By Jamaal Smith, Racial Justice Community Engagement Manager
“Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring…”
But who has that freedom rang for? I always wondered as a kid who was Samuel Francis Smith discussing when he wrote these lyrics. I was convinced it was not people who looked like me. Years later, my conviction has been confirmed that Black people were not included. The contributions of Black people to the growth and development of this country should be unquestioned, yet we are still in the eye of constant degradation, disenfranchisement, and targeted hatred. Author Gunnar Myrdal stated that “the nation’s commitment to universal justice and equality are contradicted by the way it treats its principal minority race”. Conversations in 2019 about racial justice are the same as they were during the release of the Kerner Commission in 1968, which were based off observations of the same injustice perpetuated on African Americans years prior. In other words, same stuff, different day.
Has there been any progress for African Americans in the post-slavery era? Yes, but marginal at best. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson the Fair Housing Act into law with hopes that equitable housing opportunities would be afforded to Black people as it was to whites. However, 50 years after the Kerner Commission, discussing separate worlds for Blacks and whites and influencing the Fair Housing Act, was released, Black homeownership hit its lowest total in decades. This even as unemployment and wages have improved for Blacks over the last 10 years. In a capitalistic world where building wealth is significant, homeownership has been proven as a method to build wealth. Yet, the opportunities for Blacks have been scarce at best, especially in the post-foreclosure crisis era. The practice of blockbusting, using fearmongering to get whites to sell their homes cheap only to resell them to Blacks at higher prices, in the mid-20th century is quite comparable to the subprime lending crisis in the early 2000. Both practices negatively impacted Black homeownership and caused a serious decline in Black wealth.
In addition, the astronomical rise in mass incarceration for Blacks is reminiscent of chattel slavery. So-called “race neutral” policies such as those crafted during the War on Drugs, intended to target the illegal drug market, affected Black communities, even those the usage and possession rates were similar in the white community. Truth-in sentencing, mandatory minimums, Rockefeller and Michigan’s “650 lifer” laws contributed to the drastic increase of Black men and women locked up in prisons at a rate exceeding the number of slaves by 1860. The clause in the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”, led to the efficient creation of systems that created a pipeline to prison for Blacks.
These are just two of many examples that expose freedom for Black people has not been realized on the level we fundamentally deserve. THERE IS NO AMERICA WITHOUT BLACK PEOPLE!!! It should be of consequence that freedom, justice, and liberty for Black people should be realized in totality. However, based on both history and current climate, this is not the case. Malcolm X said, “If democracy means justice, then why don’t we have justice?” We are still asking that question today…