George Floyd’s death ripped scabs from an array of festering wounds that have infected race relations for 400 years.
In most history books, the civil rights era ends with the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968.
Those who haven’t lived the struggle might conclude that the past 52 years have been a celebration of the fruits of King’s dream that race would be irrelevant to success and a nation battered by 400 years of strife had instilled equality in all matters of life.
So are things better for African Americans than they used to be? It is almost a trick question. The most brutal and overt elements of Jim Crow are gone. Federal legislation officially protected voting and civil rights. More African Americans have won elective office, including a president, and five African Americans are billionaires.
It is, however, naive to point to those accomplishments and conclude that progress is on a sustainable path. Many African American communities are food, environmental and health care deserts. Educational gains, the sort that lift people out of poverty, are too spotty, and the school-to-prison pipeline is too active.
Suppose 50 years ago you had to run a 100-yard dash against someone who starts 60 yards ahead of you. Is it really a win to know that if you ran the same race today that your starting point would be 25 yards closer?
One hundred years passed between the end of legal slavery and the passage of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation in the mid-1960s, and another half-century has passed since those historic legislative moments. But change and progress aren’t synonyms. Change means today is different from yesterday or last year or last century. But progress means the present is better than the past and that the future will be better than both.
By that scorecard, there has been more change than progress. Until the economic shutdown to combat the spread of coronavirus, black unemployment had fallen to historic lows. Even then, black unemployment was twice the white rate, and incomes and net worth of African Americans still lagged those of white Americans.
The Great Recession upended the lives of most Americans. However, incomes lost to that massive financial crash a decade ago recovered faster in white households than in African American homes.
Black net worth is more likely to be in home equity and car ownership, while white wealth also includes financial assets that provide financial flexibility and opportunities for generational wealth. The median black household has roughly $18,000 in net worth, compared with $171,000 for whites, a gap that has continuously widened since the civil rights movement. And today, the gap between homeownership rates of white and blacks is wider than it was in 1900.
These sources of frustration have been well-documented: the lack of economic and educational opportunities; segregation; and crime that erupts in communities whose residents don’t see a viable future. Factor in inadequate affordable housing, stagnant incomes, the lingering effects of redlining, the scourge of payday and subprime lenders, and the list of complicating issues becomes daunting.
We don’t profess to have the answers, but we recognize that simply noting the difference between the world of 50 years ago and now obscures what hasn’t changed and what has gotten worse. The arc of the moral universe must bend toward justice much faster.
George Floyd’s death ripped scabs from an array of festering wounds that have infected race relations for 400 years. The nation has squandered numerous opportunities to set things right. The Founding Fathers failed to define African Americans as worthy of equal treatment. The failed promise of Reconstruction quickly dashed post-slavery dreams, and the moral imperatives that buttressed the modern civil rights movement lost a sense of urgency. Today, it’s fair to say that the death of George Floyd makes more difficult the dream of reaching a society that makes good on the promise of equality.
Answers won’t come easily, and won’t come at all unless we confront our nation’s past, present and future with clarity and a resolve to demand a more equitable future. And while we should never give up the quest, we must pursue it with honesty and vigor.
All nations have cultural and historical fault lines — issues that are tough to discuss and even tougher to put right. What the United States, a country built on principles that have not always been kept, will look like in 50 years depends on whether there is a national willingness to do what is necessary to repair these faults before repair is out of reach.
Progress marks the ground trod, but the journey is far from over.
— DALLAS MORNING NEWS