How Slavery and Segregation Affect America Today

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Updated: Mar 14, 2023
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During the 16th-19th century, The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade brought millions of enslaved people from Western and Central Africa to North America. It is key to note that these people were brought unwillingly and forced to do extremely gruesome tasks as if they were sub-human. After slavery was around in the United States for about 250 years, it was ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, freed slaves and their families were still prohibited from certain rights and freedoms during segregation. Slavery and segregation encouraged African Americans to be disenfranchised, systematically oppressed, and economically disadvantaged.

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A result of both of these institutions in the United States today is unequal/segregated schools and neighborhoods, discrimination within the work force, deliberate disenfranchisement, and disproportional police brutallity rates that hinder the economic growth of African Americans in society.

Slavery was an institution that allowed white America to come up off of black bodies. As mentioned by Ta-nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, “At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of America’s railroads, workshops, factories, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies– cotton. Despite having contributed to the making of the United States, slaves started at a disadvantage because despite contributing greatly to the development of American society, they had nothing to show for it. Stokley Carmichael also highlights in his black power speech that a popular saying in school was, “If you work real hard, if you sweat, if you are ambitious, then you will be successful.” Carmichael applies this concept to slavery, and expresses how if that was true African Americans should have had more to more to show from slavery than a “hard way to go”. The profits earned from slaves’ labor was never given to them, therefore they were already set back in comparison to their white counterparts once they were freed.

Prior to being freed, there were limitations set on slaves in order to keep them oppressed. The ability to read and write is widely known as necessity in life. If one can not read or write they will have difficulty communicating and understanding their environment. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. These anti-literacy laws were used to control and dehumanize them. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the lack of reading and writing capabilities was frustrating for the enslaved as it prevented the ability to do simple things such as record marriage or child birth. Slaveowners feared that if slaves learned to read that they would plan mass escapes. To give insight, all slave states other than Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write (Smithsonian American Art Museum). This highlights how determined the states were to keep slaves disadvantaged. Despite these laws, slaves were adamant about learning to read. Many of them listened outside school houses where their masters’ children were learning (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Even though they were aware of the consequences if caught, the passion for a better life overcame that.

After slavery was abolished with the 13th amendment, Jim Crow laws followed. During the 1980s, these laws mandated the physical separation of African Americans and whites in facilities such as schools, churches, restaurants hospitals, and public transportation (Racial Segregation in Post-Reconstruction America). While the entire nation was experiencing economic and industrial growth, African Americans were not enjoying the same. As Jim Crow laws were in full effect, racial and class divides grew wider. African Americans fought back during the Civil Rights Movement, but they were setback by the ruling of Plessy vs Ferguson. This decision ruled that “separate but equal” did not violate the 14th amendment. Roughly 50 years later, the Jim Crow era was reaching a slow end with the ruling of the Brown vs Board of Education case. About a decade later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed all racial discrimination on a state and local level (Racial Segregation in Post-Reconstruction America). Despite this, racism and isolation of African Americans is still present today.

With the Brown vs Board of education ruling being over 60 years ago, you would expect that by now that public school’s would reflect the diversity of our nation. Even with progress, many students are still racially isolated. About 15% black and Latino students attend schools that are less than one percent white (Segregation Then and Now). Black and Latino students are less likely to be in classrooms with white students than they were in the 1970s and 80s (Segregation Then and Now). On top of that, high minority schools tend to be high poverty schools. Both of these factors contribute to achievement gaps.

According to the GAO, “high minority and high poverty schools have twice as many teachers with less than one year of teaching experience and five times as many teachers who do not meet state certifications than low poverty, low minority schools” (Segregation Then and Now). The teachers dealing with impoverished and minority kids are not as qualified or experienced as the ones teaching predominantly white and low poverty students. Funding is also lower in high poverty and minority school districts. Since nearly half of school district’s funding comes from local property taxes, their will be differences in schools between wealthy districts and impoverished communities (ASCD). In addition to less qualified teachers, this will also contribute to these students not receiving the same quality of education. It is known that “knowledge is power”, so if African Americans are continuing to not have the same resources to gain a quality education, they will still be at a disadvantage to their white counterparts when entering college or the work force. Research also shows that integrated schools hold greater potential for helping students suceed rather than in racially isolated schools. For example, low income 4th grade students that attended more affluent schools scored almost two years ahead of low income students in high poverty schools on the NAEP test (Segregation Then and Now). When low income students are integrated with students of higher socioeconomic status, the result, based off of a multi-generational study by UC Berkeley, is better educated parents, which in turn result in better educated children. This reveals that if the nation’s schools were integrated and provided quality education to all students that the economy of the entire nation would be boosted.

In society today, majority of white American’s feel that race has no affect on people’s opportunities today. However, while the United States may be making progress with diversity and inclusion because of affirmative action policies, the assessments of hiring bias have had little change over time (Quillian). A comparison of callback rates from several field experiments showed that white applicants received 36% more callbacks than black applicants and Latino applicants with identical resumes (Quillian). Black applicants have seen little change in hiring rates over time. The National Academy of Sciences also conducted a study to show the ratio of callbacks for black applicants compared to white applicants and the trend line is flat. What is alarming is that these results only reflect discrimination at the entry point of hiring, not later on in employment when it comes to salary and promotions (Quillian). What this information does suggest is that hiring should have more oversight, and that there should be stricter policies that address racial bias. This anti-discrimination legislation can prevent even well-intending employers from racial bias and lead to the growth of African Americans in the work force and in leadership positions. When African Americans are allowed the same opportunities as non-black people, they can work themselves out of poverty and provide better environments for children to grow up in.This could lead to lower incarceration rates, better educated children, and a more progressive role in the economy and politics.

Disenfranchisement policies came into place when the United States was founded. Initially the right to vote was given to wealthy, white males. African American males were granted the right to vote by the 15th amendment, however; after Reconstruction states took measures to disenfranchise them again. A common way of doing this was to put certain punishments on crimes based on arrest patterns and race (Mauer). This was done with the intention to disenfranchise African Americans and go around the 15th amendment. Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, argues that people with felony convictions are “less trustworthy and responsible”. However, a component of democracy is mass participation, and the leap of disenfranchising people based off of character diverts from this. In the United States today, 48/50 states have felony disenfrachisement policies. 6.1 million Americans have been disenfranchised as of 2016, and 36% of those are African American (Mauer).

African Americans are also disenfranchised at four times the rate of non-black citizens (Mauer). Disproportionate rates of incarceration in the African American community also results in higher rates of voter exclusion. In our nation’s political culture today, race and politicial party are correlated. Typically, African Americans tend to be more liberal and align with the Democratic party. Keeping a large portion of this demographic unable from voting is an advantage for the Republican party in order to win the elected positions. As a result, this can shut out African American’s and the poor’s opinions being addressed at the state and federal level. With fewer people in office focused on achieving equal rights for African Americans, making a change to tackle felony disenfrachisement and other issues that the black community may face will be tougher. A different way to handle felony convinctions is to allow people to do their jail time and probation sentences, but allow them to retain their fundamental rights as a citizen. Because policies do affect those with felonies on record, the legislation that was passed with the intention of disenfranchising African Americans should be done away with.

Police brutality refers to force used by law enforcement officers that is excessive and/or unnecessary in dealing with civilians (Police Brutality and Race). This excessive force began in the Civil Rights era after slavery was abolished, but the racial divide was still desired. In the 1960s, police brutality was the norm in African American neighborhoods. The 1967 Detroit Riot was a highlight of police brutality in America. On July 23, 1967 there was a clash between citizens and police when police broke up a celebration at an illegal nightclub (Police Brutality and Race). Some decided to reciprocate the violence by fighting back. Within days, 43 people had died, over a thousand buildings burned and over 7000 people arrested (Police Brutality and Race). Immediately following, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in military troops and appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to assess why this violence was happening. The results were that discrimination, poverty, and white racism were among the causes. Another poll that same year revealed that almost half of African Americans said police brutality was an issue in their communities (Police Brutality and Race). Currently, African Americans are killed by law enforcement at 3 times the rate of white people (Police Brutality and Race).

Between 1999 and 2011, 2,151 white people and 1,130 black people were killed by the police (Police Brutality and Race). While some may argue that more white people are killed by the police, it is important to note that black people only make us 14% of the United States population. Because of this, the percentage of black Americans that are killed by the police is much higher. This disproportionate rate could be from the stereotype that black people are dangerous, or policemen not being trained to handle situations appropriately. Regardless of the reason, these acts of unnecessary murder contribute to the systemic unfairnesss and a loss of faith in government institutions (Mock). The trauma from these incidents cause poor health effects in African Americans, whether they were directly involved with the incident at all. Research shows that they tend to have depression and anxiety in the weeks following these incidents (Mock). This can affect this demographic as a whole as people can feel unsafe in their environments and unfocused on their jobs/in school. When someone cannot focus, it is harder for them to finish a task at hand. If this happens, people can lose their jobs or children will not make good grades. Feeling safe and accepted in your society is essential in order to live comfortably, but if African Americans do not feel that way they can be prevented from achieving things that others can.

While slavery and segregation have been put to a rest, the effects are still among us. The initial setback of those institutions on African Americans are still hindering some today. Schools are still segregated and unequal, jobs are still not given off of true skill, their voices go intentionally unheard, and their people are target practice. If as a nation we fail to acknowledge or change these issues many will still have to work, “twice as hard to get half as far.” In order to truly get past our nation’s history, we must work to combat the effects and those who were not affected by it need to understand the benefit they are getting from it. If we work to mitigate these things, the economy and society will benefit from African Americans being accepted and treated fairly, but until then our past lives on.”

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How Slavery and Segregation Affect America Today. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from