There is no longer any significant barriers to opporunity for African Americans
It starts with ‘I have a Dream’. The famous speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr in 1963, the speech that called for the end of racial discrimination and societal equality for all. Many years later, we continue to ask ourselves the question as to whether or not we have done enough to fulfill that dream. Following this infamous speech, the United States saw the 1964 Civil rights act passed into law by President Johnson (Followed by executive orders 11246 and 11375).
It prevented further discrimination in the workplace, schools and publically owned facilities. This represented a major landmark in the civil rights movement for African Americans in particular, who had until then suffered heavy segregation from the white populace. Though this is arguably not a form of affirmative action, which entails the active compensation for victims of past societal and legal discrimination, it did highlight the issues regarding race to the wider populace of the country.
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Prior to the Civil rights act, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education that the discriminatory nature of the public education system was unconstitutional according to the equal protection clause of the XIVth amendment, and from then on set a judicial precedent against wider racial discrimination. In modern day America there is indeed an argument for the ‘recovery’ of previously racially abused minorities.
People such as President Barack Obama and Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas are examples of high-ranking government officials who defy the argument that African Americans lack opportunity in politics, especially when having a black president would have seemed to be nothing more than a crazy pipe dream a century ago. Affirmative action has also arguably increased the representation of minority groups in areas of commerce; in 1973 President Nixon signed Executive 11625 into law, which allowed the state to take affirmative action when considering supporting startup enterprises.
Now, in 2012 the US authorities claim that minority participation in business has increased by 31. 3% since 2000. Furthermore, in the 2003 court case Grutter v Bollinger the Supreme Court upheld the right of Michigan state University admissions (And therefore all public university admissions) to use affirmative action to benefit underrepresented groups. Indeed, the top Universities in the US admit to having broken previous records with an 11. 8% African-American intake of students (Which fairly represents the proportion of the population who are African Americans at around 12%).
This crucially goes a long way to addressing the problems with failed aspirations to success within the African-American community, by providing more entry points into becoming productive, equal members of society. One can therefore argue that atleast the previous days of institutionalised bias discriminating against African-Americans and denying them opportunities has largely been removed, especially in the all important sphere of education which ultimately equips individuals with the tools to become productive.
One also cannot ignore the controversy surrounding affirmative action and its apparent effects on promoting minority interests. Several prominent African-Americans, including Clarence Thomas, have openly argued that it is a flawed concept that ultimately devalues the achievements and potential of their race. They argue that by suggesting that a black person is ‘not good enough’ without affirmative action to assist them provides an artificial barrier that can affect the self-esteem and integrity of the individual, not to mention that it can be grossly offensive and racist as a concept in of itself.
It also creates friction between the white population and minorities not represented by affirmative action, sparking an increasing tension that leads people to ‘otherise’ (A sociological term for actively distinguishing an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ mentality), which only serves to reinforce underlying racist attitudes. One can also argue that, especially in urban areas with more cosmopolitan populaces, that discriminating on the basis of race is somewhat of a taboo (Though not to the extent that it is in Europe).
This means that, on the face of it, the societal prejudices and attitudes that originally were expressed as racist sentiment appear to have been largely been eradicated in the areas where the most wealth and opportunity is concentrated, America’s coastal cities. Many individuals have even sought out underprivileged black families in private to pay them ‘reparations’ for past misdeeds. But conversely, one can argue that the effects of racism and discrimination can still be felt, and that more should be done to address them.
The role of the state can’t be ignored here, and some feel that Affirmative action still has not gone far enough to redress the imbalance of wealth and power in society. Only 46% of African-Americans are likely to ever own a home in their lifetime, up by only around 10% since 1994, compared with the 75% likelihood for a white individual. The average salary for an African-American is ~$30,000 p/a, compared with the ~$49,000 p/a of the average white.
Perhaps the most shocking statistic of them all is that on average, one in three black males will be imprisoned in their lifetime and that 40% of them make up the Prison population. The US penal system has arguably not been corrected of institutional bias as a whole, citing the recent example of the Trayvon Martin case which has attracted national attention and is still subject to ongoing investigation, despite 2 other similar cases where the racial roles were reversed passing through state courts quietly and in a matter of weeks.
Other potential roadblocks include the psychological impact of the socio-economic status of the African-American community. Though the evidence is still in dispute, many argue that there is an inherent lack of aspiration in the black community caused by a sociological ‘spiral’, parents that had been effected by discrimination in the past pass their influences onto their children who perceive the rest of society as equally against them, leading to a backlash and further ‘ghettoisation’ of African-american communities.
Indeed, a recent study by UNU-WIDER showed that black youths on the street were three times more likely to be stop-searched by police officers, which can only contribute to the feeling of active oppression on the part of the young African-American populace, which will in turn affect the next generation. This is further compounded by what some psychologists call ‘talking white’ and ‘acting white’, where an African-American has to essentially adapt themselves, their mannerisms and their personal culture to fit what society deems to be acceptable.
Barack Obama has been criticised by individuals like Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader as somebody who has lost his identity as a black, instead adopting the language and personality of a white man. Though it might seem to be an inherently hypocritical thing to argue, that there is such a thing as ‘acting white’ and ‘acting black’, one cannot underestimate the effect that it would have on other cultures.
If in order to succeed and gain wealth in society one must first act in a certain manner that does not befit the normative cultural identity of the individual, then that is a form of psychological oppression that can act as a barrier to opportunity for many. Elocution, grooming, diet and many other examples contribute to this phenomenon of oppositional culture. To argue that there are ‘no significant barriers to opportunity for African Americans’ is, in my view, misguided.
Yes, a great deal of legal, judicial and executive power has been spent on defeating open discrimination and has even gone a long way to eradicating stereotyping and negative societal attitudes. However, many areas of the public space are still dominated by a stark inequality; the gulf in criminalisation rates alone demonstrates both an ingrained bias within the justice system aswell as an inherent sociological issue that prevents many African-Americans from realising themselves as productive members of society.