By Sam Fraser, Managing Editor-in-Chief
In late August of this year, NBC News online published a story headlined “Ferguson’s Hard Truth: Obama Hasn’t Ended America’s Racial Divide.” Today, with the non-indictments of the officers involved in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and the resulting anger seemingly tearing at our nation’s social fabric, this statement seems laughably absurd.
With the persisting reality of racial inequality in America, it is hard to believe that many people once believed we could vote race away in a single presidential election. Back in 2008, however, the hope coming out of Barack Obama’s election was real and tangible. The Washington Post, shortly after the Obama victory, published a cartoon suggesting that with Obama’s election, the United States was finally living up to the ideal of equality put forth in the Declaration of Independence. This sentiment was echoed across America, and many saw the election of the first black president as the culmination of a multi-century struggle for the equality of African Americans.
However, as is the fate of so many campaign promises, the promise of racial equality faded into the background as President Obama’s first term progressed.
The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, along with the numerous others who suffered similar fates, have served to highlight persisting racial disparities.
Statistics from the 2010 Census prove just how grim racial inequality still is. About 27 percent of black people were living below the poverty line, compared to 10 percent of whites. This year, the Pew Research Center released further data showing that the ratio of white to black wealth had grown to 13:1, a 24-year high. Between 2010 and 2013, the median wealth of white households grew by a modest 2.4 percent. In that same time, the median wealth of black households decreased by a shocking 33 percent.
In recent years, the mass incarceration of young African American men has also increased. While African Americans constitute only about 13 percent of the US population, they make up 44 percent of the US’s massive prison population of about 2.3 million people. In addition, while 5 times as many white people report using drugs as black people, black people are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of caucasians.
There is also a great gap in education. In 2012, 40 percent of Americans had a college degree. Comparably, only about 23 percent of African Americans possessed a degree, despite affirmative action and diversity-promoting policies at most of the nation’s universities.
This begs the simple question: why? The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s sought to bring legal equality to African Americans, and clearly was a momentous step forward. However, recent events, as well as statistical trends showing how our justice system unfairly targets minority and poor communities have called the extent of this progress into question.
The fight for equality, though, long predates the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1900’s, two competing ideas existed over how blacks would achieve equality. One, championed by sociologist, writer and Harvard graduate W.E.B. DuBois placed hope in a “talented tenth” an African American elite that DuBois believed could rise to prominence in American society and pave the way for equality.
The other school of thought was led by Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and became a prominent voice early in the fight for black equality. While he has been criticized both by his contemporaries and in hindsight for his willingness to delay political and social equality, his basic thesis was that these goals could be achieved for African Americans if they first attained relative economic equality with their white counterparts.
A casual observation of today’s society suggests that DuBois’ vision has, to an extent, come true. One could safely estimate that at least a tenth of the black population has reached a visible degree of eminence in our society, be they our president, senators and congressman, or scientists, entertainers, athletes, professionals and intellectuals.
And yet, this has not had the effect DuBois believed it would. Political and social equality supposedly were achieved by the democratic process over half a century ago, and yet they have yet to truly take hold across the entirety of the African American population. It is undeniable that DuBois’ modern elite live markedly different lives from the majority of black people in America. To see this, you only need to watch President Obama address black voters–adopting more colloquial African American speech to better relate to his own demographic.
With the perplexing specter of racial disparity looming heavily over our society, we should look back to the foundation of Washington’s ideas–that racial inequality can be defeated by fostering economic equality.
It has long since been clear that when offered the same environment and opportunities, white and black people will succeed at roughly the same rate. Therefore the only conclusion that can be drawn from today’s disparities is that for most of our nation’s black population, the opportunities are simply not there.
Since the top-down approach to equality has failed, it is time for us to change course, and build equality from the ground up. As both Washington and DuBois recognized, this starts with education.
It is no secret that our public education system, nationally, is failing. Furthermore, it is undeniable that the quality of individual public schools is directly commensurate to the wealth of the area they are located in.
This flies in the face of everything public school is supposed to be. Public schools should be our nation’s great equalizer, ensuring to the greatest extent possible that all Americans are given the opportunity to succeed. Instead they are an engine of inequality, and a primary perpetuator of the crippling poverty cycle that has prevented racial equality from becoming a reality.
The Constitution predates public education, thus the power to preside over education is left mostly to the states. The states have failed, however, and this problem has become too big to be dealt with on a state-by-state basis.
If we want to truly become the post-racial society we claim to strive for, we will need hard work and bipartisan leadership. The time has come for someone to take charge of, rebuild and re-energize our public education system at the national level. First, we as a nation must demand action–and this is where movements like #blacklivesmatter should focus their attention. Then the impetus will be on our leaders to prove themselves worthy of this label, and deliver our nation’s two century-old promise of equality once and for all.
Until then, we remain a house divided.
Opinion stories reflect the views of the writer and are independent of the Acalanes Blueprint and the school itself. Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org