Sunday, July 12, 2009

Slavery's Dark Shadow

When President Obama visited the slave fort Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where millions of Africans were penned for shipment to southern plantations, it was a measure of how far our nation has traveled from it dark past.

Many seem to think that racism is now a closed chapter in the book of U.S. history. The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, dealt a legal blow to affirmative action two weeks ago when it upheld a complaint from white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, aggrieved that the city tried to scrap a test that seemed to favor Caucasians over blacks and Hispanics seeking promotion. Two years ago, the Court virtually reversed Brown v. Board of Education, ordering Seattle and Louisville to dismantle voluntary school desegregation plans that used students’ racial background to balance and diversify the make-up of their classrooms. The Court, and many others, apparently feel that we have “done enough” to remedy racism.

But the effects of 250 years of slavery and a century of Jim Crow are not so easily overcome.

Look at the numbers. Before the economy tanked, the country’s overall poverty rate was 12.5%. For African Americans, the rate was 24.5%. Unemployment stands now at 9.4%. Among blacks, the jobless rate is 15%. For every dollar of net wealth owned by white families, blacks own just one thin dime. What this means is that in the race of life, children of color are far more likely than whites to hobble forward from the starting gate with a severe disadvantage.

That disadvantage shows up in educational test scores, in higher incarceration rates for African Americans, in larger numbers of single parent households, and more.

In a speech on race a year ago, candidate Obama proclaimed (paraphrasing William Faulkner) that “the past isn’t dead and buried. It’s not even the past.” Unless Americans work harder to guarantee every child an equal start in life, Cape Coast Castle will continue to cast its shadow across the generations.

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