The American Legacy: a Cycle of Oppression against African Americans

Americans pride ourselves on our dedication to democracy and justice. Without the radical ideas of government held by our forefathers, the United States would not be the world superpower it is today. The American government is a masterpiece to behold, except when you see its devastating impact on the state of African American communities across the United States. Repeatedly throughout history, the United States government has undermined, oppressed, and beaten down African-Americans to prevent their success, their prosperity, and their equality to whites. From Jim Crow laws to the more subtle War on Drugs and Crime, politicians have found ways to inhibit the advancement of African Americans as a whole. Slavery was most definitely not the end of the struggles blacks in America would face- at least not while racist white men were controlling the government.

After the liberation of African Americans through the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans fled to large cities to escape the increased segregation and discrimination in the countryside of the former Confederate states. However, the majority still faced prejudice despite their relocation. Many Southern and Border states segregated black communities through exclusionary zoning ordinances (Miller). These zoning ordinances prevented people of color from occupying neighborhoods with largely white populations and maintained neighborhoods of a single race or ethnic group.

During the Great Migration, after World War 1, African Americans began moving out of the South in hordes. Unfortunately, they were still unable to achieve economic prosperity and equality in the more tolerant Northern states. Government-funded housing projects were often located in inner-cities, and most African-Americans were forced to move into these neighborhoods because they did not have the means to live in safer, more affluent areas (Cashin). By segregating African Americans to urban ghettos and inner cities, they have fewer opportunities to obtain high paying jobs. This creates a cycle that limits the advancement of the black population (Cashin). Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited sellers and landlords of discrimination against race, color, sex, disability, and familial status, it did not prevent discrimination against economic class. Therefore, African American communities, which were impoverished through newly outlawed policies, were still at a disadvantage due to their low economic status. Effects of exclusionary zoning policies are still visible today in predominantly lower-class black communities.

In addition to limited opportunities in impoverished black communities, lack of wealth in the largely black districts causes inadequate public school funding. Unfortunately, public schools are predominantly funded with local property taxes. The federal government usually only contributes 8-9% to school budgets nationally (Semuels). Therefore, in poor communities, where home values and taxes are typically lower, schools receive significantly less money. This leads to black children receiving an inferior education compared to white children or those in wealthier neighborhoods. To make matters worse, for many children living in poor districts, the public school also provides free meals and after-school care. David Thompson, an expert in school finances, says there is a clear correlation between updated facilities and an increase in student performance (Kirk). According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending a year for poor children can lead to an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood (Semuels). Many public schools in inner cities face logistical challenges that prevent them from providing children with a proper education too. In January 2018, sixty public schools in Baltimore reported issues with heating. The city of Baltimore subsequently closed all public schools for two days after this event (Kirk). Underprivileged children are missing more days of school to repair issues like faulty heating systems due to a lack of funding for public schools, wasting valuable time during which they could be learning the skills to be successful in the future.

Baltimore has long been a hotbed for racial issues, and the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray simply exacerbated tensions between police and the African-American population. Gray was accused of possessing an illegal switchblade and was arrested using ‘unnecessary force.’ His injuries led to his death in April 2015 (“Freddie Gray…”). As a result of Gray’s death, groups like Black Lives Matter led numerous protests against police brutality towards African Americans. In the years since Gray’s death, the visibility of violence against African Americans by law enforcement has grown; according to the 2015 Police Violence Report by Mapping Police Violence, “36% of unarmed people killed by police were black in 2015 despite black people being only 13% of the U.S. population.” A majority of these victims have been young black people. In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health, they found police violence disproportionately impacts young people of color (Bui, Coates, Matthay).

Douglas S. Massey, a Sociology Professor at Princeton, argues that high rates of black crime continue to exist as national crime rates decrease because African Americans live in poor, segregated areas. He claims that the high level of impoverishment and segregation in black communities leads to violence. Due to the combination of these factors and more, poor black youths who have been beaten down consistently on their path to adulthood are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, black youths are more than four times as likely than white youths to be incarcerated. One of the major reasons for this is that young black people are burdened with the presumption of guilt. In the United States, our courts enforce innocence until proven guilty. However, black Americans are not afforded this right on the streets of Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit. The history of lynching after the end of slavery has placed this unjust charge on African-Americans. Lynchings were often justified through claims by whites that they were simply defending their families, neighborhoods, and property from black criminals (Equal Justice Initiative). In addition to the presumption of guilt, the relationship between blacks and the police has completely crumbled (though the bond had never been strong). Violence against blacks by law enforcement plagues poor communities to the point where black men are 21% more likely to be killed by the police than white men (Thompson). The prevalence of police brutality, profiling, and surveillance in inner-cities has led to the rise of Black Lives Matter and increased media attention on the deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. While rates of crime are higher in the inner-cities compared to suburbs and wealthier neighborhoods, mass incarceration has exacerbated the issue and increased crime rates extremely in majority black cities.

Crime has shown to be tied to a lack of sufficient education and supportive services in neighborhoods of lower-income black families. However, the rapid increase in crime in inner cities and largely black neighborhoods have shown an even clearer relation to the historically high rates of incarceration amongst African Americans (Thompson). When young black people are incarcerated, families are torn apart and often struggle economically, typically single parents and a single paycheck supporting children and older relatives. Yet, when their loved ones return from prison, these families are no better off. While the removal of criminals from communities is certainly beneficial, once prisoners have served their time, they usually re-enter their neighborhood. Unfortunately, prisons sometimes do little to reform and change inmates, and dangerous members of society are returned to impoverished areas. These communities are unable to progress if unreformed felons continue to flood back into their neighborhoods. In addition to this, even if ex-convicts wish to live a lawful life after prison, many of the social benefits they were afforded before they served time have been revoked; a large number of offenders no longer have access to welfare programs, public housing, college loans, and the right to vote (Crutchfield, Weeks). Already poor communities were plunged into even worse economic despair when the era of mass incarceration began due to the relative unemployability of those with a criminal record. The effects of mass incarceration on low-income black communities are debilitating, crippling infrastructure that was weak, to begin with, and deepening the level of impoverishment in inner cities and non-white communities.

Mass incarceration has been a growing issue in the United States since the 1990’s when policymakers promised to “get tough on crime.” While crime rates have decreased by more than half since 1991, mass incarceration continues to be a problem in this country (Equal Justice Initiative). Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative and author of ‘Just Mercy’, noted that “seven million people in the United States are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.” The huge numbers of inmates have choked state budgets and fueled the growth of the prison industry in the private sector. The simple and seemingly obvious solution to ending the further degradation of impoverished African American communities is to reduce the number of people incarcerated. This requires numerous policy changes on both the federal and state level, but mass incarceration has been shown to disproportionately affect low-income black communities. Finally, and most favorably, decreasing the number of incarcerated citizens has not shown that it will lead to higher levels of crime (Crutchfield, Weeks).

So what about all the other issues facing poverty-stricken African Americans? Segregation, lack of opportunity, police brutality, and discrimination will still challenge African Americans living in inner cities —even if incarceration rates in this country drop— but the larger workforce and more intact family structure brought with the gradual eradication of mass incarceration in the United States will significantly impact these neighborhoods. A larger workforce can contribute to the growth and increase of wealth in the community, therefore producing more funding for local services, like schools and parks.

Furthermore, each of these individual issues affecting African Americans is also continuously being reformed. Exclusionary zoning has been banned in numerous states across the country, and in June of 2015, the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the removal of exclusionary zoning was central to the ruling in a housing discrimination case (Rigsby). The Inclusive Community Project sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs for disparately locating public housing in impoverished areas. The ruling in favor of the ICP was a victory for civil rights and housing advocates alike. The issue of funding for public schools is slightly more complex. Schools across the United States have been struggling with adequate funding for decades; this is not an issue unique to African American communities. However, more stable home life and more paychecks coming into homes with children can definitely affect the productivity and achievement of urban black youths. These factors may also lead to a decrease in arrests and incarceration of African American young people.

Mass incarceration at least exacerbates the state of poor black communities, if it is not a root cause of many issues that seem to be causing a racial and class divide in our country today. The division between blacks and whites in the United States in 2019 is as prominent as ever, and historically, our government has done nothing to mend the gap. African Americans have never had it easy in this country, and it will take time to reverse the consistent and persistent undermining of their success by the government. However, there is hope for racial equality in this country, as shown by the passage of the First Step Act in the Senate on December 18th, 2018 and the introduction of the End Racial Profiling Act in February 2017 (NAACP). The First Step Act aims to reform sentencing laws and prison terms, and the End Racial Profiling Act, well, addresses the practice of racial profiling. Now is the time to spur social, political, and economic change for underprivileged members of society. African-Americans cannot fight alone to end the systematic oppression they have faced since 1863. Unity and the demand for justice is the only way to ensure that our nation truly implements the claim that all men are created equal.

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