Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 Census, African Americans make up 12.6 per cent (38.9 million) of the US population with an additional 3.1 million (1 per cent) identifying as African American in combination with one or more other race – combined, this comes to around 13.6 per cent (42 million) of the population, the second largest minority in the country (after Latinos). Once called Negroes and now called black Americans or (in solidarity with other non-white minorities around the world) ‘people of colour’, they are mainly descendants of slaves brought from Africa between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
With their history of forced immigration to the United States (US), African Americans were de-cultured and dehumanized, their misery treated as ‘natural’ and benign. Today, they are an important minority in a nation with a singular degree of world influence. Much of the country’s vitality, especially its contemporary cultural life, can be credited to African Americans, but racism remains a definitive and stark reality. A critical aspect of the racism that African Americans face is a continuing geographic segregation in many parts of the US, a legacy of ‘Jim Crow’ laws enacted in the South after the Civil War, as well as discriminatory attitudes right across the country including the so-called ‘white flight’ from urban areas to suburbs after the Second World War.
Besides the traditional African-American community, the US has been home in recent years to an increasing number of other black immigrants. Some come from war-torn African nations like Somalia; others, seeking economic improvement, come from Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Guyana and other Caribbean nations.
Much of the African-American population is urban and they make up the majority of the population in cities such as Detroit, New Orleans and Washington DC.
Black people arrived with British and Dutch settlers in the early colonial period, and officially enjoyed equal rights with whites, although impoverished blacks and whites alike were subject to indentured servitude. Soon, however, seafaring entrepreneurs imported African slaves in large numbers as labourers, and by the 1670s statutes enforcing slavery were adopted by each of the Thirteen Colonies.
Although slavery was instituted mostly for economic reasons, racist beliefs became entrenched as slavery and African Americans became linked in the white colonial mind. During the Revolutionary War, both slaves and free blacks fought for the Colonies, but the subsequent 1787 Constitution included three clauses reinforcing slavery. Blacks were designated as property and counted as ‘three-fifths of a person’. All told, slavery was an important part of the US economy for more than two centuries, despite slave revolts, an elaborate ‘underground railroad’ network for escaped slaves, and consistent protest from white and black abolitionists.
Abolition of slavery
Between 1777 and 1804, each of the northern states responded to changing moralities and urban labour shortages by abolishing slavery. But in the south, slaves were key to the enormous plantation system. The issue became part of the growing North-South antipathy that culminated in the mid-nineteenth-century civil war. Towards the end of the war, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in most states.
During the ‘Reconstruction’ period after the civil war, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution finally guaranteed African Americans the rights of freedom and full citizenship, including the vote. Soon, African Americans were elected to Congress, were admitted to schools and began to integrate and even intermarry with whites. The first Civil Rights Act passed in 1875, guaranteed access to public facilities and accommodation without regard to race, colour or previous servitude.
The optimism of the time did not last long. White bigots in many states bent the rules to restrict voting rights, and enforced segregation through fear and intimidation. From 1883 to 1952, ‘lynchings’ (mob executions) of African Americans were reported every year, often with tacit official approval. This period also saw the advent of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many of which persist to this day. At the same time, state and federal courts were forging the ‘Jim Crow’ system (named after an archetypal figure in the African American minstrel tradition), an apartheid doctrine in which blacks and whites were described as ‘separate but equal’. In 1883, the Civil Rights Act was deemed unconstitutional, and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the separate-but-equal rule in Plessey v. Ferguson.
Riots and protest did little to stem the tide, and the African-American condition did not improve visibly in the first half of the twentieth century. However, many African-American musicians, artists and poets came to prominence in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1930s, and black athletes began to break colour bars in the Olympics and professional team sports. The African-American community was developing autonomous institutions like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, in 1901), the National Urban League (1911) and Caribbean-born Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted black self-determination and the idea that blacks should go ‘back to Africa’, culturally or even physically (1920s). African-American colleges and universities became popular. The Supreme Court slowly eroded the bases of Jim Crow, deciding one by one against state laws that segregated interstate bus travel, housing and neighbourhoods, or withheld voting rights.
The watershed Supreme Court ruling for African-American civil rights came in 1954. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and that ‘separate’ was inherently unequal. The main legal plank of Jim Crow was demolished.
Energized by Brown and led by coalitions of black organizations with the inspiration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Movement used non-violent resistance to shatter segregation in the early 1960s. Civil rights activists held sit-ins in segregated establishments, boycotted segregated buses and held ‘Freedom Rides’ into segregated areas. Voter registration drives all over the South helped ensure that black voters would be represented. In 1963, 250,000 Americans – blacks, whites and others, including major religious leaders – participated in the March on Washington for civil rights. Dr King, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated by a white man in 1968. In 1986 a public holiday was instituted to commemorate his life, the first time a black American has been thus honoured. Support from Jewish organizations, church and labour groups, students and others gave the civil rights movement an inter-racial character, which made it much more effective. Still, some whites fought back. Lynchings were the most dramatic form of retaliation. Riots broke out in many urban centres, and police brutality against protestors was widespread. Many African Americans, especially youth, thought the non-violent style championed by King an inadequate response.
The Nation of Islam, a militant Black Muslim organization founded in the 1930s by dissenters from the Garvey movement and the mystical Moorish Science Temple, established temples throughout the north in the 1960s. It recruited many followers through the charismatic, controversial leadership of Malcolm X, although Malcolm later broke with the Nation. The Black Power movement was launched in 1966, advocating African-American block voting and community control of institutions, organizations and resources. The Black Panther Party, both a community renewal programme and a Marxist revolutionary force, was also formed in 1966. These militant groups terrified governments and were opposed by many moderate blacks. In the late 1960s, like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was assassinated. Over the next decade, many other activists died in suspicious circumstances, were imprisoned, succumbed to fatigue or went into exile.
However, in the early 1960s the shift towards equal rights gained support in the upper levels of government. The Voting Rights Act broke down entrenched and Byzantine regulations that prevented blacks from exercising their franchise. Blacks began to make gains in Congress and the Senate, and even bigger gains in regional and municipal politics. Affirmative-action measures helped establish a sizeable African-American middle class for the first time.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, white and black children were ‘bussed’ to schools outside their immediate neighbourhoods to promote school desegregation. Resentment and resistance to change came to focus on this issue. There were heated protests, and many white children were removed from the public system. During the 1970s and 1980s, ‘white flight’ from many more-integrated cities to all-white suburbs left blacks and other minorities isolated in inner-city ghettos, whose tax bases and government infrastructure funding gradually declined. This was just one of the factors that the Civil Rights Movement could not anticipate, which would set back many of the victories of the 1960s.
Education and progress
In higher education, the 1960s saw African Americans gain greater access to colleges and universities, and to courses and programmes on black American and African cultures. The ‘Afrocentric’ history and cultural movement of the 1980s promoted new enthusiasm for scholarship within the black community, focusing on black people’s contributions to US and world history and civilization. A group of ‘new black intellectuals’ also emerged in publishing and the media as spokespeople for African-American thought and scholarship.
The three decades after the advent of the Civil Rights Movement saw more progress by African Americans than the whole of the previous century. However, the living conditions of poorer African Americans – more than 40 per cent of the black population – declined further. The writer Andrew Hacker described the situation as tantamount to once again having two nations in the United States, ‘black and white, separate, hostile, unequal’ (a reference to Gunnar Myrdal’s watershed 1940s race relations study).
Anger over this situation exploded in 1992 with the ‘Rodney King riots’ in Los Angeles and other US cities. Rodney King was a black motorist arrested after a high-speed chase on 3 March 1991. An amateur videotape of the arrest showed several police officers beating a prone, helpless King dozens of times with batons, while other police officers stood by. The tape was broadcast worldwide on CNN. When, on 29 April 1992, an all-white jury found the officers not guilty of brutality, blacks in Los Angeles took to the streets in fury. Latinos and some whites joined in the riot, which was echoed in unrest in other cities. Over the next three days, 60 people were killed in Los Angeles (LA), 3,000 injured and 15,000 arrested. Thousands of buildings were burned and stores were looted, mostly in minority neighbourhoods. The Rodney King verdict was widely compared to the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case, that ‘black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect’. The federal government later retried four police officers on civil rights grounds, convicting three of the four and giving them minimum-security prison sentences.
The programme of separatism and black self-determination advocated by the Nation of Islam galvanized some African Americans and alienated others, but the Nation has had unmatched success in organizing community action and public protest among the black middle class. It was the driving force behind the Million Man March on Washington of October 1995, a ‘day of atonement’ for black male responsibility, pride and self-determination that attracted around 900,000 supporters despite its open exclusion of women and gay men.
The road to the White House
Despite the surge in voter registration brought about by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, in the ensuing years black participation remained low. African Americans were still massively under-represented in office: by 2007, for example, African Americans held only one seat in the US Senate and 42 in the House of Representatives (all of whom were Democrats). Nevertheless, individual African Americans made gains on the national scene during this period. In 1991, Republican President George Bush Sr. appointed the neo-conservative African-American Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were close allies in President George Bush Jr.’s 2001 and 2004 cabinets, with Rice eventually replacing Powell as Secretary of State.
Nevertheless, none of these appointments anticipated the momentous events of 5 November 2008 when Barack Hussein Obama, a first generation African American (partly of Kenyan heritage) who was virtually an unknown first term Democratic senator in 2004, defeated his Republican Party rival John McCain to be elected the first black president in the history of the United States. The victory, which came after an arduous round of 56 primaries and caucuses and relentless coast to coast campaigning, was a test of political skill as well as endurance and exposed the deep racial and gender divisions that continue to exist within the party as well as the country.
Obama’s campaign was characterized by substantial fundraising, exemplary organization and a theme of anti-war and economic policy changes that drew overwhelming support from blacks but also attracted considerable and unprecedented support from younger, more liberal and wealthier voters of all ethnic backgrounds in many states. Among the personality issues that rose and receded throughout the campaign were those related to class, race and religion. One such attack in March 2008 prompted a response from Obama that was generally acclaimed as one of the most significant speeches on ethnic relations to have been made since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Given the racial history of the US, a significant number of African-American voters were sceptical of his chances initially and did not immediately embrace the Obama candidacy. However after a string of victories during the run-up primary elections in states with substantial majority white voters, there was a reassessment of opinion. This eventually led to 96 per cent of African-American voters casting their ballot for Obama versus three per cent for McCain. Moreover, the nationwide black vote rose by 2.88 million, to 16.3 million (13 per cent), with many African Americans feeling sufficiently motivated to register and vote for the first time in the November 2008 presidential election. Despite a dip in popularity in the years that followed, Obama would go on to win re-election in 2012.
The election of the first black American President, a milestone that would have been unthinkable in previous decades, retained a powerful inspiration for millions of African Americans – even as concrete progress for the community failed to match the high expectations that ushered Obama into the White House. Obama himself, despite the precedent he set, did not generally choose to place the concerns of African Americans centre stage during his presidency: instead, however, he brought substantial gains to the community indirectly through a number of welfare and justice initiatives that, as one of the country’s most marginalized communities, benefitted them in particular. For example, his introduction of the Affordable Healthcare ACT (ACA), legislation designed to extend access to health insurance for the American population, led to the number of uninsured African Americans dropping by a third.
Nevertheless, it was clear – even without the election of Donald Trump as his successor – that Obama’s eight years in office did not succeed in addressing many of the country’s underlying problems around racism and exclusion, with many key issues such as educational inequalities, lower health outcomes and police violence persisting after his departure. However, Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 also highlighted the continued potency of nativist and racist politics among significant sections of the white majority population, putting paid to the idea that the US had managed to move beyond its troubled history of racial prejudice.
While many major US cities have had black mayors and African Americans are well represented on most large city councils, politics and funding have limited their attempts to make significant changes in the conditions of urban African Americans. This is reflected in the persistence of profound inequalities in a range of areas, from education and health care to housing and access to justice.
In the area of education, for example, while black educational levels are on the rise, inequalities and discrimination persist. While 87 per cent of black Americans aged 25 or older had completed high school in 2017, up from 78 per cent in 2000, this remains substantially below the 94 per cent attained by non-Hispanic whites in the same age range. In a range of other indicators, from drop out rates to literacy, black Americans perform more poorly than their peers.
While poverty and a broader backdrop of exclusion play a part to poor educational outcomes – almost a quarter (24.1 per cent) of the black population were living in poverty in 2015, compared to 9.1 per cent of non-Hispanic whites – it is also the case that discrimination within schools can also contribute to an inhospitable learning environment. This process can start early: for example, government data published in 2014 drawing on the 2011-12 school year found that while black children made up 18 per cent of preschool enrolment, they accounted for 42 per cent of those suspended once and 48 per cent of those suspended two or more times.
Few African-American families can afford the costs of private education, so black children are still faced with the prospect of inadequate education. Efforts at further desegregating schools or providing viable alternatives – for example high-quality ‘magnet’ schools that emphasize specialist subjects to attract both black and white students – have been set back by Supreme Court decisions ruling that states could not compel such efforts or be required to fund them.
African Americans are at high risk for mental illness, heart disease, cancer, HIV infection and other major diseases, due to a cluster of factors, including levels of education, poverty, stress, poor health care, pollution and family instability. From the 1980s to the present day, addiction to crack (a smokeable cocaine derivative) has been one of the most severe and destabilizing health problems in the African-American community. The intense high and quick addictive action of the drug is partially blamed for increases in prostitution, robbery, violence, pregnancy, urban decay and disease. Penalties for crack use (more common in the black community) are more severe than those for cocaine use (more often a white phenomenon): sentencing laws and policies relating to the drug also discriminate against African Americans. For example, conviction of African Americans on crack charges is markedly harsher: while African Americans are around 3.5 times more likely than whites to use crack, the likelihood of them going to a federal jail on a crack conviction is over 21 times higher.
A disproportionate number of African Americans are incarcerated during their lifetime, with an African American over five times more likely to be imprisoned than a white American. African Americans make up around a third of the country’s prison population. For this reason, human rights abuses in the prison system – including endemic overcrowding, violence at the hands of guards or between prisoners, segregation and other extreme punishments, as well as high rates of HIV infection and tuberculosis – have a disproportionate effect on African Americans.
Due to the more severe application of the law to African Americans, blacks are stopped by the police, arrested and imprisoned in numbers significantly out of proportion to their general numbers. The practice of racial profiling by the police is widespread. There is ample evidence that black motorists are disproportionately stopped by the police for minor motoring offences because they are assumed to be engaging in more serious criminal activity. This assumption, dubbed ‘Driving While Black’, is widespread among law enforcement. And at the most extreme end of the US justice system – the execution of prisoners that still takes place in the majority of states in the country – the disparities are sharply evident, with African Americans making up 34.2 per cent of those executed since 1976.
Violence is a threat to the health of many African Americans: In 2014, blacks represented 13 per cent of the US population and accounted for 50 per cent of all homicide victims. There were 6,095 black homicide victims in the US in 2014, while the homicide rate in the US for black homicide victims is 16.4 per 100,000 compared to the white homicide rate at 2.5 per 100,000 that year. Of the 6,095 black victims, the overwhelming majority (86 per cent) were male and young (the average age of black homicide victims was 31 years old).
This and a range of other factors have contributed to significantly lower life expectancy among African Americans – 75.1 years in 2010, compared to 78.9 years for their white counterparts, though the gap between these two groups has been steadily narrowing. Infant mortality is more than twice as high for African-American infants (10.9 per 1,000 live births) than it is for white (4.9 per 1,000 live births), as of 2014. The general health care for African Americans is disproportionately poor, a fact recognized in the Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1990. Due to poverty and high unemployment, African Americans are also under-insured for health care. African Americans are also at high risk for environmentally related sickness. Toxic waste dumping, waste incinerators, mixed industrial zoning, poor public sanitation and air pollution are all higher in black-dominated residential areas. African American children are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to suffer from lead poisoning, and many African Americans work in unsafe conditions
The wide socio-economic gaps between African Americans and whites remains high. In 2018, the annual National Urban League report, The State of Black America, found that nationwide black households earn an average income of US$38,555 compared to white an average of US$63,155 among white households.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in