We learned today that the Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the Civil Rights electoral law designed to protect minority voters. The decision, as described by Al Sharpton, effectively “canceled the dream” of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Voting Rights act was, as Politico describes, “landmark civil rights legislation used to promote the political power of minority voters across large swaths of the southern United States for nearly four decades.”
Those rights are now not guaranteed, and minorities in America will have to hope that the good will of white Americans is enough to enable them to vote freely and fairly.
Republican Frank D. Hargrove once stated that Blacks should “get over slavery” – presuming 140 years was enough time for African Americans to undo the damage done by the industry that treated them as human cattle for four centuries. For an elderly white southern gentleman, this might seem an easy thing to do. But for those living with its legacy, it isn’t quite the cake walk it is made out to be.
In a heartfelt, compelling piece on The Daily Beast, Joshua Dubois writesabout African Americans still suffering from the legacy of slavery. The argument is complex and not easy to digest, particularly given our culture’s disregard for history and relentless focus on ‘the now’. African Americans are still facing multiple crises in poverty, single parenthood and crime, and while it is easy to blame them for their predicament, the story behind it shows just how devastating slavery has been on the ancestors of those shipped over from Africa to live a life of degradation and servitude.
Here is Dubios on young black men and the effects slavery has on them today:
Just like their great-grandfathers never fully figured out how to teach their sons about manhood while being lashed in a field. Just like their grandfathers never completely figured out how to pass on lessons about building wealth when theirs was stolen through peonage and sharecropping.
Their fathers tried to rally around Martin Luther King as a symbol of what they could be—but he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the post–civil rights era, many of these black men, men like Joe Jones’s father, weren’t quite figuring it out either. And neither are many of their sons and grandsons, those bright if often scowling men we see on our streets.
Anyone who has grown up around African Americans or other black people of slave descent will understand something of the two paragraphs above. I grew up in London around many black Caribbean people, and became very aware that there were some real problems within their communities. I knew countless black boys who grew up without fathers, got involved with crime and ended up falling far short of their potential. The African boys I knew who had the same color skin largely did the opposite, growing up with strong family units, never getting involved with crime and all ended up getting high paying jobs.
What was the difference? It obviously wasn’t genetic as Caribbean people are descended from West Africans. The only answer was culture – one group of people had been subjected to slavery, rape and violence, and had their culture literally beaten out of them, while the other, although still badly treated through years of colonialism, maintained their cultural identity and values.
Statistically speaking, Africans who come to England do better than most other immigrants, while Afro Caribbean people do substantially worse, particularly males who underperform from school onwards. Half of all black Caribbean households in the UK are headed by a single parent, compared to a third for black Africans.
The situation for African Americans is in some ways worse, with a shocking 72% of African American children being born to unwed mothers. African American men are also massively overrepresented prison population, making fatherhood close to impossible. Writes Dubois:
In the three decades since the war on drugs began, the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, giving our country the highest incarceration rate in the world—higher than Russia, China, and other regimes we consider repressive. A significant majority of black men in some urban areas are labeled felons for life; in and around Chicago, when you include prisoners, that number approaches 80 percent.
The median net worth of white households is now 20 times that of black households in America, and the gap does not appear to be narrowing. African Americans are 9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites, are more likely to be in jail than in college, and have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate than whites do.
The cultural legacy of slavery is only half of the equation – African Americans live in a country that is still institutionally racist and largely segregated along racial lines. There are concerted efforts by people like Karl Rove to stop minorities from voting, and with draconian laws around the country preventing ex felons from taking part in the electoral process, it is undeniable that American society has a long way to go when it comes to racial equality.
The Supreme Court decision that scraps provisions designed to redress the institutional racism that permeates American society is now gone, a brutal reminder that progress can be undone, and that we do not necessarily learn from history. While many may not see this as a big deal, one only needs to look at the recent behavior of the Republican Party to see what could happen. As Kevin Drum in Mother Joneswrites:
The Republican Party has made it crystal clear that suppressing minority voting is now part of its long-term strategy, and I have little doubt that this will now include hundreds of changes to voting laws around the country that just coincidentally happen to disproportionately benefit whites.
Back to square one we go.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.