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The Fragile State of Black Progress in America


With the election of Barack Obama, as the first Black President of the United States, there has been an open debate about whether this historic feat is the climax of the Black freedom struggle, minimizing the need for government to address issues of concern to Black people. Indeed, despite persistent disparities in income, employment, health, education and wealth between Blacks and Whites, with a Black President in the White House, there are a considerable number of people, including some in the Black community, who believe that race is no longer a major barrier to Black progress. A recent Poll in the New York Times revealed that Blacks and Whites feel more optimistic about race relations in the country. Blacks and Whites also expressed a new openness to communicating and associating with each other. The question is whether this optimism about race relations will translate into racial justice as it relates to finishing what might be termed the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda for Black people.

No one can deny that African Americans have made substantial progress in the last 50 years in shattering the walls of legal and defacto segregation and achieving meaningful breakthroughs in virtually every aspect of life in this country. With greater access to opportunity, the Black middle and upper classes have dramatically expanded. Blacks can be found at the highest levels of numerous professions, including heads of major U.S. corporations. Some of the most visible and high paid artists, athletes and entertainers are African Americans, and thousands of Blacks now hold public office from city council members, school board representatives to President of the United States. This "progress" is the direct result of generations of struggle which compelled a reluctant nation to re-dedicate itself to adhering to the principles of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution by enacting laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition, executive, legislative and judicial branches of government were persuaded to affirmatively utilize race-based remedies to overcome the devastating intergenerational impact of centuries of enslavement and apartheid. If it was determined that custom, practice, policy or law had a "disparate impact" or "discriminatory effect" on the life chances of Blacks, race-based remedies or targeted initiatives could be employed to ameliorate the impact or effect. It was in this spirit that a broad range of "affirmative action" measures were embraced to advance Black progress, from scholarships designated for minorities in education, set-asides for minority businesses and contractors to consent decrees that mandated processes which ensured greater minority hiring in public agencies like police and fire departments. Taken together these measures helped to produce greater opportunity and a better standard of living for growing numbers of African Americans.

However, while impressive, Black progress has always been fragile and insufficient, particularly as it relates to the working class and the poor. As Martin Luther King predicted, a "White backlash" developed which fueled resistance to the newly won gains of the Civil Rights/Black Power era. Capitalizing on White resentment, Republican conservatives seized the initiative to launch a major legislative and legal assault calculated to nullify or reverse these gains, arguing that Black progress was achieved by infringing on the rights of Whites. Nothing epitomized this assault on Black progress more than the rhetoric and policy initiatives of President Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who skillfully injected terms like "Black racism" and "reverse discrimination" into the political discourse of the time. Moreover, he cleverly suggested that welfare, food stamps, the War on Poverty and other social programs were essentially designed to help Blacks, thereby constituting an undue burden on White taxpayers. The "Reagan Revolution" was a counter-revolution which set the stage for the steady erosion of the legislative and legal foundations of Black progress. With the rise to hegemony of the conservatives in electoral politics, social programs which ameliorated the conditions of poor and working people of all races were drastically downsized or dismantled in the name of "reducing the burden of government" on the American people. And, with more conservatives on the Supreme Court and in the federal judiciary, race-based remedies, including virtually every form of affirmative action, have increasingly been ruled unconstitutional. Hence, tools that were once used to address current and longstanding Black inequality have been effectively shelved. 

Though structural racism remains the most plausible explanation for the kinds of disparities consistently documented by the National Urban League’s State of Black America Report, conservatives have been successful in persuading a majority of Americans that whatever problems exist in Black America are due to cultural defects and a lack of "personal responsibility." Accordingly, it follows that legislative action and judicial decisions should be "colorblind" or "race neutral" irrespective of data which indicates that race still matters in American society. At President Obama’s prime time news conference to mark his first 100 days in office, a BET reporter asked him whether targeted programs might be needed to address situations like the massive unemployment of Black and Latino men in New York City. The President refused to take the opportunity to embrace race-based remedies as a means of dealing with depression level employment in the Black community, indicating instead that the overall success of his Stimulus Program will be the rising tide that lifts all boats. What this suggests is that we have a Black President who may well have embraced the race-neutral approach of the conservatives. If this is true, then the fragile progress that Blacks have gained could be in danger even with a Black President in the White House. In that event, optimism about better race-relations will be irrelevant to the real issue of achieving racial equity, parity and justice!

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org  and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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