Juneteenth: 150 Years Later Structural Racism Still Persists

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Slavery is the original sin of our constitutional democracy, and this Friday marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, when many black Texans found out for the first time that the Emancipation Proclamation had officially freed them from bondage.

A look at the prevalence of race issues in national headlines makes it hard to believe that more than a century and a half has already elapsed. Yes, racism still exists though it is now propped up more by institutions than individuals. Look at disparities in the criminal justice system, health outcomes, housing, education attainment and income for hard evidence.

A popular conservative narrative is that a focus on race as an issue allows for the perpetuation these effects and opens the door the false claims of victimhood. It has also sparked a nasty public inter-party debate over how the GOP is to attract minorities into their fold — or if its even worth it.

Ann Coulter recently told Bill O’Reilly that the GOP should stop pandering to minorities and start “driving up the white vote.” Her advice could lead to short term success, but encouraging wider racial disparities in the vote will ultimately lead to further desensitization of minority issues by that party.

Many past efforts by the GOP to court blacks and hispanics have centered around the conservative principles of religion and using that to identify shared values. But the reality is, for a long time, the church hour was thought to be the most highly segregated time of the week in America.

Conservatives have accused liberals of using race to divide and conquer, but the statics show that Democrats have a much more diverse coalition of supporters than the GOP.

Regardless if we can agree on how it is used in politics, we know racism still exists. But how can authors of some of the most vile commentary claim “#imnotracist?” It could be in part due to broad differences in the way liberals and conservatives think, but it also has much to do with how structural racism has replaced angry mobs of hooded cross burners.

If one doesn’t actively view themselves as hating someone of another race, the concept of racial tension seems manufactured. And, without knowing how the timeline of civil rights achievements, lulls in progress, and monumental setbacks have led to our current statistical disparities in wealth and criminal justice experiences, it becomes easy to dismiss the concept of racism as outdated. Did I mention we have a black president? If you ever hear someone use President Obama’s election as evidence that we live in a post-racial society, just ask them why a half Black African, half White American is considered “black” in the first place.

This mindset has led to conservatives fighting affirmative action policies, including at universities that have historically barred minorities from entry. The concept is, now that slavery is over, “let’s treat everyone equally.” Ideally, this would be great. But, the problem is not with our Constitution, but the fact that the rights it grants were systematically withheld from entire populations based on a strict hierarchy of race. For many working class whites, the fact that their families took no part in slavery, but are still subject to the same consequences of policy is a source of resentment. I would venture to say that minorities who “benefit” from programs that attempt to mitigate institutionalized discrimination would trade those tools for having the Constitution’s pledge of “liberty and justice for all” extended to their ancestors from the inception of the American experience.

Take for instance this Twitter conversation, where a man makes the argument he is no bigot for saying, “quit playing a victim and blaming an event 150 years ago for your problems.” His next tweet proved he had little knowledge of his own nation’s history when he said, “yeah I missed all those white only colleges and where yall (sic) can only buy houses in one area.” Yeah, I guess you did. But let’s be honest, other than making for a more tolerant understanding human being, what benefit is that knowledge to a person that is not directly affected by it?

 

Frustrations over “political correctness” has been a popular trope, but have we ever actually experienced political correctness? The timeline of our history and the continual struggle for civil rights suggests we have not. So why do some conservatives seem to be so defensive when it comes to conversations about racial progress? One conservative takes a go at an answer in an Op-Ed published by The Week entitled, “Why Conservatives Don’t Like To Talk About Race.”

“It’s enormously frustrating when the left calls attention to problem X, and proposes misguided public policy Y in response; and the right, instead of criticizing the misguided public policy and offering a better alternative, simply vociferously denies that X is a problem. We see this with the minimum wage and, paradigmatically, global warming. The right should be able to grant — as it does on its best days — that, yes, structural racism is a real thing — but the best way to combat it is through conservative public policy.”

As rights were incrementally granted for minorities, those who opposed them became more creative in using their power over institutions like housing, employment and public services to create social and economic barriers to equality. No where is this more evident than in Austin, Texas.

We now think of Austin as a liberal haven, but it is also the only large and growing city in America that is losing its Black residents. Several historical factors are at work here and have been identified in the City of Austin’s Quality of Life Scorecard that concluded, “African-American residents experienced a strikingly different quality of life from other Austin residents.” It then recommended a laundry list of 65 policy changes in 5 areas including: Police Interactions, Housing and Commercial Development, Education and Employment, and Economic Development.

Today, “the metro area now has one of the nation’s highest levels of income segregation, a factor that shares a strong correlation with lower rates of intergenerational economic mobility in a community, according to research led by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty.”

Ignoring the path that led to this place will only lead to more resentment. “A lot of the policies that created our current situation are often forgotten and overlooked,” said Jennifer Jellison Holme, an educational policy and planning professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Then, as a society, we look at the distribution of wealth and student achievement and start to make assumptions about people’s aptitude and merit without understanding all the historical practices and policies that shaped who won and lost.”

These facts have roots in the past, but understanding them has implications for our future. It is true that 150 years ago one set of chains were broken, but while today it is universally accepted that education and economic opportunity are the real equalizer, we must not discount that it was almost a century after the Emancipation Proclamation that black students and white students shared the same educational materials. And, that only happened after the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in part on a study that showed the practice led to young blacks feeling inferior to their white peers.

If we are going to have a meaning dialogue about the state of race relations in this country, the common religion may not be a bad place to start. Let me suggest Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”

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About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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