African Americans



The Segregation Period

The Civil Rights Movement

African Americans Today

  1. Law and Criminal Justice
    • Discrimination has a long history in the American legal system. The U.S. constitution provided for the return of escaped slaves and held that a slave should be counted as two-thirds of a person for congressional apportionment and tax purposes.
    • In 1857, the Supreme court ruled in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford that slaves remained slaves even when living or traveling through states where slavery was illegal, and that constitutional rights and privileges did not extend to African Americans: "We think . . . that they [African Americans] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizen" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the citizens of the United States."
    • Although such racist ideas are no longer part of the law, numerous studies have shown that African Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, indicted, convicted, and committed to an institution. The racial difference in incarceration rates is huge and growing. Today, about 1 in every 3 African American men is either in prison or on probation or parole.
    • Racial prejudice is a significant part of this discrepancy. The expectations of police officers, prosecutors, and judges that African Americans are more likely to be criminals become a self-fulfilling prophesy: Because they are expected to commit more crimes, African Americans are watched more closely, and therefore are arrested and prosecuted more often. Blacks are more that twice as likely to be stopped by the police compared to whites, even when higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods are taken into account. Although whites make up 75% of the drug users in the U.S., blacks account for 75% of the inmates with drug charges.
    • Data collected annually by the FBI's Uniform Crime Report (UCR) show that Blacks account for 28 percent of arrests, even though they represent only about 12 percent of the nation's population. Conflict theorists point out that the higher arrest rate is not surprising for a group that is disproportionately poor and therefore much less able to afford private attorneys, who might be able to prevent formal arrests from taking place. Additionally, the UCR focuses on index crimes (mainly property crimes) most often committed by low-income people.
    • In contrast to popular misconceptions about crime, African Americans and the poor are especially likely to be the victims of serious crimes. This fact is documented in victimization surveys, which are systematic interviews of ordinary people carried out annually to reveal how much crime occurs. These statistics show that African Americans are 28 percent more likely to be victims of violent crimes and are 22 percent more likely to be victims of property crimes than are Whites.
    • The term differential justice refers to the tendency for Whites to be deal with more leniently than Blacks, whether at the time of arrest, indictment, conviction, sentencing, or parole.
    • Several studies demonstrate that police often deal with African American youths more harshly than with White youngsters. For example, sociologists George Bridges and Sara Stern found in 1998 that probation officers were more likely to evaluate Black youth negatively and to describe them as potentially dangerous in their recommendations to judges than White youths who committed comparable violent offences and had similar records of prior convictions.
    • Researchers on crime have used the term victim discounting to describe the tendency to view crimes as less socially significant if the victim is viewed as less worthy.
    • One of the most extreme forms of victim discounting takes place in homicide cases. Numerous studies show that defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims were White rather than Black. Additionally, about 83 percent of the victims in death penalty cases are white, even though only 50 percent of all murder victims are White.
    • Also, when a schoolchild walk into a cafeteria or schoolyard with automatic weapons and kills a dozen children and teachers it becomes a case of national alarm, but when children kill each other in drive-by shootings it is viewed as a local concern and the need to clean-up a dysfunctional neighborhood. Many note that the difference between these situations is not the death toll but who is being killed: middle-class Whites in the schoolyard shootings and Black ghetto youth in the drive-bys.
  2. Education
    • Several measures document the inadequate quantity and quality of education received by African Americans.
    • The gap in educational attainment between Blacks and Whites has always been present. Despite programs directed at the poor, such as Head Start, White children are still more likely to have formal prekindergarten education than are African American children. Later, Black children are more likely to drop out of school sooner and therefore are less likely to receive high school diplomas, let alone college degrees. Although there has been some progress in reducing this gap in recent years, the gap remains substantial-with nearly twice the proportion of Whites holding a college degree as Blacks in 2000.
    • Many educators argue that many students would not drop out of school were it not for the combined inadequacies of their education. Among the deficiencies noted include insensitive teachers, poor counseling, unresponsive administrators, overcrowded classes, irrelevant curricula, and dilapidated school facilities.
    • Although several of these problems can be addressed with more adequate funding, some are stalemated by disagreements over what changes would lead to the best outcome. For example, there is a significant debate among educators and African Americans in general over the content of curriculum that is best for minority students. Some schools have developed academic programs that take an Afrocentric perspective and immerse students in African American history and culture. However, a few of these programs have been targeted as ignoring fundamentals, as in the debate in Oakland, California over recognizing Ebonics as a language in the classroom.
    • It has been more than 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. The challenge was to have integrated schools even though the neighborhoods were segregated. Initially, courts sought to overcome this de facto segregation (i.e., school segregation that resulted from residential patterns). Typically, students were bused within a school district to achieve racial balance.
    • In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in Millikin v. Bradley that it was improper to order Detroit and the suburbs to have a joint metropolitan busing solution. This and other Supreme Court decisions have effectively ended initiatives to overcome residential segregation, once again creating racial isolation in the schools. Indeed, even in Topeka, one-third of the schools are segregated today.
    • Today, racial diversity is still largely absent in schools. In 2000, seven out of ten African American students attended schools in which fewer than half the students were White. In fact, 37 percent attended schools that had less than 10 percent White students. There has been little evidence of racial integration over the last 30 years; indeed, if there has been any trend, it is that the typical African American student was less likely to have White classmates in 2000 than in 1970.
    • A diverse student population does not guarantee an integrated, equal schooling environment. For example, tracking in schools, especially middle and high schools, intensifies segregation at the classroom level. Tracking is the practice of placing students in specific curriculum groups on the basis of test scores and other criteria.
    • Tracking has the effect of decreasing Black-White classroom interaction as African American children are disproportionately assigned to general classes, and more White children are placed in college preparatory classes.
    • Some studies indicate that African American students are more likely than White students to be classified as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed. African American children are almost three times more likely to be labeled as mentally retarded and placed in special education classes.
  3. The Economic Picture
    • The general economic picture for African Americans has been gradual improvement over the last 40 years, but this improvement is modest compared with that of Whites, whose standard of living has also increased. In terms of absolute deprivation, African Americans are much better off today but have experienced much less significant improvement with respect to their relative deprivation to Whites.
    • There is a significant gap between the incomes of Black and White families in the United States. Black family income resembles that of White families more than 10 years ago.
    • Higher unemployment rates for Blacks have persisted since the 1940s, when they were first documented. Since 1990, the national unemployment rate for Whites has ranged from 3.0 percent to 6.0 percent, whereas for Blacks it has ranged from 7.0 percent to 11.0 percent.
    • The unemployment picture is especially grim for African American workers aged 16 to 24. Many factors have been cited by social scientists to explain why official unemployment rates for young African Americans exceed 30 percent:
      1. Many African Americans live in the depressed economy of the central cities
      2. Immigrants and illegal aliens present increased competition
      3. White middle-class women have entered the labor force
      4. Illegal activities at which youth find they can make more money have become more prevalent
    • The picture grows even more somber when we realize that we are considering only official unemployment. The federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as unemployed only people who are actively seeking employment. Therefore, to be counted as unemployed, a person must not hold a full-time job, must be registered with a government agency, and must be engaged in writing job applications and seeking interviews. It does not count people so discouraged that they have temporarily given up looking for employment.
    • The problem of unemployment is further compounded by underemployment - working at a job for which one is overqualified, involuntarily working part-time, or being employed only intermittently.
    • The official unemployment rate for African American teenagers in a central city is about 40 to 45 percent, well above the 25 percent jobless rate for the nation as a whole during the depression of the 1930s. If we add to the official figures the discouraged job seeker, the rate of unemployment and underemployment of African American teenagers in central-city areas climbs to 90 percent.
    • African Americans, who constitute 12 percent of the population, are underrepresented in high-status, high-paying occupations. Less than 7 percent of lawyers, judges, physicians, financial managers, public relations specialists, architects, pharmacists, and dentists are African American. One the other hand, they account for more than 15 percent of cooks, health aides, hospital orderlies, maids, janitors, and stock handlers.
  4. Health Care
    • In 1996, a shocking study in a prestigious medical journal revealed that two-thirds of boys in Harlem, a predominantly Black neighborhood in New York City, can expect to die in young or mid-adulthood-that is, before they reach age 65. In fact, they have less chance to survive even to 45 than their white counterparts nationwide have of reaching 65.
    • Compared with Whites, Blacks have higher death rates from diseases of the heart, pneumonia, diabetes, and cancer. The death rate from strokes was twice as high among African Americans as it was among Whites. Such epidemiologic findings reflect in part the higher proportions of Blacks found among the nation's lower classes. White Americans can expect to live 77.7 years. By contrast, life expectancy for African Americans is only 72.4 years.
    • Blacks represent less than 7 percent of practicing physicians. This is especially significant given that communities with a high proportion of African American residents are four times more likely to have a physician shortage than are White neighborhoods. Applications by Blacks to medical schools declined beginning in 1997. There is also evidence of a declining presence of minorities among medical school faculty members, reflecting disenchantment with rolling back of affirmative action in many professional schools.