Discrimination not yet defeated

December 26, 2008|By Dennis D. Parker and Susan Goering

Barack Obama's election to this country's highest office powerfully shattered a centuries-old racial glass ceiling. But we must not be tricked into thinking that this inspiring milestone means we have dismantled all structures of racial discrimination in America, or that we can take a breather from the tireless fight for racial justice.

Fighting against individual acts of intentional discrimination is important, but the real cause of persistent segregation is institutional discrimination. In Maryland, racial bias was long explicit; institutions were segregated by state law. And Jim Crow had a strong grip, because the very institutions that determine how well we live our lives - the education, housing, employment and criminal justice systems - still bear the legacy of long-entrenched and intractable patterns of racially conscious decisions.

For instance, decades of institutional segregation in housing and education still trap children and families in inferior schools and under-resourced neighborhoods. Much current public housing was built as "Negro" housing - and is still occupied almost entirely by black families. And beginning in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration underwrote white flight to the suburbs, while redlining African-American families into the poorest, most segregated parts of cities. Though progress has been made - and Baltimore schools have even seen the beginnings of a reversal of white flight in recent years - upending decades of segregation and deprivation does not happen overnight.

Justice also requires eliminating the "school-to-prison pipeline," which prioritizes harsh discipline and incarceration, pushing far too many minority children out of the educational system altogether. Numerous studies from the past three decades reveal that students of color are consistently and disproportionately subjected to severe disciplinary procedures for less serious behavior than white students. Baltimore's school system has begun to address this problem institutionally by revising its discipline code to support student behavior changes and offer alternatives to suspension. But there is more to do.

We must take aim at our bloated criminal justice system, which continues to disproportionately police, prosecute and lock up people of color. Data from 2005 produced by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (but suppressed by the U.S. Department of Justice) show, for example, that nationwide, African-Americans are more likely to be stopped by police but are less likely to be found carrying contraband. In Baltimore, the American Civil Liberties Union is in court to end the pervasive and continuing practice of police officers' arresting without probable cause thousands of mostly African-Americans and then releasing them without charge.

Nationwide, 1.4 million African-American men are denied the fundamental right to vote because of felony convictions, even after paying their debt to society - a legacy of the post-Civil War era, when white Southerners scrambled to keep newly enfranchised African-Americans from voting. To its credit, the Maryland legislature repealed the state's lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions in 2007, restoring the right to vote to 52,000 citizens.

Institutional racism is a monument to Jim Crow that must be demolished brick by brick. And we must simultaneously use all the tools in the toolbox to pursue racial justice: the courts, the legislatures and grass-roots organizing. This past election season, that kind of effort warded off a systematic assault on equal opportunity programs. Affirmative action survived in many states, including Maryland, and will be one of many tools for continuing to open doors for women and people of color.

During his victory speech on election night, Mr. Obama said: "This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. ... America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do."

Assessing the state of racial justice in America goes far beyond determining whether a black man can become president. It requires us to identify and dismantle structures of racism and inequality, and empower all communities to demand full equality.

Dennis D. Parker is director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program. Susan Goering is executive director of the Maryland ACLU. Her e-mail is goering@aclu-md.org.

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