Now, nearly a half century later, there are big questions about just how far we have come to meet those high hopes, particularly in the economic arena. Yes, there has been progress, but for many minority citizens the advances have been painfully slow.
This has been brought home dramatically in a new study to be released by the National Urban League on The State of Black America 2004. The League has compiled an "Equality Index" which provides a statistical measurement of the disparities which exist between African American and whites in economics, housing, education, social justice and civic engagement.
The League describes its index in this manner: "Over 216 years ago, the authors of the U. S. Constitution counted, for tax purposes, enslaved African Americans as 3/5 or 60 percent of a white citizen. According to the total of the 2004 Index, the status of African Americans is 73 percent when compared to the conditions of their white counterparts."
The League's study found a high level of discouragement among African American citizens about the lack of progress. Fifty-four percent feel that things will "remain the same" or "get worse." Forty percent of the African American respondents to the League's survey feel "very little or no improvement" has been achieved in essential indicators for economic and social mobility.
Among the statistics noted by the study were:
* Fewer than 50 percent of black families own their homes versus 70 percent for whites. Blacks are denied mortgages and home improvement loans at twice the rate of whites.
* On average, blacks are twice as likely to die from disease, accident, and homicide at every stage of life, with life expectancy for Blacks at 72 years versus 78 years for whites. On education, teachers with less than three years experience teach in minority schools at twice the rate of those who teach in white schools. For every ten whites who graduate with a college degree, only 6.3 blacks do. The 2000 census found that 91.8 percent of white students graduated from high school compared with 83.7 percent of black students.
* Citing the disparity in social justice and equality before the law, the Urban League found that a black person's average jail sentence is six months longer than that of whites charged with the same crime. It also found that blacks who are arrested are more than three times as likely to be imprisoned than whites.
Much of the Urban League's findings are supported by statistics published regularly by the federal government which are rarely noted by the media and even less by the Congress or the Bush Administration.
There is no more dramatic evidence of the economic disparities than in the monthly employment figures published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the national unemployment figures stood at 5.6 percent last month, the racial breakdown of the figures is startling-and disheartening.
For white workers, the unemployment was at 4.9 percent, but for African Americans the figure stood at 9.8 percent in February and hovered between 10 to 11 percent through most of 2003. Imagine the outcry-the demands for action-if 11 percent of the white work force was without jobs.
Many of the sub prime-predatory lending scams are aimed at African American homeowners. Particularly pernicious have been refinancing schemes which carry high fees, high interest rates and balloon payments. Many of these predatory practices have forced African American families into foreclosures and bankruptcy. A study conducted by ACORN, a grassroots community organization, found that 51 percent of the sub prime refinancing was in African American neighborhoods and only nine percent in white communities.
African Americans are 500 percent more likely than whites to find themselves in bankruptcy. And what is Congress doing about it? It is actively pushing for a punitive bankruptcy law, sought by car dealers, credit car companies, banks, finance and mortgage companies. If successful, many borrowers will be forced into virtual debtors' prisons for life without a second chance to resume their lives as productive citizens. As the surveys have shown this will fall inordinately on African-American citizens.
As the National Urban League points out, 2004 marks two important anniversaries for the civil rights movement. It is the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education and the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
It is time for the nation to live up fully to the promises and hopes of these landmark efforts. Progress has been too slow and too uneven. We can do better and we can do better faster. Basic human rights are not something to be postponed.
Ralph Nader is running for President of the US as an Independent. He is America’s leading consumer advocate and founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). He can be reached through www.votenader.org.
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