Promises unfulfilled

May 11, 2004|By Ryan Paul Haygood

IN RECOGNITION of the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown vs. Board of Education on May 17, 1954, I recently discussed Brown's legacy with seventh-grade students at Bragaw Avenue School in Newark, N.J.

As I stood in front of a classroom of inquisitive and sharp black and brown children, I knew that many would become victims of the unfulfilled promises of Brown.

I explained to the students that the Supreme Court's landmark decision not only ended legally enforced segregation in the public schools but also overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine that segregated all aspects of American society.

Brown also breathed life into a movement that gave birth to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which helped to dismantle American apartheid in various arenas beyond education, including employment, housing and voting.

In the area of voting, for example, Brown led to the creation of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, which were the first pieces of modern legislation designed to enforce the rights secured for blacks by the 14th and 15th amendments.

Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil rights movement, removed many barriers that prevented blacks from voting and enabled non-English-speaking Americans to vote.

Despite the promise of increased political participation by blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities created by these statutes, their potential, like that of Brown, has not been fully realized.

By stopping short of our nation's prison walls, the Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Act did not reach the last excluded segment of our society: citizens behind bars.

The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focusing on criminal justice issues, recently reported that 50 years after Brown, there are nine times as many blacks in prison or in jail as in 1954. In other words, nearly 900,000 blacks are incarcerated today compared with the 98,000 in prison or in jail the day Brown was decided.

Today, with 2.1 million Americans incarcerated, the effects of our nation's reliance on mass incarceration as a primary means of control in the era of the "war on drugs" is more profound than ever. One prominent effect is state statutes that disenfranchise people convicted of a felony.

Reform of incarceration laws is overdue.

For one thing, many felon disfranchisement statutes trace their roots to the discriminatory objective of prohibiting blacks from voting. The historical record reveals that legislators in the North and South would first articulate their beliefs that blacks were biologically inferior and unfit for political participation, and then argue in favor of disfranchisement.

Second, apart from the discriminatory intent of these statutes, their modern-day effect disproportionately weakens the voting power of selective and racially disparate black and Latino communities. This effect results largely from the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in black and Latino communities, which has expanded exponentially the class of people subject to disfranchisement.

The felon disfranchisement phenomenon is most destructive in black and Latino communities, which are often disproportionately plagued with numerous socioeconomic ills - including concentrated poverty and substandard housing and health care. As a result, people in these communities have even less opportunity to effect positive change through the political process.

Tragically, more than a century after emancipation, 50 years after Brown and nearly 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, increasing numbers of blacks and Latinos nationwide are actually losing their voting rights daily.

Today, there are new frontiers for the expansion of civil rights, and old battles that remain unfinished.

Bragaw's student body is essentially as racially segregated as many schools were in 1954 - the student population is 98 percent black and 2 percent Latino. Despite the efforts of many outstanding teachers, only four students out of 10 in Newark will graduate from high school. The real-world conditions that Bragaw's students face make it likely that too many more black and brown citizens' voices will fall silent.

In the spirit of Brown's legacy and in the interest of participatory democracy, it is time for the United States to break down the walls that lock citizens out of the political process.

Fifty years after Brown, we have important promises to keep and still others to make.

Ryan Paul Haygood is an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune

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