“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair” declared Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 250,000 thousand civil rights protesters over the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. During the time of this speech, centuries-long racial injustices deeply woven into the fabric of American society were finally being dismantled through a spectacular series of organized demonstrations that inspired millions and pressured governments to implement long-overdue change. Despite the horrific level of violence peaceful sit-ins and marches were met with, participants of these demonstrations displayed a remarkable commitment to their just cause, which has further broadened the limits of human courageousness. The inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. would end up ringing past the grand monuments of Washington D.C. and into the depths of history, where the next generation of young children and adults would become inspired by the courage of the civil rights activists who, through collective, organized action, molded a brighter future. Although the unstoppable force of innate human morality has slowly sculpted a more equitable world throughout history, African Americans still experience unacceptable levels of discrimination in housing, education, workplaces, and most notably, the criminal justice system.
From the horrors of slavery and of red-lining, to the bigoted practices of private megabanks, African Americans have always faced discrimination in housing which has kept them trapped in poverty for decades. The historical context of government-sponsored racial discrimination in housing is no secret to many Americans given the documentation of what Martin Luther King Jr. famously called “unjust laws” such as redlining during the 1930s as they were inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. The explicit racial segregation of the 1930s segregated African Americans into low-income communities that were haunted by poverty, crime, and pollution. Today, previously redlined communities are still subject to much lower standards of living and higher disease rates. Many on the right side of the political spectrum argue that this form of segregation has since been outlawed and is now simply a thing of the past, but narrowing the definition of systemic racism down to just government-sponsored discrimination is simply wrong and misleading. There is convincing evidence that the practice of racial discrimination in housing has largely manifested itself into the private sector, which seeks to profit from existing racial disparities. In 2011, Bank of America, the 8th largest bank in the world, agreed to pay $335 million to settle federal claims that its Countrywide Financial unit charged black and Hispanic borrowers higher mortgage fees and steered them into riskier loans than their white counterparts. The ruling truly demonstrates the severity of existing discrimination today, as the American judicial system is not particularly known for being a left-leaning institution, especially in economic affairs. Although the settlement amount is mere pennies for the enormous Bank of America that manages trillions of dollars in assets, the case sends a stronger message by demonstrating that housing discrimination still exists today by the hands of private megabanks that still enormously benefit from deceiving their most vulnerable customers. Unfortunately, housing discrimination also bleeds into educational discrimination, which further widens existing racial disparities already present within America.
As a result of America’s school funding program, prejudice in other sectors of society spill over into educational facilities as well. In most states, school district funding is determined almost entirely by property taxes, which leaves poorer, predominantly minority neighborhoods, worse off than their wealthier white counterparts. It is universally accepted amongst psychologists that the earliest years of childhood are the most important for human development, which heightens the importance of good schools as it proves that quality K-12 education is crucial in keeping children on the right track towards success. Another important aspect of quality K-12 education is that it funnels children towards a higher education which can help alleviate many of the socio-economic issues African Americans face. It is the consensus amongst economists that the United States economy is shifting away from low-skill jobs that were once largely in manufacturing and more towards higher-skilled jobs in innovation such as engineering, which means affordable access to higher education is almost necessary for gaining access to good-paying jobs that could pull millions out of poverty. Increasingly expensive college tuition has kept people of color from attending higher education and those that do end up going are more likely to fall victim to predatory student loans which can drive poorer students deeper into poverty. From both a moral and economic standpoint, free college tuition for at least the middle and lower class is a great idea that can deliver the amazing financial and existential benefits of a higher education for the younger generations to come. Education is certainly the gateway to a brighter future, but its inaccessibility is not the only thing holding African Americans away from racial equality.
Even if an African American is able to jump over all of the high financial hurdles of both housing and educational discrimination, workplace discrimination serves as yet another devastating challenge in the race to success and prosperity for people of color. One study has proven that white job applicants needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback while black job applicants needed to send around 15, which essentially means that having a common white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience. As if the barriers African Americans must face in order to obtain an education and build a quality resume weren’t enough, racial biases automatically deduct from all of the other, more important aspects of their entire resume when they are looking for a job. This is not even mentioning the discrimination and microaggressions African Americans and other minority groups face at the workplace itself that can often manifest itself in the form of lower wages, fewer promotions, and even unchecked physical or emotional abuse from coworkers or bosses. Workplace discrimination is difficult to end because it is deeply woven with the culture of American society and is mostly committed within the private sector, but a good first step would be to pick some low-hanging fruit and provide governmental support in other areas where discrimination is widely prevalent such as in education or the criminal justice system. This will fix many of the economic and cultural barriers African Americans face and help remove many of the racial biases employers hold against their employees or applicants.
Finally, the most prevalent issue for African Americans is the racist criminal justice that has been infamous for its abuse towards people of color from the unsanitary, overcrowded prisons down to the individual police officers. The United States has a prison population disproportionately made up of people of color and over a quarter of all prisoners serving time for non-violent, lower-level offenses would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation. America’s seemingly intentional failure to rehabilitate prisoners has kept African American communities under the debilitating thumb of crime for decades. High crime would then be used to justify over-policing minority neighborhoods, perpetuating a cycle of mass incarceration that often worsens the same crime it aims to reduce. This discriminatory, unjust system also contributes to many peoples’ conscious or unconscious racist perceptions of African Americans that cause an incalculable amount of cultural and societal harm.
There is hope over this mountain of despair. The fight for a more equitable American society is one that has been fought successfully for centuries. Less than a century ago, African Americans were treated as second-class citizens through the iniquity of segregation, and a century before that they were bought and sold as property. Whether it be long or short, systemic change is often a painful process and there will always be those who will try to resist it, attempting to preserve the diminishing inequalities of the past. What truly matters is the scale and the amount of effort put together towards movements for change. History has demonstrated that all progressive social change is coupled with the unbreakable courage of ordinary people. Despite the existing inequalities African Americans face in almost every aspect of their lives, I have full faith that humanity’s innate sense of morality coupled with courage will slowly, but surely, force positive change that will lead to a more equitable society. From the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter protests today, change always begins from the bottom up and is guided by the elementary principles of morality built into every one of us.
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