Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Bertha Lewis Headshot

Sound the Alarm -- It's Been a 50-Year Dream

Posted: Updated:
Print

Today, we celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke the words, "I Have a Dream," that embodied not just the hope of a race, but of a nation. He had a vision, a hope, an ambition, that one day his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." 50 years later we celebrate the strides we have made and the courage it took to get us here. However, we cannot let our success belie the lingering divisions in our society. We have traveled on the path towards an equal America, but much of the journey still lies ahead.

Three pieces of legislation encapsulate the progress people of color have made since the March: 1) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 2) the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and 3) the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the passage of these laws has contributed greatly to the advancement of black rights on paper, they are also used to conceal the racial attitudes and institutional discrimination that persist. In the first decade following the March, remarkable progress seemed to be taking place. But fast forward 40 years, and Americans' mindsets have remained largely unchanged.

The Civil Rights Act may have barred state-sanctioned racial segregation in public schools, but today blacks and whites still experience unequal learning experiences and opportunities. In fact, the gap between those who receive a quality education versus those who do not is widening. Fifteen years ago, about one in every five Texas public schools was comprised of at least 90 percent or more minority students, according to Texas Education Agency data. Now that figure has increased to one in three schools, which is a stark illustration of the trend of "resegregation" that communities have experienced across America.

Decades after white people began moving in significant numbers from cities to suburbs, our nation still has not established a way to effectively integrate our learning institutions. Several factors perpetuate the disparity between educational opportunities available to blacks versus whites. The lack of resources for schools in poorer areas, the deficiency of ways to measure a school's success, and inadequate efforts to encourage students to stay in school all contribute to this burgeoning inequity. As the gap widens between those who receive superior educations and those who are denied it, our nation becomes more and more entrenched in a tragic cycle. In 2010, black students had a graduation rate of 66.1 percent, while white students were at 83 percent, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report. It is 50 years after one of the biggest rallies for human rights in history, and the need to overcome this unfortunate cycle is urgent now more than ever. By working to develop strategies that will improve the conditions and reputations of our public schools, we can eliminate the educational differences that are so often seen between whites and blacks today.

Just as discriminatory practices permeate our educational system, they permeate our public safety system, as well. Racial profiling is at an all-time high in New York City, specifically resulting from stop-and-frisk practices by police officers. For almost a decade, authorities have stopped a disproportionate number of minorities compared to whites. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, from 2002 to 2011, black and Latino New Yorkers comprised close to 90 percent of people stopped. About 88 percent of those stopped were innocent residents, and the NYPD's regular stops of people of color cause them to mistrust authorities and fear for their lives every day.

When police officers, the vanguard of justice in a civil society, systematically target specific people based on the color of their skin, it sends a message to the general public. It tells them that their assumptions are justified. It validates their racial prejudices and thus encourages racist attitudes.

When George Zimmerman was acquitted on all charges in June, black kids everywhere were told that the color of their skin by itself makes them potential threats to society. In America today, 50 years after the March on Washington, whites have the right to apprehend any person of color and if they are met with any resistance, whites have the right to kill that person with complete impunity.

Furthermore, how could our highest court declare that a key provision in the landmark Voting Rights Act, passed with the intention of eliminating discriminatory customs at the polls, is unconstitutional? The answer again goes back to race. On June 25, when the Supreme Court determined invalid the formula that Congress was using to establish which states and counties were subject to oversight in order to ensure their compliance with the Act, it dealt an incredible blow to black communities across America. Re-establishing the obstacles that restrict a population from exercising their inalienable right to vote is not the way to accomplish equality. And reversing civil rights legislation certainly is not the way, either. Thirty-one states require voters to show identification at the polls, and 25 percent of blacks do not even possess a picture ID; these numbers will inevitably increase in the wake of this decision. States that have been itching to reinstate their segregation practices have just gotten permission to do so. Even though historic civil rights legislation was passed half a century ago, it is clear that Americans' opinions have yet to shift.

The economic and social inequalities that exist in this nation between whites and blacks are products of our leaders' reluctance to pass unprecedented legislation. They need to stop being concerned about re-election or maintaining their constituents' loyalties. Instead, they should start considering what will truly make a difference in their communities and in this nation. Policy needs to become aggressive. We will sound the alarm every day of the next 50 years if we have to -- Dr. King had a dream, and we will fulfill it.