below the federal poverty line ($23,492 for a family of four in 2012), and 44 percent fell below twice that level. As Professor Kimberly Jade Norwood powerfully argues in her book, Ferguson’s Fault Lines: The Race Quake That Rocked a Nation, poorly trained police officers were not the only dilemma that led to Michael Brown’s death. Systemic issues fostered by a collapsed local economy, a declining tax base, unemployment, and underemployment in this St. Louis suburb played a significant role in creating a hostile environment of hopelessness, injustice, and inequality. Ferguson did not simply have a policing problem; it had a jobs problem.

Ferguson is no different than thousands of communities across the country. Clear and convincing evidence shows that economic disparities continue to exist in America, and African Americans are disproportionally at the bottom of the economic ladder. Leading economists and social scientists state that there has been little to no investment in communities of color since the turn of the twentieth century. This historic lack of economic investment in schools, businesses, and housing has created inequalities in African American communities that remain evident today.

There was a belief that in August 2005 New Orleans had been spared the worst of the Category 4 hurricane that had already destroyed the towns of Biloxi, Gulfport, Waveland, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis. But then two levees cracked that had held the waters of Lake Pontchartrian back from the city of New Orleans. In the Lower Ninth Ward, which was home to some of the poorest people in the region, water began to fill the area first, and residents were displaced to their rooftops. People who did not evacuate, some believing they didn’t need to, others unable to, were forced to climb to their attics and finally break through to their roofs, some with pocket knives, and desperately wait for someone to rescue them. Over time, what became apparent was that Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans anyway, was a man-made disaster. At least 700 residents would not have lost their lives had the levee system and pumping stations done their jobs properly.

What occurred in New Orleans and across America has been meticulously detailed in the work of the late Manning Marable. In his book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, he opines that the most striking fact about American economic history and politics is the brutal and systematic underdevelopment of black people. He states that Afro-Americans (his term) have been on the other side of one of the most remarkable and rapid accumulations of capital seen anywhere in human history. After institutional slavery was abolished, the freed Africans were promised 40 acres and a mule that they never received. The truth is poverty is contrived. There is a history to the colonialism, exploitation, and domination of African Americans in America.

This is the political and economic reality of most African Americans in the United States. This white backlash has resulted in the disinvestment, underinvestment, and simply ignoring the African American community. What makes America great are those people, regardless of race, who have fought and stood against this historic and present-day backlash. Those names we know, and those unknown heroes and sheroes who sacrificed their lives to make America live up to its creed:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

From all accounts, we still have some work to do. Let’s stay busy.

Juan R. Thomas is of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., in Chicago and is the secretary of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. He served as the 75th president of the National Bar Association (NBA) from 2017–18. During his term as president, the NBA cofounded the National Commission for Voter Justice to address voter suppression across the country while advancing electoral reform and civic engagement.