America has equal rights

The long road to real equality in the USA: Years of funding programs have not made the gap between blacks and whites disappear

Since the 1960s, the United States has tried to alleviate the disadvantage of blacks with a multitude of laws, measures and programs. But the balance sheet remains mixed.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, in front of cabinet members, congressmen, and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, on July 2, 1964, he saw an impressive supply of 80 ballpoint pens. Some of the writing instruments briefly touched the paper, which marked a historic success for the civil rights movement, while others became souvenirs which the President distributed to those present through their mere presence.

Had Johnson suspected how many more laws and regulations it would take to make the principle of equality a reality, in the professional world, in housing, but above all in education, the president would have had a similar number of pens ready for future occasions can. The US has done its best since that historic day to do justice to the disadvantaged non-whites, but the record of these efforts is mixed and devastating to many Americans these days.

Prohibition of discrimination in housing

Towards the end of his tenure, which was overshadowed by the Vietnam War, Johnson himself got an impression of the hurdles that daily life put in his way. In April 1968 he signed a new Civil Rights Act, the central part of which was the Fair Housing Act. Since then, people have not been allowed to be disadvantaged because of their skin color (or their gender, their origin, their religion) when they want to rent an apartment or buy a house. Anyone who thinks today that they have been discriminated against in such an act can file a suit with some chances of success; the Department of Justice can determine if such incidents are piling up in a region or through a landlord.

But as is so often the case, the legal situation is overshadowed by economic reality. Due to the much lower average income of African American households, in many places it is not a question of whether African Americans are allowed to move into a new apartment complex, for example (which is clearly regulated), but rather whether they can do it financially. This dilemma characterizes the situation in many large American cities today in the formerly mostly “black” residential areas. It is true that the inner cities in some metropolises are still influenced by Afro-American styles, which in practice usually means a backward infrastructure and visible impoverishment, as in Newark and Baltimore. More typical, however, is a “gentrification” that has been advancing since the 1980s and is complained about by representatives of the Afro-American minority.

Restaurants and galleries, sports facilities and high-priced condominiums are changing the face of city centers. Investments are made, the benefits of which are excluded for the original residents who have now been pushed into disadvantaged districts. It is no coincidence that the current destructiveness in cities like Detroit, Atlanta and Washington is directed against institutions that stand for this new segregation, a separation not according to skin color, but according to account balance and annual income.

Greater poverty, but progress in education

The housing situation is therefore also the field in which the efforts to create real equality have produced similarly thin returns as the attempts to reduce the high incarceration rates of African American men. In his last year in office, in 1968, Johnson was presented with the report of the so-called Kerner Commission, which had investigated the causes of race riots. The commission identified “white racism” and the widespread poverty among blacks as the trigger. One indicator of this poverty was the low rate of black homeowners of around 40 percent - it is practically unchanged half a century later; for white Americans it is 71 percent.

In contrast, there has been undoubted progress in terms of educational opportunities. At the time of the Kerner report, just over 50 percent of young African Americans had graduated from high school; today it is more than 90 percent. To «desegregate» the schools, to overcome the division into majority or purely «white» schools in one and «black» schools in another, made the legislators resort to a highly controversial instrument, the so-called busing. Children were driven with school buses to parts of the city or neighboring towns with different demographics in order to bring white students to previously mostly black schools and vice versa.

In 1974 in particular in Boston, perhaps the furthest left American city, there were sometimes violent clashes when white parents resisted the measure. A withdrawal from the public school system was often their answer: They sent their children to private schools or moved to the suburbs. In fact, the advocates of busing often showed little consideration for those whose well-being was supposed to be important to them: the children, who were sometimes forced to take hours of transfers and a school experience in an unfamiliar environment. Studies have shown that even in the now ethnically mixed schools, the pupils preferred to make friends with peers of their own ethnic group.

The targeted promotion of children and young people from minorities also includes the procedure called “affirmative action”, which - to simplify the description - provides for preferential consideration of young people of color when allocating study places. This method has dealt with the courts several times, on various occasions because of lawsuits from white university applicants who felt they had been discriminated against. Mostly there were tight judgments in favor of “affirmative action”.

For American colleges and universities, “diversity”, an ethnically and gender-mixed student body, is an often-invoked concern. Many universities generously use grants for black students to achieve their goal. It is encouraging that the number of young African-Americans with a degree in 2015/16 has more than doubled compared to 2000/01.

Limit in mind

All laws on equality, all initiatives to promote minorities seem to have reached a limit to this day: They are unable to achieve what is going on in people's minds. In the parlance of many African Americans, "disrespect" is a fixed term that stands for a daily experience: the feeling of not being seen as an equal among equals. They see the video from Minneapolis as a downright deadly manifestation of this lack of humanity. President Johnson spoke on that day in July 1964 that "the last remnants of injustice were being removed from our beloved land." The Texas man was wrong.