This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.
Dear Survivors of the Emancipation:
I write full of hope that change has finally come.
The first African-American president, Barack Obama, has just been reelected to his second term in office. Despite four years of unrelenting obstruction and recalcitrant by the modern-day Republican Party, a strong coalition of African-American voters were joined by Asian Americans, Hispanics, progressive whites and independents to choose action over apathy. The America we inherited from you is a rainbow of opportunity, choice and cooperation. Gone are the days when women were second-class citizens. Dead are the days when Blacks had no voice. Race is no longer a defining limitation in how we choose to love, marry or serve our country. We are the future we've been waiting.
But as you may have wisely anticipated, the struggle for equality continues.
After 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was codified into law, there are more African-American males in prison, or under the authority of the criminal justice system, than were enslaved in 1850.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 846,000 black males were incarcerated in 2008 -- making up 40.2 percent of the total prison population. African-Americans accounted for a mere 13.6 percent of the U.S. population in the same year. Professor Michelle Alexander highlighted this racially disparate phenomenon in her book The New Jim Crow: Colorblindness in the Age of Mass Incarceration, in which she points out that more African-American men were disenfranchised of their right to vote in 2004 -- due to felony convictions -- than were denied that right in 1870, "the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race".
The American Dream remains elusive to far too many.
Young Black and Latino males are stopped, harassed and frisked by police officers in major cities as if it were as a right of passage. African-American teenagers are eight times more likely to die from gun violence than white teenagers. And despite conservatives seeking to disregard urban crimes as gang-related, or outside the mainstream, white males commit the vast majority of violent crime and gun crimes in particular -- but African-American males are more likely to be the victims of such crimes or be arrested.
The names of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Kendrec McDade, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo are just a few whose ghosts remind us that even the innocent and unarmed become targets for their brown skin alone. Skittles and iced tea, wallets and loud music are used as justifications for murder of our sons, brothers, cousins and friends. African-American youth are gunned down, inexplicably, in the manicured gardens of Sanford, Fla., or on the concrete street corners of New York.
The Children's Defense Fund found that African-American children represent 15 percent of the U.S. children's population, but 45 percent of all gun deaths in their age group in 2008/2009. And Black children are less likely to be raised in a home by both parents, than a child born into slavery in the 1860s, and, partly as a result, more likely to grow up in poverty.
These statistical truths are often told and retold for divergent political ends. I repeat them here not that you may remember the worst, but that you might forget it. For in your time, African-Americans were counted three-fifths of a person. Today we govern the Oval Office. Our community alone concentrates more wealth than some of the world's richest countries. If Black Americans were a nation, they'd be the 16th wealthiest in the world. A recent study found that 44 percent of African American men and 53 percent of women were college-educated or earning a degree. Though 20 percent of us may struggle below the poverty line, 80 percent are thriving, educating ourselves and conquering the world in ways unimaginable to you.
In the words of Maya Angelou, we are the hope and dream of the slave. We do not bear this legacy lightly, nor do we easily forget how far we've come.
We remain full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, and full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on AlJazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.