Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently illustrated how much overt racial bigotry against blacks has been reduced. He used the case of Wesley A. Brown, the first African American graduate of the United States Naval Academy. Brown was the first to “successfully endure the racist hazing that had forced the others to quit.” When Brown joined the Naval Academy, if blacks dared to enroll, they were harassed to force them out. Today, there is a building in the Naval Academy named in Brown’s honor.
Cohen is correct. Today, black children know that there is no occupation that is categorically off limits to them. They can grow up to be president, an idea that seemed farfetched just a few years ago.
On the other hand, the picture Cohen painted would have looked starkly different had he focused less on interpersonal discrimination and more on institutional discrimination. By “institutional discrimination,” I am referring to the ways that the normal policies and practices of social institutions like the educational system, the labor market, and the criminal justice system serve to maintain racial inequality.
Cohen celebrates the end of legally enforced segregation, but fails to acknowledge that we still live with a great deal of de facto racial segregation. A large number of our neighborhoods are racially segregated, which means that many of our schools are racially segregated. Segregation concentrates black children not merely in majority-black schools, but also in schools where a majority of students are in poverty. While, in theory, there are no limits facing black children, children born into economically disadvantaged families, in economically disadvantaged communities, who then attend economically disadvantaged schools have the odds stacked against them.
One reason black families are disproportionately economically disadvantaged is because blacks are still about twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. This was the case in the 1960s, and it remains true today. This basic relationship holds true at all education levels. Black high school dropouts are about twice as likely to be unemployed as white high school dropouts. Black college graduates are about twice as likely to be unemployed as white college graduates. Research shows that employers still have a preference for hiring whites over blacks.
Our criminal justice system is another site where policies and practices systematically disadvantage blacks. As the book Dorm Room Dealers illustrates, white middle-class youth use illicit drugs and sell illicit drugs, but this population is much, much less likely to be incarcerated for these offenses than are poor black youth engaging in the same activities. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow goes into greater detail about how our illicit drug policies and practices produce institutional discrimination against African Americans.
Cohen is correct. There is no better time to be black in America than today. While this is a true statement, we also still have a long way to go before there is equal opportunity for all.