July 30, 2013

Life the Load of Poverty: Fighting for Black Equality in the Age of Obama

James Jennings

During the summer of 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted by a Florida jury, and Detroit became the largest city in the United States ever to declare bankruptcy. While the election and re-election of the nation’s first Black president certainly signals a positive change in American society, it does not mean that race and racism are a thing of the past. To the contrary, all social indicators, including unemployment, household wealth, and the segregation of schools, show that the United States continues to be a racially divided country—“separate and unequal” as ever.

Each of the recent events, therefore, serves as a synecdoche for a larger trend. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to render the Voting Rights Act’s “pre-clearance” requirements inoperable comes amid increasing efforts to keep people of color, poor and working-class people, as well as young people away from the polls. Without the protections of the Voting Rights Act, conservatives can be expected to continue their efforts to keep their most reliable opponents away from the voting booth, effectively shifting the electorate to the right.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin demonstrates that racially motivated attacks are not yet a thing of the past, but the failure to hold his killer accountable also illustrates the racism and moral bankruptcy of the U.S. criminal justice system. Racial bias pervades every layer of this system. People of color—Black men in particular—are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be prosecuted, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sent to prison. The end result is an unprecedented system of mass incarceration, but even without the overflowing prisons, a felony conviction is a permanent stigma that can prevent people from finding a job; voting; or accessing educational aid, public housing, and other state and federal benefits.

Detroit’s bankruptcy marks the suspension of democracy in a large majority-Black city. It is one endpoint of the patterns of abandonment and gentrification that have been reshaping American cities for decades. The decline of manufacturing in the United States and white flight hit Detroit particularly hard. The factories that once provided decent jobs to many people with limited formal education are gone. Combined with the departure of the middle class, Detroit has been left without the tax base necessary to meet its obligations and serve its residents. Detroit may be an extreme case, but wider economic trends have been little better. For Black America, the Great Recession has been a depression, and the recovery has not yet begun.

In this report, James Jennings, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, examines the current state of the struggle for Black equality. Despite overwhelming support from Black voters and other voters of color, President Obama has largely remained silent on issues of racial equality. There remain numerous obstacles to addressing persistent racial inequality, but there are also spaces of hope where new alliances are forming that can address both the racial and class dimensions of this inequality. Jennings calls on us to nurture these struggles in order to bring together those at the bottom of the economic pyramid in a collective struggle for their shared interests, including quality education and healthcare, a healthy environment, decent housing, and living-wage jobs. The fight for racial justice continues.


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