The quest for equality among African Americans has always been difficult, and some may argue with good reason that our present-day society has much further to go in reaching a semblance of equity for this minority group in American society. A casual perusal of economic, social, and political situations in the United States makes this quite evident.
African Americans are unique in a number of ways. Their skin color distinguishes them from other citizens, and their history is distinct in that most of their ancestors were brought to America against their will under a legalized system of slavery. How many can say the same about their heritage as it relates to the United States? The institution of slavery to which African Americans were subjected lasted from their arrival to the end of the Civil War.
Even after the conclusion of the war between the states, the conditions of African Americans in many parts of the United States were not noticeably different than pre-Civil War days, despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of a number of amendments to the Constitution. This was clearly demonstrated by the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan—an extremist group dedicated to white supremacy that numbered in the millions at one time in the United States.
To complicate matters, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized segregation in this country when it enunciated the famous “separate but equal” doctrine via the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Hence, states could and did segregate African Americans by the passage of Jim Crow laws, which mandated separate facilities for them. The Plessy doctrine lasted until 1954, when the Court reversed itself in the famous case of Brown v. Board—which outlawed legal segregation or de jure segregation in public schools on the basis of race. However, there was massive resistance to the implementation of this important court decision in many parts of the United States. In addition, the reality of an integrated educational system did not evolve the way some had hoped it would after this prominent court case. In fact, some may argue that there is another type of segregation at work, de facto segregation, which involves a variety of economic and social factors, such as housing patterns, not mandated by law. This type of segregation has been quite difficult to eradicate in America society.
The 1960s have often been described as a turbulent time for African Americans in the United States, primarily because they were required to pay a heavy cost for needed social, economic, and political improvements in their lives. Two important federal laws were passed by Congress as a result of obvious social and political inadequacies. One was the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a law that provided African Americans the opportunity to receive equal public accommodations in areas such as restaurants and hotels. It was followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which resulted in more African Americans not only having the right to vote but the election of many others to public office. Both laws resulted from many unjust hardships endured by African Americans for too long a period of time.
Governments and other agencies have also enacted policies of affirmative action to provide African Americans and other groups with employment and educational opportunities as a means to achieve a better life. Increased educational opportunities are particularly important, since the level of formal education that one obtains is often related to the level of one’s economic income.
As for the future, on one hand, some will argue that laws and policies have increased opportunities for African Americans that were not available a number of generations ago. In addition, it is certainly true that the African American presence is more noticeable in many areas of our society. Some of the more prestigious and powerful positions in our society are now occupied by African Americans. On the other hand, some may say that the African American presence is yet a distinct minority among a greater mass of citizens who traditionally have benefited from this country’s advantages. They may also note that we have two distinct and different societies, both unequal in terms of opportunity and other factors.
Many of our large cities are seeing a migration of whites and others who can afford it to the more affluent suburbs, causing a resurgence of segregation in business and housing. The trend has also affected the integration of urban schools as a means of achieving a greater understanding and tolerance for our fellow citizens. Yet it has also resulted in increased political opportunities in large American cities for African Americans, as well as for more employment opportunities in municipal governments. The important question today is, How many African Americans are really experiencing these benefits? Many in America are still far from it.
- Bever, E. (1996). African Americans and civil rights: From 1619 to the present. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
- Jackson, M. N., & Lashley, M. E. (Eds.). (1994). African Americans and the new policy consensus: Retreat of the liberal state? Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Jackson, R. L. (1999). The negotiation of cultural identity: Perceptions of Europeans and African Americans. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Polednak, A. P. (1997). Segregation, poverty, and mortality in urban African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.