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Racism is the belief that a certain group is superior to another on the basis of their genetic makeup. Racial discrimination, which is a manifestation of racism, is still rife in modern America. It was blatant and open in the past, and was manifested as mistreatment between two individuals.
However, racial discrimination has now become less obvious; the phenomenon is now an institutional ideology that the government, the judiciary, and resource owners perpetuate.
Patterns of racisms in the past and present
Racial discrimination started as early as the 1500s when American settlers massacred, forcefully displaced and mistreated Native Americans. Throughout this century and the next one, racism was an unconcealed phenomenon. The institution of slavery was born in the 16th Century, and it was one of the most disconcerting manifestations of the practice.
Instigators of racial violence regarded their victims as savages. Economic needs (cheap labor) and superiority complexes led to a thriving slave industry. One only has to read parts of the constitution during the 18th century to prove that these sentiments were almost unanimous. States created a three-fifth clause in which slaves would be counted as three-fifth of a person.
Discrimination, at the time, was manifested in the form of abuse of basic human rights. People were treated at properties with no political, economic and social liberties. However, this changed in the 1860s when President Lincoln abolished slavery. In the Fourteenth amendment of the 1868 constitution, African Americans gained full American citizenship.1
Regardless of legislative changes on slavery, the late nineteenth century and early 20th century were still characterized by open cases of discrimination. Although there was no state-sponsored institution (slavery) to support open mistreatment of minorities, race relations were far from cordial. Colored persons could not access several social amenities, such as, local stores, restaurants, or motels.
Furthermore, there were separate school systems and public transportation systems for blacks. During the first half of the twentieth century, racial discrimination took the form of segregation. This originated for a ‘separate-but-equal’ law that was passed in an 1892 civil rights case known as Plessy V Ferguson. Plessy sat on a white-only section of a rail car thus causing the state to arrest him.
The Supreme Court decided that public institutions could separate the people of different races so long as they provided services of equal quality. Blacks could not vote and engage meaningfully in economic activities during the first part of the 20th Century.
The law allowed them to do so, but many of them were intimidated by radical racist groups. Additionally, some southern states required voters to pass literacy test or pay poll taxes before voting. While the slavery era was a more violent manifestation of racism, the early 1900s were characterized by state-supported acts of discrimination.
The latter phenomenon stemmed from the separation of blacks and white in the 20th century; conversely, discrimination occurred in the slavery era by the complete elimination of human rights among African Americans.2
Patterns of racial discrimination were manifested in yet another form in the middle of the twentieth century. This was a time when racial consciousness took on a national dimension. The Civil rights movement was born in the 1950s and 1960s with the aid of prominent African American leaders, such as, Martin Luther King. Protests against racism led to strong reactions from upholders of the status quo.
Some of them lynched blacked or attacked them during anti-racism campaigns. Furthermore, groups that perpetuated the notion of white supremacy flourished at the time. In sit-ins organized by black, non-violent protestors, racists would burn them with cigarettes and carry out other distasteful acts. This was a dark period in the history of anti-discrimination because extremists unleashed their true colors.
Nonetheless, it was these open confrontations that brought the issue of racism to a national audience.3 The phenomenon was no longer seen as a southern problem. Sentiments against open discrimination of blacks rose to enormous proportions.
Schools became desegregated, starting from 1954, and President Kennedy oversaw enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At this time, the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were no longer lawful. Housing, education, or employment representatives could no longer deny black people opportunities solely because of their race.
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These accomplishments were enormous and crucial to the reduction of unconcealed racial discrimination in the country. However, poverty, educational inequalities, and unemployment were still widespread in the African American community. It is during this era that institutional racial discrimination arose and persisted to date.
American citizens have made significant strides in minimizing racial discrimination. This is evident in equal employment opportunities in various workplaces or social institutions. Furthermore, many African Americans now hold influential positions in society, including the presidency.
The media now represents and incorporates many colored persons in their programs. These attempts at racial political correctness are quite laudable, but they do not change the invisible barriers that keep racial minorities disadvantaged.
A new form of racial discrimination, which has dire consequences on the progress of racial minorities in the US, exists now. The criminal justice system is one of the principal manifestations of institutional racial discrimination as blacks are overly represented in prisons. Some skeptics claim that blacks commit more crimes so they deserve to go to jail.
However, when one analyses the number of convicts who are penalized for drug-related charges, one realizes that African Americans are the majority. Statistics indicate that drug use levels are almost equal across all races. Consequently, the nature of incarcerations should reflect this diversity in use. Certain criminal justice policies have discriminatory outcomes because they lead to higher convictions among blacks.
For instance, crack, which is a common drug in the African American community, leads to higher sentence lengths than pure cocaine, which is predominantly used by white communities. Such laws make it difficult for blacks to find work as they have a higher representation of ex-convicts than their white counterparts4.
Problems of racial profiling represent another area of discrimination against African American citizens. Studies indicate that, African Americans are five times more likely than whites to be stopped by law enforcers during a traffic search.
Additionally, several African Americans have been arrested or fallen victim to extrajudicial killings merely because of the color of their skin. A recent case was that of Travoyn Martin, who was shot by a white, community-policing citizen because he looked suspicious. When the assailant was asked why he thought Travoyn looked suspicious, he had no tangible proof to support his claim. The only issue that made the shooter take notice was Martin’s race.
Unemployment is a big problem in the African American community, and this arguably stems from racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act prohibited many individuals from mistreating blacks, but it did not address the root cause of African American disenfranchisement. 5Systematic lack of the skills and opportunities to participate in employment has caused many blacks to become economically disempowered.
Additionally, hidden forms of segregation exist at workplaces since equally-qualified blacks find it more difficult than whites to find jobs. Other areas such as housing still testify to this problem today. Property owners in certain up market neighborhoods may turn down potential tenants if they are colored.
Negative portrayals of ethnic minorities in the media continue to perpetuate unconstructive stereotypes about the community. This explains why most of them receive harsher sentences than members of the dominant race. News reporters prefer to show restrained suspects when the offenders are black.
Further, many Hollywood movies tend to give black characters criminal roles. These images create a negative perception of the group and thus predispose them to longer sentences in court.
Racial discrimination started as soon as white settlers entered the Americas, but became rampant when slavery began. In the nineteenth century, discrimination was open, brutal and permitted by law. This changed in the twentieth century after the abolition of slavery. At the time, segregation was the new form of discrimination. It was supported by the law and disempowered racial minorities.
After the Civil Rights Act, blacks were granted equal rights by law. However, covert discrimination continued to take place through institutional racism. Racial minorities still experience racism today, albeit in a less-individualized manner. In modern times, racial profiling, negative depictions in the media, discriminatory sentencing and economic disenfranchisement are still harsh realities for racial minorities.
Abdollah, T, ‘At 114, a Daughter of Former Slaves Votes for Obama’, Los Angeles Times, 5 November 2008, p. 3
Bacon, N, The World Book Encyclopedia, World Book, New York, 1992.
Henry, P & D Sears, Race and politics: the theory of symbolic racism, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2002.
Sethi, R & R Somanathan, ‘Inequality and segregation’, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2004, pp. 402
Takaki, R, A different mirror: A history of multicultural America, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1993.
1 N Bacon, The World Book Encyclopedia, World Book, New York, 1992.
2 R Takaki, A different mirror: A history of multicultural America, Little, Brown & Co., New York, 1993.
3 R Sethi & R Somanathan, ‘Inequality and segregation’, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 19, no. 1, 2004, pp. 402
4 P Henry & D Sears, Race and politics: the theory of symbolic racism, University of California Press, Los Angeles, 2002.
5 T Abdollah, ‘At 114, a Daughter of Former Slaves Votes for Obama’, Los Angeles Times, 5 November 2008, p. 3