Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Baltimore-born Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights lawyer and first black Supreme Court justice who was instrumental in ending Jim Crow segregation. His representation of schoolgirl Linda Brown resulted in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which ended separation practiced in a wide variety of public facilities and institutions.
Yet Marshall sought more than just desegregation. Explaining his vision, Marshall proclaimed that "a child born to a black mother in a state like Mississippi … has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States."
"It's not true," he continued, "but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for."
Through numerous legal challenges, Marshall ensured that the laws mandating racial division were destroyed. At his death, the anti-discrimination proposals he championed had become an integral part of American law.
However, even as we celebrate the second inauguration this week of the nation's first African-American president, Justice Marshall's goal of equal opportunity for racial minorities proves elusive.
Socioeconomic disparities between blacks and whites are still alarming. Blacks are twice as likely to be poor or homeless, and more than twice as likely to be incarcerated. Blacks accumulate wealth at one-twentieth the rate of whites. The median wealth (assets minus debts) of black households is one-twentieth of that of white households. In the last few years, the gap has only widened.
Racial inequality today is much more complex than it was when Marshall argued cases. Sixty years ago, laws imposed discrimination on racial minorities, and violence was used to maintain the divide. Today, what I call the "ghosts of Jim Crow" are individual and societal choices that result in housing and social isolation, education inequity, reduced political power and increased economic hardship for blacks.
One such ghost is evident in employment disparities. Unemployment among blacks consistently remains twice that of whites. In difficult economic times, black women are hit particularly hard: In the recent recession, the percentage of jobs lost by black women was higher than any other group."
Bari-Ellen Roberts understands this phenomenon all too well. A black woman employed as a senior financial analyst at Texaco in the 1990s, she was denied opportunities for professional advancement by supervisors. Ms. Roberts, who sued in a class-action discrimination suit, wrote about her experiences in "Roberts Vs. Texaco: A True Story of Race and Corporate America."
Another ghost of Jim Crow was found in a Philadelphia suburb. To generate additional revenue, the Valley Swim Club allowed local day camps access for a fee. A Philadelphia-based camp that provides activities for 50 black children, in July 2009 paid $1,950 so the children could use the pool once a week.
News reports at the time indicated that, when the black children showed up on the first day to swim, the white children in the pool immediately exited the water — and that a white parent was heard to say, "What are all these black kids doing here?" A club attendant asked all of the black children to leave, which they did, some of them in tears. Refunding the payment, the president of the Valley Swim Club said the reason for the cancellation was "concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … of the club."
Another example of continuing racial discrimination is in the administration of the death penalty — black defendants with white victims are the most likely to be executed. This became all too evident on Sept. 21, 2011, when the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a black man, for the murder of a white, off-duty police officer. Mr. Davis was executed despite the fact that evidence of witness coercion, intimidation and fabrication of testimony by police had raised serious doubt as to his guilt. Just as in the Jim Crow era, a black person can still be executed in America even when his guilt is in question.
Six decades after Marshall announced his equal opportunity vision, and two decades after his death, a post-racial America still doesn't exist. As Colin Powell recently said, there is an "intolerance" on the part of some Americans that involves "looking down on minorities."
These ghosts of Jim Crow must end if Marshall's goal of equality is ever to be achieved.
Michael Higginbotham, a professor of law at the University of Baltimore, is the author of "Race Law" and the forthcoming "Ghosts of Jim Crow." His email is Higginbotham@ubalt.edu.