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Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

We have made progress, but we are not close to the mountaintop

Jan. 17, 2008
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On the national holiday that honors the work of Martin Luther King Jr., we can sincerely state that we have made a lot of progress from the days when African Americans could not buy houses in some neighborhoods, could not get jobs at some businesses and could not even eat in certain restaurants. But while it can’t be denied that we have made great progress since the time of segregation, things are not as rosy as they may appear to many.

There are good civil rights laws on the books and blatant racism has become totally unacceptable in America to the point where even the most outspoken racists have learned to use code words to disguise, yet still convey, their biased views. Yes, African Americans can choose where they want to live, but if they don’t have a good-paying job or the education to get that good-paying job, then the open-housing laws don’t mean much. Black youths can go to any college they choose, but if their elementary and high schools are substandard and they are not learning the basics, they still can’t get into the system of higher education.

While there is no doubt that poor minority children have the opportunities to succeed—and some certainly do—the road is often much more difficult. The minority children who come from middle-class families, where education is valued and the schools are good, will do very well. But today, more than 40 years after much of the civil rights legislation was passed and more than 50 years since the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most inner-city schools are still “separate and unequal.”

While overtly racist laws are a thing of the past, subtle legal racism is alive and well. It is in many ways far more insidious and much more difficult to fight. Direct racism is easily identified and Americans are clearly opposed to it. Americans would be outraged if someone wouldn’t sell their home to certain people because they are black or wouldn’t let them be seated in a restaurant because of their race. But subtle legal racism is much harder to detect since it often comes with smartly packaged names and noble justifications. Americans, for example, would be incensed by a law such as a poll tax designed to make it more difficult for poor black citizens to vote, but that is exactly what happens when a Voter ID law is passed. Voter ID laws are presented as a solution to the problem of people voting under different names and multiple times.

What could be more reasonable? The only problem is that the issue of illegal and multiple voting just doesn’t exist in this country. After the Bush Justice Department tried very hard to find cases of this illegal voting, they came up with only a handful of examples from the more than 122 million people who voted in the 2004 presidential election.

So what could be the real motivations of many of these Voter ID advocates? In another example, there are many people railing against wasteful government spending, which is reasonable, but many of these same people are not concerned that the United States has literally added $3 trillion to the national debt over the past six years while filling the pockets of Halliburton and Blackwater. For those people, the term “wasteful government spending” is simply a code word for tax dollars going to social programs like Head Start, for example, that give poor and disproportionately minority children an opportunity to compete and succeed. (I want to make it clear that there are sincere libertarians and fiscal conservatives who advocate for a very small government with minimal spending of all kinds, and if consistent, that is a reasonable philosophy of government.

Many may disagree with it, but it has a consistent philosophical underpinning.) If we cut back on programs like Head Start, we will fail to remove some serious barriers that prevent poor minority children from getting an equal chance. We as taxpayers collectively subsidize public higher education so that everyone has a chance to succeed in life. But as long as poor minority children do not have the opportunity to benefit from this public higher education because they never received a decent early education, then many black children won’t have an opportunity to reap the benefits of our good civil rights laws. To be clear, no one is advocating for handouts, just an equal starting line so that everyone has equal opportunities to reach his or her potential.

I could go on with many more examples of these subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle forms of legal racism, but the bottom line is this: No one can seriously deny that we have truly come a long way from the de jure racism of the 1950s, but there is still a long way to go. Today’s racism is less obvious, often packaged in some legitimate wrappings, with the blame typically placed on the victim, but it is racism nonetheless and must be fought as vigorously as we fought the racism of the 1950s. Our great country, America, can do better.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


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