Today's American: How Free? - Racial inequality: America's Achilles' heel

As European societies grapple with problems posed by an influx of immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, the United States is often held up as a model of assimilation. But while America has proven relatively successful at the integration of immigrants of differing cultures, nationalities, and skin colors, it still confronts serious problems stemming from the unequal status of African Americans. If the United States can claim that it is uniquely welcoming to immigrants from around the world, it must also acknowledge that, as was the case at the founding of the republic, racial injustice is the Achilles' heel of American democracy. The continuing plight of black Americans is accentuated by the fact that the United States has become, in commentator Ben Wattenberg's phrase, the world's first multinational society. Instead of a simple black-white racial divide, there is today a divide between blacks and a constellation of groups that includes both whites and immigrants from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and other parts of the world.

Moreover, the fact that America has truly become a "diverse" society has affected the debates over a series of social-policy issues that were once identified as pertaining almost exclusively to the status of African Americans. Among these are affirmative action, residential segregation, education, and the tension between assimilation and separateness. And while many observers object strongly to the application of lessons from the immigrant experience to the question of black advancement, the fact that nonwhite newcomers have made important strides toward participation in the American mainstream has affected and will continue to affect public opinion, government policy, and the intellectual debate over strategies to accelerate the pace of black progress.

While America's history of slavery and legal segregation is well known, it is important to note that the United States was unique in the size of its slave population, that population's geographical concentration, slavery's legal duration, the fact that slavery was ended through civil war, and the discrimination, humiliation, and violence to which blacks were subjected after slavery was abolished. Other societies maintained slaves, but no society has suffered a legacy of slavery that equals the American experience.

The United States is also unique with respect to the number and magnitude of the laws, policies, and enforcement and monitoring agencies that are meant principally to curb racial bias, enhance racial integration, and direct public attention to actions and policies deemed to have an unfair impact on African Americans or other minorities, most notably Hispanics. Likewise, America is unusual in the degree to which racial concerns and sensitivities permeate public life. Incidents in which the police kill or beat black suspects continue to spark national debates about the role of racial profiling or racial bias in the broader society. The proportion of minorities in the ranks of professional sports coaching is a perennial controversy, as are the use of race in legislative redistricting, the relationship between race and standardized tests used for university admissions, and the racial impact of environmental decisions.

The issues associated with immigration, especially immigration from Latin America and the Muslim world, are dealt with in other chapters in this volume. But as this study does focus on the state of freedom in the period after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it is worth stressing how little the developments of the past five years have influenced the core debates over American race relations and the status of African Americans. Indeed, the key racial problems facing the United States are remarkably similar to those which confronted the society a quarter century ago: continuing inequality, a level of poverty among blacks that is greater than that of any other group, uneasy relations between blacks and the police, and serious public disagreement over affirmative action, a central policy concern of the civil rights lobby.

Such recent developments as domestic terrorism and the debate over the country's immigration policies have, if anything, directed the public's attention away from these racial matters to questions including border control, the problem of illegal immigrants, the assimilation of Arab Americans, and bias against immigrants from Muslim countries. Yet even as race declines as a topic of discussion and ethnicity, language, and immigrant status move to a more prominent place on the American agenda, the laws, policies, and public attitudes that were shaped by the civil rights protests of an earlier era continue to play a key role in determining how the new controversies stemming from American diversity are resolved.

Civil Rights Law

The foundations of today's civil rights enforcement were set down in three laws adopted by Congress during the 1960s. Taken together, the laws make discrimination illegal in practically every aspect of public life.

The most significant of these laws is the Omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964. More than any other statute or judicial decision, the Civil Rights Act put in place the core legal guarantees of equal rights for blacks, other minority groups, and women. In a sweeping fashion, it established federal authority over aspects of American life that had been governed by the states since the country's founding. And it established a precedent for similar civil rights laws on issues ranging from the rights of homosexuals, the rights of the disabled, the education of the mentally handicapped, and the sexual harassment of women in the workplace. The 1964 law bans discrimination on the basis of race, ethnic origin, or gender in a broad range of institutions and in public accommodations, education, and employment. The public accommodations provision of the law applies to sites including hotels, restaurants, and theaters. The act encourages the desegregation of schools and authorizes the attorney general to file suits to move the desegregation process along. The section dealing with job discrimination, Title VII, prohibits bias by employers and unions, and prohibits retaliation against workers who bring claims of bias to the relevant authorities.1

The second legislative pillar of civil rights protection is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was designed to eliminate practices that minimized black voter participation, which were widespread in the segregated South at the time. Thus the law banned literacy tests for prospective voters as well as the requirement to pay a poll tax before being allowed to vote. The act also extended the authority of the federal government into various aspects of the political process that were traditionally overseen by the states, at least in those states with a history of systematic racial discrimination. Important here was a provision that forced state and local officials in areas with a substantial black presence to seek the approval of the Justice Department before making changes in registration procedures, legislative district boundaries, or other factors that might influence the ability of minorities to participate in the political process or attain a measure of political power. The Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized on two subsequent occasions, most recently in 2006. During that reauthorization debate, some Republicans argued that the sections calling for Justice Department oversight of voting and redistricting procedures be dropped on the grounds that racial attitudes in Southern states had changed enough to render such supervision unnecessary. This argument was ultimately rejected, and the final bill included the provision for federal oversight.2

The third major piece of civil rights legislation is the federal Fair Housing Act. Passed in 1968, the law prohibits racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Initially, single-family, owner-occupied homes were exempted from the legislation's coverage, but in subsequent years, practically all housing came under the jurisdiction of the law.3

The Fair Housing Act has relatively weak enforcement provisions. At the same time, a number of states have passed fair-housing laws with stricter enforcement mechanisms. Most states, in fact, have enacted their own versions of the more important federal civil rights measures, including those designed to combat discrimination in education and the workplace.

In addition to adopting laws against racial bias, the United States has established an impressive roster of commissions, agencies, and monitoring and enforcement mechanisms tasked with preventing discrimination, promoting affirmative action, or punishing bias crimes against minorities, women, and other "protected groups." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to assist in the enforcement of laws against discrimination in the workplace. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an advisory body that conducts studies and hearings on issues including workplace bias, police conduct, and voter-suppression campaigns directed at minorities. There are, in addition, civil rights offices within each of the cabinet departments. The civil rights offices in the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have had considerable influence in shaping government policy and determining when the government will bring discrimination charges against an individual, corporation, labor union, or public entity. And just as most states (and many cities) have enacted their own versions of civil rights legislation, so the states have established their own versions of the civil rights enforcement units that exist at the federal level.

Hate Crimes

The United States has adopted an aggressive policy on prosecuting crimes that are motivated by racial hatred. The prosecution of bias crimes is largely undertaken by the states and not the federal government. Practically all states have adopted laws that include additional penalties for crimes in which racial bias (or bias against immigrant groups, women, or homosexuals) plays a role. There is also a federal law, the Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1994, which directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission to add a sentencing enhancement of not less than three offense levels for violent crimes in which hate is deemed a major factor.4 In certain egregious cases of bias, the federal government and state and local authorities will collaborate in the investigations. A good example of this kind of cooperation occurred in the response to the 1998 murder of James Byrd, a black man, by three white men in Jasper County, Texas. Although the crime was under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement officials, the forensic expertise and civil rights experience of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Justice Department were crucial in bringing the case to a swift conclusion.5

Another major federal hate-crime law, the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, requires the Justice Department to gather data on crimes that manifest bias based on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, and to publish an annual statistical report using material from state and local law enforcement agencies. A 1968 measure, adopted when resistance to desegregation remained strong in parts of the South, prohibits the use of force or intimidation against individuals or groups attempting to vote, enroll in a school, gain employment, or use public transportation or public accommodations. In addition, the Justice Department has the authority to intervene in criminal cases when there is evidence that a victim's civil rights have been violated. Under this power, the federal government has brought a number of cases against local law enforcement officials who have been accused of using abusive tactics against minority suspects or defendants.

The original impetus behind the special attention for hate crimes was the victimization of blacks. However, hate-crime statistics today reflect the increasing diversity of American society. While blacks rank as the largest group targeted, a substantial number of whites, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, and Jews were also listed as hate-crime victims in statistics published by the FBI for the year 2004. Blacks accounted for about one-third of reported hate crimes, Jews for some 12 percent, and male homosexuals for about 10 percent. Interestingly, relatively few hate crimes were directed at Muslims; these reflected about 2 percent of the total.6

An ongoing controversy involves racial profiling, or the use of race, especially by police, to identify possible criminal suspects. It includes a wide range of practices, including stopping and frisking African Americans at random or searching the cars of black or Hispanic motorists for illegal narcotics or stolen goods. In either case, what distinguishes racial profiling from normal police tactics is the use of race as the determining factor and the absence of strong additional evidence of criminal behavior. Many civil libertarians have accused local police departments of engaging in racial profiling, especially in drug cases. In response to highly publicized incidents involving the police and members of minority groups, a number of states have taken steps to curb the practice. And while the controversy over profiling originally emerged in relation to police treatment of blacks, the focus is now on the treatment of immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia.

Prosecuting Crimes of the Past

The federal government continues to pursue criminal cases involving murders and other serious crimes against blacks that were committed during the era of civil rights protest. Thus in 2005 Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for his part in the killing of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a case memorialized in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. Killen was brought to justice 41 years after the crime was committed.7

A number of Southern states have revived investigations of crimes committed against blacks or civil rights advocates four or five decades ago. Some states have also established variants of the truth commissions that new democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Eastern Europe have used to set the historical record straight about past crimes or acts of repression in which the state was complicit. North Carolina formed a special commission in 2000 to investigate a race riot that occurred in 1898 in the city of Wilmington.8 Some states have provided compensation to victims of acts of racial injustice. Florida gave compensation to the nine survivors of the 1923 Rosewood race riot – another incident that became the subject of a film – and set up a fund to provide university tuition assistance for descendants of the victims.9

Some African American activists have launched a movement to win financial reparations for the descendants of black slaves in the United States. Among other things, proponents point to congressional action that provided payments to Japanese American survivors of World War II internment as precedent for similar compensation for blacks. Attempts to gain congressional support for slavery reparations have never made much progress, and the effort largely collapsed in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. At the same time, advocates of reparations have initiated lawsuits against corporations in the insurance, financial services, tobacco, and other industries, demanding reparations for their or their predecessor-companies' ties to slavery.10

Race and Poverty

Some black critics have expressed frustration at the resources devoted to finding and punishing the perpetrators of civil rights crimes and the commissions of inquiry into incidents like the Rosewood riot. They assert that by focusing on past wrongdoing, white society is giving itself sanction to ignore more pressing contemporary problems stemming from economic and social inequality. Among other things, they contend that a real commitment to equality would require a serious and expensive antipoverty program directed at black youth in inner cities.

However, the statistics on the level of poverty in black America tell a mixed story. One can find data that reinforce the views of optimists or confirm the bleakest conclusions of pessimists.

For the optimists, the figures show a substantial decline in poverty and a general improvement in other economic indicators over the past four and a half decades. In 1959, when the U.S. Census Bureau began publishing data on poverty, the poverty rate for African Americans stood at a huge 55.1 percent. The comparable figure for whites was 18.1 percent. By 1970, poverty for both blacks and whites had declined substantially due to a decade of uninterrupted growth and job creation in the industrial sector. For blacks, poverty stood at 33.5 percent – still high, but dramatically lower than 11 years earlier. The rate for whites was 9.9 percent, half the rate of 1959. By 1980, black poverty had again declined, but only by a modest amount, to 32.5 percent, whereas white poverty had actually risen to 10.2 percent. These relatively unimpressive figures came at the end of a decade notable for a substantial increase in oil prices and general economic stagnation. Poverty for blacks again dropped slightly by 1990, to 31.9 percent; for whites, the rate was 10.7 percent. By 2000, however, black poverty had registered another substantial decrease, to 22.5 percent; the rate for whites stood at 9.5 percent.11

These statistics demonstrate that for both whites and blacks, the 1960s were crucial in bringing down the rate of poverty in America. They also show that while the rate of decline in poverty has slowed considerably, the rate of decline for black poverty has exceeded that for whites, and blacks have continued to make progress despite the transition from an economy based on industrial production to one anchored in services, knowledge, and high technology.

That is the good news. The not-so-good news is that poverty for blacks remains far higher than for whites and indeed exceeds the rate for most immigrant groups, including groups that have come to America in substantial numbers only recently.

A similar racial gap can be found in America's unemployment statistics. Thus in 1980, the unemployment rate for whites was 6.3 percent while the rate for blacks was 14.3 percent. In 1990, the white rate was 4.8 percent; for blacks, unemployment stood at 11.4 percent. Eight years later, in the midst of a period of sustained growth, jobless rates for whites stood at 3.9 percent; for blacks the figure was 8.9 percent.12 Finally, for the first quarter of 2006, the average monthly rate for whites was 4.1 percent, with a 9.2 percent rate for blacks.

In other words, as with the ratio for poverty rates, the black-white unemployment ratio has remained more or less steady since the Labor Department began to examine racial and ethnic subcategories. Whether the economy is robust or in recession, the rate of black unemployment remains at slightly more than twice the level for whites. An additional factor is the number of adults who have dropped out of the workforce and are not counted in jobless statistics. In this category, blacks are represented at a higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups.

The statistics for educational attainment are somewhat more positive. According to a Census Bureau report for 2003, school dropout rates by race and ethnicity were as follows: white, 7.9 percent; black, 12.2 percent; Asian, 1 percent; Hispanic, 24 percent. Likewise, the figures for college enrollment show that while blacks continue to lag, their enrollment level is high by historical standards. Of all students enrolled in college in 2003, 68 percent were white, 13 percent were black, 7 percent were Asian, and 10 percent were Hispanic.13 This represents a major shift over the previous two decades. In 1983, white college enrollment was 86 percent of the total; for blacks, the figure was 10 percent, while 4 percent were in the "other races" (including Asian) category, and 4 percent were Hispanic.14 Studies have also shown that a college degree has a greater impact on the future earnings of blacks than on earnings for whites or other groups. For example, a study conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics showed that for blacks and whites aged 25-34 with undergraduate university degrees, the ratio of earnings was 1.06, or near parity. Put another way, in 2003 black college graduates earned $40,900 on average, while white college graduates earned $43,400. The comparable figure for Hispanics was $37,600.15

Likewise, studies have shown that blacks with undergraduate degrees have an employment rate that is roughly similar to that of their white counterparts. In 2004, black college graduates aged 25-34 had an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, slightly above the 2.3 percent rate for whites.16 At the same time, while black college graduation rates have increased substantially, they still lag significantly behind rates for whites. The percentage of blacks aged 25-29 who were university graduates stood at its highest level of 18.0 percent in 2002, a threefold rise from a figure of 6.7 percent in 1971. At the same time, the 2002 figure for whites in the same age cohort stood at 35.9 percent, about double the figure for blacks.17

As these statistics suggest, the clearest path to racial equality in America is through the schoolhouse door. Those who argue that the educational playing field is uneven point to the disproportionate representation of African Americans in community colleges and second-tier state universities, and to the small percentages of blacks in science, computer technology, business administration, and other cutting-edge disciplines. Again, however, the data show that the very act of enrolling in college and completing an undergraduate curriculum greatly enhances opportunities for blacks to attain a standard of living comparable to that of the rest of America.

While the promise of equality has become real for black college graduates, positive data can obscure the plight of inner-city blacks, especially the current generation of young men. The predicament of a substantial group of young men is not captured by higher education or unemployment statistics, since they have dropped out of high school and the workforce, or are serving time in prison.

Here some of the more positive statistical findings can be deceptive. While the overall school dropout rate for blacks nationally is not high by historical standards, in many inner cities it remains high for males, in some cases extraordinarily high. The outlook for these dropouts is bleak. Sixty-five percent of black high school dropouts in their twenties were not involved in the legal economy in 2000. By the time they reach their thirties, about 60 percent of black male dropouts have spent some time in jail. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their twenties who were not enrolled in college were incarcerated. By 2004, the percentage for the same cohort was 21 percent. According to some research, on any given day there is a higher proportion of black men in their late twenties in jail (34 percent) than are employed (30 percent). Although they are only 13 percent of the overall population, blacks account for 41 percent of prison inmates serving sentences of more than one year.18

The relationship between black men and crime has for many years been a sensitive subject in the United States. In part, this is due to the unfortunate historical experience of African Americans. Prior to the civil rights revolution, the personnel of the criminal justice system were overwhelmingly – and in many parts of the South, entirely – white. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Blacks comprise a substantial proportion of police, judges, and prosecutors in large cities. Court decisions have established that it is illegal to exclude blacks from juries on racial grounds. In most large cities, police have undertaken special training in managing racial and ethnic differences.

Nevertheless, the extraordinarily high black prison population has remained a matter of national controversy and a source of special pain for blacks themselves. Some critics believe that there are far too many Americans, and especially blacks, in prison for relatively minor and nonviolent drug offenses. At the same time, declines in violent crime in a number of large cities have paved the way for a revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods. While the dynamics of crime reduction are complex, one factor, many believe, is the large number of criminals who are in prison and off the streets.

Neighborhood Desegregation

Since the beginning of the modern civil rights era, school desegregation has been a central objective in the strategy for racial equality. Indeed, the landmark Supreme Court decision that desegregated the schools, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), is regarded as a galvanizing event in the drive for change. After Brown, civil rights advocates launched a broad-based campaign for school integration that included lawsuits and civil disobedience. Despite fierce and sometimes violent resistance in some communities, legal school segregation was effectively dismantled by the end of the 1960s.

The end of legal segregation has not, however, brought about the widespread school integration that civil rights advocates had hoped for. The principal reason is the persistently high level of neighborhood segregation. To be sure, studies conducted by the Census Bureau and the Brookings Institution indicate that racial isolation in major cities has continued to decline through the years. But the pace of change is slow; America has made much more progress in integrating the workplace, the media, universities, and the criminal justice system than it has in achieving neighborhoods that are racially mixed. Citing figures provided by the Census Bureau for the year 2000, Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, writes that "while segregation has moved downward since 1980, indices remain extreme in the nation's largest urban black communities, especially in the Northeast and the Midwest." According to the Census Bureau, the most segregated cities are Detroit, Michigan; Newark, New Jersey; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; New York City; and Chicago, Illinois. Ironically, neighborhood segregation is less extreme in the big cities of the South.19

Massey, whose writings have been influential in the debate over residential segregation, contends that the failure to create conditions that facilitate housing integration has contributed to racial inequality by leading to high levels of school segregation. He cites a Harvard University study which indicates that racial isolation in the schools actually increased during the 1990s, and asserts that one-sixth of African American students attend schools that are 99 percent black. Massey writes, "Segregation inevitably concentrates poverty, social disorder, and poor health in dysfunctional schools that place African Americans, and increasingly Hispanics, at a severe competitive disadvantage in attempting to enter America's better colleges and universities."20

The causes of neighborhood segregation are difficult to pin down, although obviously the relatively low earnings of blacks and Hispanics is an important factor. Massey and advocacy organizations like the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) contend that outright discrimination plays an important role in preventing blacks from leaving the inner city and moving to suburban neighborhoods. In a 2006 study, the NFHA contends that real-estate firms routinely use techniques that are illegal under fair housing laws to steer black applicants away from predominantly white neighborhoods, and to steer whites away from neighborhoods in which there is a substantial African American presence. Several studies that have made use of civil rights testers have also concluded that housing discrimination is commonplace.21

At the same time, a study by the Brookings Institution concludes that the minority presence in America's traditionally white suburbs rose by substantial numbers during the 1990s. The study showed that in 2000, 27 percent of major suburban populations belonged to minority groups, up from 19 percent in 1990. The study showed that about half of Hispanics and 39 percent of blacks lived in the suburbs.22

Affirmative Action

When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted, most Americans were confident that major gains toward racial equality would automatically follow the dismantling of legal segregation. Indeed, major gains in employment, poverty reduction, and education were attained during the 1960s. Under conditions of near full employment, hundreds of thousands of black workers found jobs in the booming industrial sector. At the same time, universities made special efforts to enroll greater numbers of blacks and also provided financial assistance for minority students.

But this progress was accompanied by a series of developments that suggested that achieving racial equality would be a more complex and longer-term challenge than Americans had initially imagined. There was, to begin with, the discovery that racial prejudice and inequality were not limited to the South. Throughout the rest of the country, blacks faced many of the problems associated with legal segregation: job discrimination, inferior educational opportunities, and, especially, exclusion from white neighborhoods. Efforts to address these problems through demonstrations and civil disobedience – tactics that had proven effective in bringing down legal discrimination in the South – were ineffective in the other regions.

Another sign of the complexity of America's racial dynamic was the increase in single-parent families. This phenomenon was initially pointed out by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a domestic policy adviser in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. The report in which Moynihan discussed the growth in female-headed families was bitterly attacked by black and white academics, and Moynihan was accused of "blaming the victim" in his paper. In fact, the problem that he identified became much more pronounced in subsequent years, with serious consequences for American race relations. Meanwhile, the reaction to Moynihan's findings was a disturbing sign of the difficulties impeding a frank discussion about the most effective strategies for achieving racial equality.

The combination of urban disorder, the problems faced by the black poor, and the realization that the elimination of legal barriers to equality would have a limited impact on the overall status of black Americans led policymakers and some academics to advocate a more aggressive approach. Two basic strategies were put forward to accelerate the integration of blacks into the educational and economic mainstream: the busing of schoolchildren outside their neighborhoods to promote classroom integration, and affirmative action in the workplace and university admissions. Both concepts were implemented primarily through action taken by the federal government, and both have proven intensely controversial.

The thinking behind busing was that the integration of public education would be hampered in practice by the substantial degree of de facto housing segregation in most American communities. Although some advocates proposed wide-ranging desegregation plans that called for busing large numbers of blacks to predominantly white schools and whites to predominantly black schools, in practice the children who participated in busing plans were overwhelmingly black. Busing was instituted in a number of communities, often despite resistance from whites and the ambivalent attitudes of black parents.

It soon became clear, though, that desegregation schemes would have a limited impact in many large cities because few white children were enrolled in the public schools, and because of worries that busing plans were encouraging "white flight" to the suburbs. Civil rights advocates therefore proposed that busing schemes be expanded to embrace both urban and adjacent suburban school districts to ensure a sufficiently large pool of white students to make integration viable. In Milliken v. Bradley (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that these cross-district busing plans could not be imposed on suburban communities, thus thwarting the more ambitious aims of busing supporters.23 Moreover, by preventing the government from compelling communities to accept cross-district busing, the court took an important step toward minimizing busing as a desegregation tool. With enrollment in big-city school districts increasingly dominated by black and Hispanic students, school integration diminished as a goal of civil rights policy. By the 1990s, many of the desegregation plans that incorporated busing had been abandoned.

Affirmative action, by contrast, has assumed a more or less permanent place in American civil rights policy. Initially, during the 1960s, it was regarded as a program to encourage private corporations and government units to voluntarily adopt measures to hire, train, and promote black workers. A key theory behind affirmative action was that an important source of inequality was institutional racism. This concept held that several centuries of racial discrimination had been internalized by corporations, universities, government agencies, and other institutions. To overcome this legacy, advocates urged policies that would, in effect, compel the hiring of qualified blacks and the admission of blacks to colleges, especially prestigious private universities.

The federal government thus began to pressure employers to hire and promote blacks, and where the percentage of black employees fell short of their presence in the local population, it took legal action to force companies or government entities to develop plans that would increase their minority workforces. One obstacle to the implementation of affirmative action plans was a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forbade "reverse discrimination," that is, the hiring of minorities over better-qualified whites. But the Supreme Court ruled in several cases that a certain degree of affirmative action did meet constitutional muster. Once the courts gave legitimacy to race-conscious remedies, federal initiatives to encourage the hiring of minorities mushroomed.

The government scrutinized not only the number of employees in a company as a whole, but often looked at the minority representation in separate units. It assessed the minority representation within the middle- and upper-management ranks, and would frequently order a company to devise a plan for the promotion of minorities or women. The government also scrutinized the qualifications or standards established by state entities – such as police and fire departments – and corporations, and required employers to justify any qualifications that seemed to have what was known as a "disparate impact" on minorities or women.

Although affirmative action was originally meant to accelerate the movement of blacks into the economic mainstream, the plans advanced by the government almost always applied to groups other than blacks that were also deemed to be the victims of discrimination: women, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and various smaller indigenous groups. The lumping together of these various groups, including some that scored relatively well on indices of income, education, and wealth, had unintended and perverse consequences. For example, federal rules that called for a specified threshold of minority contractors were sometimes exploited by new, Asian-owned companies that had had little or no experience with bias.

From the outset, affirmative action was viewed with skepticism by most whites. Opinion polls have generally shown that whites will support soft or voluntary affirmative action but oppose government-imposed plans that seem to favor minority hiring over whites or the lowering of employment or university admissions standards. Because of the emotional response and intense controversy affirmative action has generated, Congress has been generally unwilling to deal with the issue, either by giving affirmative action the validation of legislative approval or by voting to curb or eliminate the policy. The one major exception came in 1990, when Congress passed, and President George H. W. Bush signed, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, a measure that nullified several Supreme Court decisions which had limited the scope of affirmative action plans.24

By the 1990s, most private employers had instituted changes in their hiring and promotion policies to eliminate practices that the courts and enforcement agencies might deem discriminatory. At this point, civil rights advocates put forward a new rationale for policies to encourage or compel corporations and universities to introduce racially or ethnically based hiring and admissions policies. They contended that even if a corporation or university had eliminated overt bias from its policies, it should be obliged to consider race on diversity grounds, that is, on the grounds that major economic and educational institutions should roughly reflect the broader society's diverse racial and ethnic composition.

During the 1990s, affirmative action met with several major setbacks in the courts and the political arena. In two states, California and Washington, referendums to eliminate affirmative action in employment and university admissions were adopted by voters. Likewise, the Supreme Court, in Adarand v. Pena (1995), ruled that the federal government could not force affirmative action plans on private corporations on diversity grounds alone.25

More recently, the principal battles over affirmative action have focused on admissions to public universities. In 2003, the Supreme Court issued important decisions in two cases involving the University of Michigan. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court ruled that race can be considered among other factors in the admissions process, while in Gratz v. Bollinger it ruled out affirmative action plans that seemed to set a strict numerical goal for minority admissions.26 Partly as a response to the rulings, Michigan voters in November 2006 backed a referendum banning affirmative action in public education, contracting, and employment. Clearly, this will not be the final word on the issue. Given the contentious nature of race-based admissions programs, it is likely that affirmative action will come before the courts again in the relatively near future.

African Americans and American Politics

The example of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois illustrates both the impressive gains that African Americans have made in American political life and the limits of their acceptance as full participants. Although he is relatively young and is serving only his first term in the Senate, Obama has emerged as one of the most popular and sought-after figures in the Democratic Party, as well as a serious contender for his party's presidential nomination in 2008. At the same time, Obama is the only black member of the 100-seat Senate and only the third black senator in modern history. Likewise, only two African Americans have won election to a governorship: Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1990 and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in 2006.

There are a number of factors behind the difficulty blacks have encountered in winning statewide elections where the electorate is mostly white. Lingering prejudice may be part of the answer. Another factor is the ghettoized nature of black politics. While literally thousands of blacks have won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, city councils, and state legislatures, most represent districts in which black voters predominate, often by overwhelming margins. Black legislators are thus often perceived, fairly or not, as focused on the needs of blacks and favoring an agenda that is well to the left of the political mainstream. In the 109th Congress, there were 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of whom were Democrats and almost all of whom represented districts where minorities predominated.27

To a modest degree, the number of majority black districts has remained high due to the policy of racial gerrymandering, under which legislative districts are drawn so as to ensure that the majority of voters are black, or in some cases Hispanic. In some states, blacks' desire to ensure that certain congressional districts would remain secure for black candidates has led to the anomalous situation of African American Democrats joining with Republicans in the drawing of neighboring districts that would likely produce Republican victories. The Supreme Court has ruled against several of the more extreme racially drawn districts while allowing race or ethnicity to be taken into consideration in a modest way in other cases.

In the future, of course, the indicator of America's success at assimilating minorities into the political system will be the participation and representation of the entire constellation of nonwhite groups, and not just blacks. Although the Republican Party has long been accused of hostility to minority interests, the administration of President George W. Bush has included two African American secretaries of state, a Hispanic attorney general, and several Asian Americans in high positions, including two who were prominent in developing the administration's counterterrorism policy.


Aside from Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, the past five years have been notable for the absence of major controversies that focus on the status of blacks in American society. They have also been notable for the public's generally upbeat appraisal of the state of race relations as measured in opinion surveys. According to a 2005 poll sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), roughly two-thirds of Americans view relations between blacks and whites as positive, while only 29 percent saw relations as negative.28

Societies throughout the world are currently grappling with the challenges posed by racial, ethnic, or religious differences. Scholars who study democratic development have identified racial or ethnic division as an important obstacle to liberal democracy in many countries. The most murderous civil conflicts – in places like Chechnya, Iraq, and Sri Lanka – are fueled by sectarian or ethnic hatreds, while a number of European societies are experiencing a degree of social discord that is unprecedented in the postwar period due to tensions associated with the arrival of Muslim immigrants. Within this global context, the United States stands out for its ability to integrate, however incompletely, African Americans and nonwhite immigrants into the core of its social, cultural, and political life.

The American model of race relations may not be applicable to societies that lack this country's long history as a destination for immigrants. But fundamental principles that undergird America's approach to civil rights – resolute enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, assimilation, integration, full citizenship – have enabled the United States to emerge from a profound social revolution as a stronger nation.

The most pressing racial problems – inequality, poverty, the condition of the inner-city poor – will clearly not be resolved through traditional civil rights strategies. Even its most ardent advocates acknowledge that affirmative action cannot work effectively as an antipoverty program. The ultimate test for America in the future lies in transforming the condition of the black poor.

How the United States is to meet this challenge is unclear. An interesting development in recent years has been the broadening of the debate over the causes of inequality and therefore the options for encouraging further black progress. The traditional liberal voices of civil rights advocacy have been joined by a new generation of black conservatives. On a policy level, conservatives have emphasized concepts like vouchers and school choice, by which children in failing inner-city schools are given the option of transferring to better-performing public schools or funds to help defray the cost of private-school tuition. Despite the concept's conservative pedigree, school choice has been embraced by a growing number of black parents who are frustrated with the state of public education in the cities. Liberals, by contrast, stress government initiatives to improve the public schools, arguing that school choice would benefit only a small minority of inner-city children.

Another set of critical voices has recently entered the discussion, consisting of prominent African Americans with generally liberal identifications who have become disturbed by the influence of popular culture on young blacks. Bill Cosby, the television personality, and Juan Williams, a prominent columnist and commentator, have been sharply critical of violent and misogynistic lyrics in hip-hop music, and of an inner-city youth culture that belittles the work ethic and success in school. They have also criticized African American political leaders for failing to speak out on the corrosive effects of current cultural trends.

The emergence of genuine intellectual diversity among those who will be shaping the debate over future strategies for achieving racial equality is something positive in itself. It offers hope that new methods for reducing poverty and inequality can be found, just as previous ideas that challenged the status quo once helped uproot the foundations of racism, legal discrimination, and second-class citizenship.

1 Civil Rights Act of 1964, Public Law 88-352, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (July 1964),

2 Voting Rights Act of 1965, U.S. Code 42, § 1973 – 1973aa-6, amended in 1970, 1975, 1982, 2006.

3 Civil Rights Act of 1968, title VIII (Fair Housing Act), U.S. Code 42, §§ 3601 et seq.,

4 Hate Crime Sentencing Enhancement Act, Public Law 103-322, title XXVIII, § 280003, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (September 1994).

5 U.S. Senate, "Section II: Pre-Existing Law and the Need for Expanded Jurisdiction," Senate Report 107-147: The Local Law Enforcement, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (May 2002),

6 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hate Crime Statistics 2004 (Washington, D.C.: November 2005),

7 Shaila Dewan, "Ex-Klan Figure in 1964 Killings Is Freed on Bond," New York Times, August 13, 2005.

8 Scott Marshall, "North Carolina Confronts Shameful History," People's Weekly World (National Edition), March 18, 2006.

9 Ibid.; Toonari, "Rosewood," AfricaOnline,

10 Erin Texeira, "Slavery Reparations Gaining Momentum," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 10, 2006.

11 Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Cheryl Hill Lee, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2004 (U.S. Census Bureau, August 2005), Table B-1, 46-51,

12 U.S. Census Bureau, "Employment Status of the Civilian Population: 1970 to 1998," Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1999, Table No. 651,

13 Hyon B. Shin, School Enrollment – Social and Economic Characteristics of Students: October 2003 (U.S. Census Bureau, May 2005), 7-9,

14 Ibid., 9.

15 National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2005 (U.S. Department of Education, June 2005), 146, 148,

16 Ibid., 150.

17 Ibid., 162.

18 Paige M. Harrison and Allen J. Beck, Prisoners in 2004 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, October 2005), 8,

19 John Iceland, Daniel H. Weinberg, Erika Steinmetz, Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation in the United States: 1980-2000 (U.S. Census Bureau, August 2002),

20 Douglas S. Massey, "The Race Case," American Prospect 14, no. 3 (2003),

21 National Fair Housing Alliance, "Unequal Opportunity: Perpetuating Housing Segregation in America," 2006 Fair Housing Trends Report (New York: 2006).

22 William H. Frey, Melting Pot Suburbs: A Census 2000 Study of Suburban Diversity (Washington, D.C.: Center on Urban & Metropolitan Policy, Brookings Institution, 2001),

23 For more information on Milliken v. Bradley, see:

24 For more information on the Civil Rights Restoration Act, see:

25 For more information on Adarand v. Pena, see:

26 For more information on Gratz v. Bollinger, see:

27 Mildred L. Amer, Black Members of the United States Congress: 1870-2005, Congressional Research Service,

28 Lydia Saad, "Americans Mostly Upbeat About Current Race Relations," Gallup Organization, news release, July 14, 2005,

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