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Race in America: A More Perfect Union?

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In his eloquent remarks the other day about Trayvon Martin, President Barack Obama closed by noting that, although we have a long way to go before we resolve the issue of race in America, we have made progress. We are not yet, he said, a "perfect Union," but we have taken steps towards becoming a "more perfect Union."

We have, indeed, made progress since the days when white slavers transported shackled Africans in the dark hulls of slave ships to be sold as chattel to their new white owners. We have, indeed, made progress since the days when the white owners of our African slaves held virtually absolute power to buy, sell, whip and rape their property and when the Framers of our Constitution saw fit to count each one of them as three-fifths of a person. We have, indeed, made progress since the turn of the last century, when African Americans, especially but not exclusively in the South, were prevented from voting, segregated in separate and inferior "colored" train cars, schoolrooms and hospitals, denied the freedom to marry members of the "superior race," and lynched in the most brutal and horrifying manner. We have, indeed, made progress.

We owe that progress to the scores of courageous civil rights activists who put themselves in harm's way in order to fight for justice and equality; to individuals like Abraham Lincoln, Earl Warren, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson; and to pivotal legal turns like the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But even though, as President Obama observed, things are better for African Americans in our nation today than when he was the age of Trayvon Martin when he died, the moral crisis of racism remains an open wound.

We should not kid ourselves. Things have gotten better, but they are still shameful. Consider the following:

1. Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to live in poverty.

2. Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to be unemployed.

3. The median family income of black Americans is only 67 percent of that of white Americans.

4. The average white American family's net worth is 22 times greater than that of the average black American family.

5. The average white American family is 58 percent more likely to own a home than the average black American family.

6. Black American eighth graders are almost three times more likely to read below basic reading levels than white American eighth graders.

7. Black American students are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as white American students.

8. Black American college students are 42 percent less likely to graduate college in four years that white American college students.

9. Black American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white American males.

10. Black American criminal defendants are sentenced to death three times more often than white American defendants when the victim was white.

11. Black American criminal defendants are sentenced to 10 percent longer prison terms than white American criminal defendants for the same crime.

12. Black American drivers are three times more likely to be searched when they stopped for a traffic violation than white American drivers.

13. A white American is four times more likely to become a lawyer than a black American.

14. A white American is three times more likely to become a doctor than a black American.

15. The United States Senate includes 96 white Americans and 0 black Americans.

16. White Americans are almost twice as likely as black Americans to think that black Americans have made significant progress in recent years.

And in the face of all this, the conservative justices of the United States Supreme Court insist that affirmative action programs designed to provide black Americans with some semblance of equal opportunity in higher education and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are both unconstitutional because we have, after all, made progress.

We do not live in a post-racial society. We live in a fiercely and unremittingly racial society. This will change only when good, decent, fair-minded Americans take serious measures to address the underlying circumstances that create these sorrowful data.