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Richard Davis: The effects of past racial discrimination still influence Americans today

The Civil Rights Movement did not suddenly make everything OK. You cannot discriminate against a race for centuries and then, even if you suddenly stopped, say that everything is all right now. Effects of that racism are still with us.
The Civil Rights Movement did not suddenly make everything OK. You cannot discriminate against a race for centuries and then, even if you suddenly stopped, say that everything is all right now. Effects of that racism are still with us.
Associated Press

Black Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. What will be the next slogan seeking to sum up race relations today? Rather than wait for the next slogan, let’s look at the real problems and their origins.

One problem is that effects of centuries of racial segregation and legal discrimination remain with us today. Slavery was the state of the vast majority of blacks in the United States for 200 years. Even after slavery’s abolition, for a hundred years, Jim Crow laws restricted where an African-American could live, go to school and work, and prevented him or her from voting or serving in public office.

Many Americans today grew up in that era of legal racism. (Jim Crow laws were not declared illegal until the 1950s and ’60s.) They sat in the back of the bus, attended segregated schools, used “colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains, and addressed younger white men as “sir” while those same whites called the men, regardless of age, “boy.” This wasn’t so long ago. The year I started high school was the year my town desegregated its two high schools. Many blacks who grew up in this era still live in those same segregated communities, are less educated, and have fewer employment opportunities because of those policies.

Those who grew up with such racism — black or white — were powerfully affected by it. Whites (many still alive today) were taught that blacks were lesser humans. And many blacks, at least subconsciously, accepted what whites told them. An NAACP leader once admitted that when he boarded an African plane in the early 1970s and saw a black pilot, he immediately wondered if he was competent. Then it struck him that his culture had taught him that blacks were not capable, and he had subconsciously accepted it.

The Civil Rights Movement did not suddenly make everything all right. You cannot discriminate against a race for centuries and then, even if you suddenly stopped, say that everything is all right now. Effects of that racism are still with us.

One area is household income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African-American children are three times as likely to be in households in poverty than are white children, and that gap is growing.

Another is education. A white child is twice as likely as an African-American child to have a parent with a college education. Black children are less likely to graduate from high school and whites graduate from college at greater rates than blacks.

Nor have we really eradicated racism. Even in an area as basic as buying a home, racism persists. For example, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study in 2013 found that when meeting with Realtors and lenders, blacks were shown fewer available properties, asked more questions about their finances and given fewer options for financing than were whites. De Jure racism is now illegal. But de facto racism is harder to erase.

Still another area, one we hear about more, is interaction with the law. According to the NAACP, there are nearly as many blacks on death row as whites, even though blacks constitute less than 13 percent of the total population. The prison reform group, The Sentencing Project, estimates one in three black males can expect to be in jail at some point in their lives.

Some may blame all of these problems on African-Americans themselves. That attitude ignores the history of discrimination that has led up to today. An inability to recognize the roots of our difficulties is one of the biggest challenges Americans face today with race relations. It is not surprising that many African-Americans are angry about how they have been treated and how they are still treated today.

The solution is not violence or even targeting certain groups — Black Lives Matter, African-Americans generally, or the police for blame. Nor can these issues be resolved quickly. After all, they took years to create and fester. Rather, it is necessary to identify where they came from in order to understand where we are now and begin to figure out how to proceed in the future. That takes more than slogans.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.