On March 7, 1965, protesters marched along Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on a mission led by Martin Luther King Jr. and guided by his goal to achieve fair voting rights.
Fifty years later, that bridge — and that goal — still remain, reminding us that the fight for equality for African-Americans still isn’t over.
The nation is remembering Selma this year amid the backdrop of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — another incident that highlights how much work still needs to be done when it comes to racial divides in the country. Protesters in Ferguson have called for an end to police practices that disproportionately affect African-Americans, and a scathing report released on Wednesday by the Department of Justice that looked at racial profiling in Ferguson’s police department showed just how real these disparities are.
To many, Selma epitomizes many of the racial and justice issues black Americans have faced in the past, and reflects some of problems that still exist today. The historic march also broadly symbolizes the strength of the civil rights movement and the power of social activism.
Even as the nation continues to deal with the harsh realities of racism today, the quality of life for black Americans has improved in many ways since Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago. But we still have a long way to go. As the ceremonies begin this weekend to celebrate the landmark civil rights march, it is important to reflect on the progress — or a lack of it — that’s occurred when it comes to true racial justice and equality for all African-Americans.
How far have we really come as a nation? And, how far do we still have to go? Here’s a look at where we stand today:
Over the past five decades, blacks have made significant gains across many measures of economic prosperity. However, progress in this area has been slow and uneven, and in many ways the fundamental racial divide remains largely unchanged.
Between 1967 and 2011, the median income of a black household of three rose from about $24,000 to nearly $40,000, according to a 2013 analysis by Pew Research Center. Expressed as a share of white income, black households earn about 59% of what white households earn, a slight increase from 55% in 1967. But when expressed as dollars, the black-white income gap widened, from about $19,000 in the late 1960s to roughly $27,000 today.
The figures on household wealth are even more disparate, and it appears to be getting worse: In 2013, the median wealth of white households ($141,900) was 13 times the median wealth of black households ($11,000), the widest gap in a quarter of a century. In dollars, the black-white disparity in household wealth increased from $75,224 in 1984 to $84,960 in 2011.
Blacks were disproportionately affected by the Great Recession, which lasted from 2007-2009, and they have benefited the least during the recovery years. From 2010 to 2013, the median wealth of white households increased from $138,600 to $141,900, or by 2.4%, while the median wealth of black households fell 33.7%, from $16,600 in 2010 to $11,000 in 2013.
Other indicators of financial well-being have changed little in recent decades, including homeownership rates and the share of each race that live above the poverty line. The poverty rate among blacks is the highest of any racial or ethnic group, despite a slight decrease over time, from 31.3% in 1976 to 27.2% in 2014, according to census data. The black unemployment rate also has consistently been about double that of whites since the 1950s.
Despite significant improvement over time, racial disparities persist across nearly ever measure of health and access to health care. The gap in life expectancy rates among blacks and whites has narrowed in the past five decades from about seven years to four. According to one estimate, eliminating the racial gap in life expectancy would prevent about 86,000 excess deaths among blacks each year.
Of all racial/ethnic groups in the U.S., self-reported health is lowest among blacks, with about twice the proportion of blacks (20%) reporting that their health is ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ compared to whites (11%). Although this gap narrowed in the 1990’s, it began to widen again in the early 2000’s. Blacks are also most likely to have a chronic disease, a disparity that persists across income levels and after adjusting for age. Blacks with family incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level are 26% more likely to suffer from a chronic condition than whites, while blacks at or above 200 percent of the poverty level are 40% more likely to have a chronic illness or disability than whites. Infant mortality, another key indicator of population health, has declined more quickly among blacks than other racial groups, yet the infant mortality rate remains at least 2.5 times higher for blacks than for whites.
While these disparities have many complex causes, experts agree that inequities in health care are a significant contributor. Blacks are more likely than whites to be uninsured, with about 1 in 5 blacks going without health insurance for some part of the year. Put another way, people of color comprised half of the uninsured population in the U.S. in 2013. According to a 2010 report by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, blacks received worse care than whites for 40% of the measures studied and had worse access to care for a third of core measures. Research also shows that blacks are more likely to receive delayed care, to suffer from medical errors, and to be subject to potentially dangerous medical practices, such as the use of restraints in psychiatric and nursing care facilities.
Coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act have the potential to reduce disparities in insurance status and access to/quality of care. The Medicaid expansion, particularly, could extend coverage to the nearly two-thirds of uninsured Blacks who have incomes below the Medicaid expansion limit (138% of the Federal Poverty Level). However, in the Republican-led states that did not implement the expansion, most of these individuals will be left without an affordable coverage option and will likely remain uninsured.
High school completion rates have converged since the 1960s, and now about nine-in-ten blacks and whites have a high school diploma. What’s more, high school dropout rates have declined faster among blacks ages 18 to 24 than the national average. Among blacks, the rate dropped from 24% in 1976 to 8% in 2013, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. Among all Americans, the rate also decreased, from 16% to 7% over this time period.
The trend in college completion rates tell a more nuanced story. Today, white adults 25 and older are significantly more likely than blacks to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree (34% vs. 21%, a 13 percentage point difference). Fifty years ago, the completion gap between whites and blacks was about 6 percentage points (10% vs. 4%). But expressed a different way, the black completion rate as a percentage of the white rate has improved from 42% then to 62% now.
The Voting Rights Act fundamentally changed the political landscape for blacks in America, and the results have been remarkable. Before the Voting Rights Act, blacks were virtually unrepresented as voters in many parts of the country, with black-voter registration rates in the South barely hitting 20 percent in 1950 because of state-sanctioned racist violence and repression. In Dallas County, Ala.—where Selma was the capital—only 156 out of the 15,000 black citizens eligible to vote were registered.
Enter the Voting Rights Act, and 50 years later we have 46 black members of Congress and nearly 700 black state legislators, according to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and one black man serving his second term in the White House. Since 1965, the number of black elected officials has increased by 1,000%, to nearly 11,000 politicians, combined, on the local, state and federal levels. Black-voter registration is also way up, by about 25 percent, since 1965, and in the last presidential election, the black voter turnout rate exceeded that of whites for the first time, by 66.6% to 64.1%. (It’s worth noting, though, that in 2004, the last presidential election without Barack Obama on the ballot, the white voter turnout rate exceeded that of blacks by a substantial margin (67.2% of eligible white voters to 60.3% blacks).
The VRA, as it’s abbreviated, did so well that it somehow became a victim of its own success: Convinced that “nearly 50 years later things have changed dramatically,” a conservative Supreme Court ripped the VRA apart (pdf) in a fateful 2013 ruling. As a result, states such as Texas and North Carolina have moved to reinstate voter restrictions, nearly all of which have been shown to have discriminatory outcomes that disproportionately obstruct minority voters.
Take voter ID laws, for instance, which specify that voters must present specific types of ‘acceptable’ photo ID’s in order to cast a ballot. African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to lack one of these qualifying IDs, according to several estimates. Even when the state offers a free photo ID, these voters, who are disproportionately low-income, may not be able to procure the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, to obtain one. In Texas, for example, challengers to the state’s ID law cited an African-American grandmother who could not afford the $25 to purchase her birth certificate to get an ID, and an elderly African-American veteran and longtime voter who was turned away at the polls in 2013 despite having three types of ID, because none qualified under the new law. Texas, of course, is also the state where a gun permit is accepted as a form of voter ID, but a student ID is not.
Recent research from the Government Accountability Office demonstrates that voter ID laws are having a disparate impact at the polls. Turnout dropped among both young people and African-Americans in Kansas and Tennessee after new voter ID requirements took effect in 2012, the study found.
Notably, six of the 16 states that have passed voter ID laws since 2010 have a documented history of discriminating against minority voters. All but one of those states’ laws were put in place after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required them to seek approval from the Justice Department for any voting-law changes.
Housing and Segregation
Progress on housing has been limited. While the Civil Rights Act opened up public accommodations, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has failed to markedly raise black home ownership rates, and nearly six in 10 African Americans still live in segregated neighborhoods. Persistent residential segregation has also created pockets of concentrated poverty marked by extreme socioeconomic deprivation. Today, nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than a tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods.
The situation is similar in America’s public school systems. In the late 1960s, 76.6 percent of black children attended majority black schools. In 2010, 74.1 percent of black children attended majority nonwhite schools. Although the share of black children in segregated schools had dropped to 62.9 percent by the early 1980s, the subsequent lack of commitment by the federal government and multiple Supreme Court decisions antagonistic to school desegregation have led to a reversal of that trend.
As we learned half a century ago, separate schools are unequal schools. According to recent data collected by the Department of Education (DOE), students of color are:
- More likely to attend schools with lower-quality facilities such as temporary, portable classrooms.
- More likely to be assigned to inexperienced, less-effective teachers who have not studied the subject they are teaching.
- Less likely to have access to high level coursework.
Students of color account for close to 40 percent of high school students, but they constitute just a quarter of students taking Advanced Placement courses and exams and just 20 percent of enrollment in calculus classes, according to the DOE report. Just 68 percent of black students attend a high school that offers calculus. By comparison, 81 percent of white high school students have the option of taking calculus, as do 87 percent of Asian students.
Despite federal law calling for equal opportunity to education, research clearly shows that fewer resources are devoted to schools with higher proportions of nonwhite students. According to a 2012 study by the Center for American Progress, a 10 percentage-point increase in the share of nonwhite students in a school is associated with a $75 decrease in per student spending. In comparison with the average school with 90 percent or more white students, the average school with 90 percent or more nonwhite students has $443,000 less to spend on students during the school year, “funding [that] could pay the salary for 12 additional first-year teachers or nine veteran teachers . . . [or] for any number of other useful personnel or resources such as school counselors, teacher coaches, or laptop computers”.
The so-called ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is another emerging problem in U.S. public schools. Students of color face harsher punishments in school than their white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color incarcerated and diverted from academics. Recent statistics reveal that students of color represent more than 70 percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement.
Criminal Justice & Incarceration
The statistics on racial inequities in the criminal justice system are staggering, and they’ve only gotten worse in the past few decades. While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men. Put another way, black men were more than six times as likely as white men in 2010 to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails — an increase from 1960, when black men were five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
Much of the uptick in incarceration can be linked to the war on drugs, which has been waged primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses. According to Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007 about one in three of the 25.4 million adults arrested for drugs was African American.
Blacks and other minorities also have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem. A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were also found to be twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
Furthermore, once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes. The Sentencing Project reports that African Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison.
Studies have also shown that people of color face disparities in wage trajectory following release from prison: following release from prison, wages grow at a 21 percent slower rate for black former inmates compared to white ex-convicts. A number of states have bans on people with certain convictions working in domestic health-service industries such as nursing, child care, and home health care—areas in which many poor women and women of color are disproportionately concentrated.
So what are we to make of these statistics? It would certainly be a mistake to suggest that no progress has been made. As President Obama remarked as he commemorated the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, “We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, or that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past fifty years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or L.A. of the Fifties. … To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
But just as importantly, we must never turn a blind-eye to these persistent racial inequalities nor overlook the diverse, sometimes discrete ways in which they manifest. Indeed, as we celebrate the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, we must recognize that the racism and discrimination of previous decades has not gone away, but changed forms. No longer can a person legally be turned away from the voting booth based on the color of their skin; yet today, that’s exactly what voter ID laws are doing. While overt discrimination based on race is no longer state-sanctioned, disenfranchisement based on incarceration history has taken its place. And although politicians today rarely run on an explicitly racist platform, their racial dog-whistles are only slightly less transparent.
“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”