Equality still elusive 50 years after Civil Rights Act
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
Economic, educational progress made falls short.
When President John F. Kennedy called on Congress in June 1963 to pass what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he rattled off a string of statistics intended to highlight the nation’s continuing racial divide a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
African Americans born that year, Kennedy said, had “about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.”
Fifty years later, on the eve of Monday’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the battle to end overt discrimination has been far more successful than the effort to attain economic, educational or social equality.
Blacks have made huge strides in high school education but still lag in college graduation rates. Their incomes have risen and poverty rates have declined, but a mammoth wealth gap remains, along with persistently high unemployment rates.
So great has been the increase in political power that the black voter turnout rate surpassed that of whites in the 2012 presidential race, and the number of black elected officials has risen sevenfold. But while school segregation and workplace discrimination have declined, too many African Americans go home to segregated, often impoverished neighborhoods.
“There has been a dramatic change in attitudes and in principles,” says Michael Wenger, a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation’s leading think tank on African-American socioeconomics. “Change has been much less dramatic in actual behavior.”
The Civil Rights Act championed by Kennedy and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson after JFK’s death succeeded in opening public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants. It took longer to reduce racial discrimination in the workplace, but that, too, counts as a success. And the law’s threat to cut off federal funding forced the desegregation of schools in the South.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that,” says Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor specializing in constitutional law and civil rights. “Without that, we wouldn’t have a black middle class as successful as it is. We wouldn’t have a black president. We wouldn’t have as many blacks going to law school or medical school.”
Public attitudes have changed dramatically. In the 1960s, most whites were tolerant of job discrimination and school segregation. Today, most say they accept the racial preferences required to rectify decades of discrimination.