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SIMPLE JUSTICE                                                                    Pages 780-786



Fifty years later



SCANNING THE HALF-CENTURY since Brown was handed down from the white marble temple of justice close by the nation’s Capitol, what can we say with confidence about the transforming effect of the event on the national psyche and the condition of African Americans in particular?

At the least, we can say it brought to an end more than three centuries of an officially sanctioned mind-set embracing white supremacy and excusing a mas­sive and often pitiless oppression. At long last a roster of magnanimous Justices had been moved to instruct the country that such beliefs and the resulting conduct were unconscionable and intolerable under the law. But delegitimizing the racist caste system could not magically remake the chastened former master class into overnight paragons of decency, eager to extend to their darker ex-captives full and equal access to their shared society’s bounty. The lash, though, had been cast away for good. To gain their due, black Americans soon discovered, they would have to go on the march, under the banner of lawful entitlement, and not wait to be gifted with the nation’s long withheld kindness. En route, they now felt licensed to vent a rage they had so long repressed for fear of swift reprisal. Their march did not pro­ceed without its perils – or rewards.

By almost every measurable standard, African Americans as a group were significantly better off in 2004 than they had been in 1954. They were better edu­cated and housed, more gainfully employed in more demanding jobs, more self- confident and highly regarded by their white countrymen, and had made undeni­able contributions to the mainstream culture. No one any longer questioned that jazz and blues were art. The black presence was ubiquitous, even where blacks were not there in person. Its impact had become detectable in nearly every aspect of Americans’ daily lives: how they talk, dress, eat, play, fix their hair, sing their national anthem, even how they shake hands. Black artists were no longer a sub­category, catering only or mainly to black audiences. Black athletes dominated their fields. Every U.S. Cabinet now included one or two African Americans; the Supreme Court likewise had an all-but-obligatory black seat; the Congressional Black Caucus, at times numbering more than forty members, was a formidable voting bloc in legislative decision-making; the “Old Dominion” of Virginia had elected a black governor, and almost every major American city had at one time or another chosen a black mayor. Even in the corporate world, still a mostly white preserve, black executives were emerging, though generally in the lower echelons. The nation’s biggest stock brokerage firm and the largest entertainment conglom­erate chose African Americans as their CEO. Some other random indicia of the new black status:






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    Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a national legal holiday every­where. His moral stature and resonating call for equal justice for all Ameri­cans have made him more than a parochial hero. And the once idolized FBI director whose agents wiretapped Dr. King and tried to tear him down – J. Edgar Hoover – had become a figure of widespread derision.

    “The Stars and Bars,” the old Confederate flag, was no longer flying over Southern state capitols or other public places. The social order it emblem­ized had been officially repudiated, and those who still displayed it thereby labeled themselves as unregenerate racists.

    When a pair of white men were tried in 1955 in a Mississippi Delta town for brazenly abducting, murdering, and disfiguring a visiting black Chicago teenager named Emmet Till for an allegedly suggestive remark to a married white female storekeeper, an all-white jury acquitted them, although every­one in the county knew they were guilty. When three white men from Jasper, Texas, were tried for chaining a local black man, James Byrd, Jr., to the rear of a truck and without provocation dragging him to his death in 1998, they were convicted of murder by mostly white jurors; two of the defendants were sentenced to die, the other to life in prison. The white townspeople of Jasper thronged the victim’s funeral to pay their respects.

    Academy Awards for both best actor and best actress in 2001 went to African Americans, Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monsters’ Ball,” each film built around a black-white relationship. A list of America’s finest or most popular stage, film, and TV stars of the two generations since 1954 would also include black performers Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Bill Cosby, Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson, Gloria Foster, Lewis Gossett, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishbourne, Andre Braugher, S. Epatha Merkeson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Chris Rock. By century’s end, Spike Lee was ranked among the foremost American film directors and August Wilson as perhaps the nation’s finest playwright. Modern dance had become practically an African American a form, and probably no U.S. classical musician was held in higher esteem than trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.






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    Cited by some as evidence of America’s undying antipathy toward negritude was the pronounced preference among adopting white couples for Caucasian and Asian babies over black ones. But it was no less worthy of note that in the 1950s, about 1 percent of African Americans were married to a non-black, but by 2000, the figure had risen to 12 percent.

    Consider rap/gangsta rap/hip-hop. Dismissed when it emerged in the 1980s as the amelodic, primitive, and profane chants of disaffected black urban youth, it grew to be acknowledged as an authentic message from the ghetto culture, defined by guns, drugs, sexism, cop-hating, and generalized rage toward a world stacked against it. Taken up by white youth, itself often alienated, as a vicarious way to share the grievances of the violent but vibrant inner city, rap became a dominant force in the popular music world despite (and no doubt because of) denunciations of its often anti-social content.

    By 2004, virtually every U.S. institution of higher learning included black studies courses and programs as an integral part of its curriculum – a form of cultural recognition as well as psychological support for the four out of five African American college students who chose to attend white-majority schools.

    The chic store windows at Saks Fifth Avenue, where Brown University’s African American president had her unhappy experience, were regularly featuring black mannequins among the white ones, modeling the latest high-fashion women’s clothes.


For all these heartening signs of far greater black prominence and white acceptance in American daily life, there was no denying that mixed with the good news were too many remnants of an aching disparity between the races that tine and good intentions had not cured. Consider the vital areas of economics and education.






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The number of African Americans living at or below the poverty level (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as an income of $18,000 in 2001 dollars for a family of four) dropped from 55 percent in 1960 to 22 percent four decades later. But that rate was still three times higher than the percentage for white families. The average income for black men in 1950 was 52 percent of the average white man’s income; by 2000 the black figure had climbed to 68 percent. For black women, the percentage had risen from 53 to 92, or near parity, over the fifty years. The gap narrowed when federal statisticians used median income as a more accurate gauge, less skewed by the stratospheric salaries and bonuses enjoyed by those, mostly white, at the high end of the earnings ladder. The median black male income jumped from 58 percent of the white figure in 1967 to 74 percent in 2000; for black women, often the mainstay of their households, the increase was yet more cheering – from 79 percent to 99 percent at the end of the century. By income categories, the upward shift was also encouraging, although husbands and wives were both bringing home a paycheck more often in black families than in white ones. In 1967, not quite 37 percent of African American families were classifiable as middle class (earning between $25,000 and $100,000 in constant 2001 dollars) and a bare 0.9 percent made more than $100,000 to qualify for the wealthiest class. These figures compared with 61 percent of whites categorized as middle class and 3.2 percent in the highest income bracket. By 2000, nearly 52 percent of black families had entered the middle class, and 3.2 percent advanced to the wealthiest group, compared with 58 percent of whites in the middle class – not much above the figure for blacks – with just under 15 percent in the wealthy category. And the rich were definitely getting richer all the time. Cornel West reported that by the end of the Reagan economic boom, the most prosperous 10 percent of the U.S. population, including few African Americans, controlled 86 percent the nation’s wealth.

If blacks were not cashing in heavily on their economic advancement, far fewer of them proportionately were performing menial labor in the workplace.  Only 5.2 percent of blacks had been working in the elite executive/administrative/managerial category in 1970 (compared with 16.1 percent of whites); by 2000, the black percentage had doubled to 10.5, while for whites it had actually declined fractionally. If those in the technical, professional, sales, and skilled labor categories were added in, the total rose from 27 percent to 42 percent for black employees in the more desirable end of the job market over the thirty-year span. There were eight times as many telephone operators, four times as many salespeople and pharmacists, and three times as many electricians, police and firefighters as a percentage of the black workforce as there had been at the beginning of the period. But it was still hard to find a black waiter in a first-rate restaurant or an African American dental hygienist. Black employment in the government sector had soared, and black hires in the corporate sector were also way up, the latter presence helped by high-profile racial discrimination cases brought against the likes of Texaco and Wendy’s fast-food restaurants. But typically the black jobs in these sectors were at the lower end of the organizational hierarchy, in the clerical, service, and personnel areas, and still relatively few in the executive and policy-making ranks. Black office workers often registered unhappiness over what they perceived as racism lurking down the corridor, too ready to pounce with charges of substandard performance and frequently thwarting their advancement. White company officials lamented what they felt was unwillingness among some blacks to compete for promotion without crying racism whenever their work habits were criticized or their advancement was denied. Another cloud hanging over the brighter economic picture was the continuing lag among African Americans choosing to enter the entrepreneurial field, and those doing so were still primarily servicing black customers.






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By far the most discouraging evidence of imbedded economic hardship was the unemployment rate for black Americans, which through good times and bad had stubbornly remained at twice the rate of white joblessness, or higher. African Americans were getting whipsawed from both ends of the labor market – at the top, where many manufacturing jobs were moving abroad while the skill demands in the hi-tech fields left a lot of black job-seekers underqualified, and at the low end, where immigrants, legal and not, were willingly (or desperately) taking sub­sistence pay for work that some blacks scorned as barely a step above peonage. The bottom line therefore revealed that, for all their gains, black Americans had by no means fully shared in the enormous expansion of the U.S. economy in the half-century since Brown. Their cup may have been better than half full, but it was still far from brimming.

The most telling effect of this shortfall was that of the 55 percent of African Americans living in cities, an estimated one-third were enduring tragically chaotic and danger-fraught lives with little hope of rescue. Social psychologists identified a vicious cycle of ghetto existence feeding upon itself, beginning with chronic unemployment that inevitably spread feelings of worthlessness and despair and irresistibly invited the use of drugs and alcohol to dull the pain. With seemingly so little to lose, including their very lives, street-based black youths turned dispro­portionately to antisocial behavior, partly out of anger, partly for excitement, but mostly to feed self-destructive habits that left them with but a semblance of a life. Yet they avidly reproduced: the trapped young men validated their manhood by fathering children they need not tend with young women they need not marry. For the mothers, so often in their teens or a little beyond, the children became the focus of their otherwise empty lives. And so the grim cycle began anew. The results: just under two-thirds of African American babies were being born out of wedlock (compared with 20 percent of white babies) at the end of the twentieth century, according to Andrew Hacker’s deeply troubling book, Two Nations, steeped with such dolorous data, and 46 percent of black children were being raised at or below the poverty level (compared with 12 percent of white children). In 1960, 70 percent of black youngsters lived in two-parent households; by 2000, only about 38 percent of them did. Crime and health statistics similarly conveyed the hopeless entrapment of poverty and alienation. Blacks, comprising about one­-eighth of the U.S. population, were committing 60 percent of the robberies and 42 percent of all violent crimes, the preponderance of them directed against mem­bers of their own race. African Americans were seven times as likely to be mur­dered or to die from tuberculosis as whites, and three times as likely to contract AIDS, and their infant mortality rate was more than twice as high.






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The data for education likewise projected a mixed outlook. Quantitatively, the upward leap in sheer years of learning logged by African American children­ was astonishing. In 1950, only 13.7 percent of black youngsters graduated from high school; by 1999, the figure was 77.4 percent (but still 10.3 percentage points under the number for whites). In 1967, about 13 percent of blacks in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old category attended college, with just 2.2 percent of them graduating; by the turn of the century, 30 percent in that age category were attending college, and 15.5 percent were graduating (compared with 35 percent of whites attending and 28 percent graduating). Progress, surely, but not unalloyed, and black academic attainments remained disappointingly below the white standard and those for the two fastest-rising minority groups, Asian Americans and Hispanics. Figures for New York State were illustrative. In standardized tests given in 2001 for proficiency in fourth-grade English, 73 percent of whites achieved the grade-level score, but only 38 percent of blacks. By eighth grade, 55 percent of whites met the mark, but only 24 percent of blacks. And in mathematics, the dis­parity was disastrous: 52 percent of whites were up to the standard, but just 13 per­cent of blacks. The figures almost certainly reflected the fact that New York was the most segregated state in the nation in terms of the number of whites present in the average black pupil’s classroom. The disparity, though, could not be accounted for by inner-city inequities alone. In other states, regardless of their geographic dispersion or family income levels, African American schoolchildren were falling well short of the national standard. In the affluent Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, a study of 5,000 students about evenly divided between the races found that the district’s predominantly middle-class black students were heavily clus­tered academically at or near the bottom of their classes. Nationwide, blacks who achieved well enough to apply for college performed relatively better but still lagged by a distressing margin. In 2000, the combined SAT scores were 1070 for Asian Americans, 1060 for whites, 910 for Hispanics, and 857 for blacks. Whites from the poorest families averaged twenty points higher than those from the wealthiest black families.






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Some have argued that standard testing does not fairly measure the totality of black intelligence and cultural strength, derived from a heritage, however much drained by centuries of harsh survival in the New World, of what Cornel West calls the rich African traditions of “kinetic orality, passionate physicality, improvi­sational intellectuality, and combative spirituality.” But fresh, if not always wel­come, voices were being raised within the black community, pointing out that other minority groups have managed to overcome poverty, prejudice, and wide cultural differences and that the time was at hand to stop excusing the academic shortcomings among African Americans. “An America where black students are encouraged to nurture their artistic and spatial intelligence out of respect for their culture is an America where black people are our house entertainers and athletes,” wrote John H. McWhorter, a University of California linguistics professor, in his excoriating-and best-selling-Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. His book, issued in 2000, charged that “black students do so poorly in school decade after decade not because of racism, funding, class, parental education, etc., but because of a virus of Anti-intellectual-ism that infects the black community.” This pathogen, McWhorter conceded, plainly stems from centuries of white denial of education to blacks, lest they rise up and challenge their tormentors, and so the realm of book learning became identified over time as an activity for whites who had conditioned blacks to believe it was beyond their mental faculties. To study hard was perceived by many young African Americans to be “acting white,” as McWhorter’s older colleague on the Berkeley faculty, Nigerian anthropologist John U. Ogbu, concluded from his field studies – and thus an alien mode of con­duct not to be wholeheartedly pursued by any “authentically black” person. This failure to strive for academic excellence and to apply rigorously objective stan­dards, rather than relying on instinctive, anecdotal, or folk wisdom, reflected a lamentable strain in African American culture that, according to McWhorter, had “transmogrified into nothing less than an infantilization of black people”….




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