In King's Wake

Forty years later, assessing a legacy of goals achieved and promises left unfulfilled

Racism less pervasive, more complex

April 04, 2008|By Michael Higginbotham

Forty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. The night before he died, the Nobel Peace Prize winner delivered a speech predicting the nation's future and his own demise. Dr. King prophesied that, while he likely would not live to see the day, he had no doubts that all Americans, including blacks, would some day "get to the promised land" of racial equality.

Four decades after Dr. King's death, Barack Obama, the U.S. Senate's only black member, may become America's first black president. This stirs powerful emotions. In a country with a long history of slavery and segregation, what a monumental moment in the American story.

That is why the cover of many major magazines feature variations on the question, "Does Barack Obama's Rise Mean the End of Racism?" The answer is not a short yes or no, but rather a long maybe. Whether racism ends in America depends upon what Americans do with this latest opportunity.

Many say Mr. Obama's success is insignificant. Some even suggest that his popularity with whites is a cynical ploy on their part to end, once and forever, any discussion of current racism. They are wrong. Mr. Obama's multiracial coalition demonstrates an eagerness for dialogue, a desire for change, and a sense of the possibilities of this moment.

Progress and setbacks in racial equality have occurred in a cyclical nature in American history. Three major opportunities for change presented themselves: the founding, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement. In each, racial progress was made, but setbacks followed due to continuing notions of white superiority. Mr. Obama's achievement, whether or not he wins the presidency in 2008, signifies a fourth era of opportunity.

This is not to suggest that Mr. Obama's success indicates the end of racism. Those who believe that are as wrong as those who say racism today is as bad as it was under Jim Crow. It does, however, indicate an opportunity to take the final step in a long journey. As Mr. Obama recognized in his momentous speech last month on America's racial divide, now is the time for the real conversation to begin.

No doubt, for many Americans the conversation will be uncomfortable. It must, however, take place if we are ever to realize those "self-evident truths" of equality identified more than 200 years ago by the Founding Fathers and reiterated in 1963 in Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Racial inequality today is much more complex than it was when Dr. King led protests against Jim Crow. Forty years ago, laws enshrined discrimination, and violence was used to maintain the divide. Today, what I call the ghosts of Jim Crow are caused by choices that result in housing isolation, inequitable school funding, criminal justice stereotyping, and health care service inadequacy that maintain inequality.

One ghost of Jim Crow is exemplified in the story of Tim Carter and Richard Thomas, arrested in 2004 in separate incidents three months apart in nearly the same location in St. Petersburg, Fla. Police found one rock of cocaine on Mr. Carter, who is white, and a crack pipe with cocaine residue on Mr. Thomas, who is black.

Both men claimed drug addictions, neither had any prior felony arrests or convictions, and both men potentially faced five years in prison. Mr. Carter had his prosecution withheld, and the judge sent him to drug rehabilitation. Mr. Thomas was prosecuted, convicted and went to prison. Their only apparent difference was race.

Harsher punishment for blacks is common, even today. Statistics indicate that nationally blacks are prosecuted and imprisoned at a rate more than five times that of whites.

Equally reflective of current racial disparities is the pattern of property ownership, and the fact that whites continue to embrace the "tipping point" notion in housing integration.

"Tipping point" bigotry inspired Jeremy Parady, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiracy to commit arson in a series of fires in a new housing development in Southern Maryland. Mr. Parady admitted that he set fire to this development because many of the buyers were blacks and the surrounding neighborhood was mostly white.

Much progress toward equality has been made; official government discrimination is rare, and blatant bigotry has been substantially reduced.

But racial disparities continue to haunt us decades after Dr. King's assassination, and racist choices continue to influence those disparities. These ghosts of Jim Crow must be eradicated if Dr. King's "Promised Land" prediction is ever to come true.

Michael Higginbotham, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore and New York University, is the author of "Race Law" and the forthcoming "Ghosts of Jim Crow."

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