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Race in America: The Content of our Character

By Lorenda Naylor

4girlsThis month marks the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing. On September 15, 1963, four young black girls (Addie Mae Collings, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley) were murdered by Ku Klux Klan members. News of the bombing galvanized support around the world and became the turning point in the civil rights movement. It served as a catalyst for the passage of landmark federal legislation that ended segregation and prohibited racial discrimination. This includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The purpose was to end Jim Crow laws and ensure equality for Blacks and other disenfranchised groups in regards to employment, public accommodations, voting rights and housing. These legal protections represent a historic breakthrough and are symbolic of the Civil Rights Movement. These laws are critical for the advancement of Blacks and other minority groups in addressing overt discrimination. As Americans, we celebrate their passage and success. However, despite the removal of legal barriers and guarantee of equal protection, racism and discrimination remain a part of the American social fabric. Racial disparity in education, employment, health, income, and incarceration continues to persist. This article reviews legal protections for Blacks, discusses racial disparity in post-racial America and identifies strategies for transforming America into an egalitarian democracy.

Legal Protections



Legal protections for Blacks and minorities are a legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. Without passage of these laws segregation and discrimination would still be legal. Three landmark laws were enacted during the 1960s to protect Blacks. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-352). It guarantees equal protection of the law under the 14th amendment of the Constitution and protects voting rights under the15th amendment. In general, it prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in employment, public facilities and public education, and ensures that all citizens have the constitutional right to vote. Basically, it made the Jim Crow laws of the South illegal.

The second piece of legislation is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA guarantees minorities “equal access to the ballot…by protecting racial and language minorities”(http://www.aclu.org) . The purpose of the VRA is to enforce the 15th amendment to the US Constitution, which states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” (US Constitution, 15th Amendment, Section 1, 1870). Basically, the VRA addressed voter suppression and eliminated voting qualifications such as literary tests and moral character. It is important to note that despite 40 plus years of success the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA, section 4 (Shelby County v Holder 570 US 2013. Today, states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression will no longer be required to obtain federal preclearance before changing voting laws.

The third piece of legislation is the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It addresses housing segregation by prohibiting discrimination in housing rental and purchasing including zoning, lending, and advertising. Specifically, it makes it illegal to “discriminate against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin“(USC 42 section 3604 http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/3604 ).

These three laws provided legal protections to Blacks and minorities and as such made necessary and critical legal and social advancements in addressing overt racism. Equally important they are symbolic of the success of the civil rights movement and commemorate the lives of citizens who struggled, fought and died for democracy and freedom.

Racial Disparity in Post Racial America

In 2008, the United States elected its first African American President and four years later citizens re-elected that same President: Barack Obama. Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States was symbolic of a post-racial America and the age of colorblindness. Yet evidence does not support this claim. Racial discrimination, prejudice and bias continue to persist despite the election of President Obama and the legal advancements made during the Civil Rights Movement. America is a racially polarized country. As evidenced by the shooting deaths of Jonathon Ferrell and Trayvon Martin a black man can be shot with no probable cause.

Housing segregation remains high in much of the country (Iceland 2009; Logan and Stults 2011), Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be incarcerated, face the death penalty, live in poverty, drop out of high school, experience higher morbidity and mortality rates, and less likely to own a home. Blacks are disproportionately incarcerated. In 2003, Blacks represented only 12 percent of the American population, but 40 percent of the prison population. Comparatively, whites represent 70 percent of the American population and only 20 percent of the prison population (Bailey Figler. A vote for democracy: confronting the racial aspects of felon disenfranchisement 2006). Moreover, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world (largely due to non violent drug convictions) and incarcerates more Blacks than South Africa did under Apartheid (Alexander, 2010). The evidence is clear and overwhelming; a post-racial America remains a myth.

In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” legal scholar and civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander (2010) argues that because it is no longer legal or socially acceptable to use race to discriminate a new system has been created.

“Rather than rely on race we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind…Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination… are suddenly legal. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have simply redesigned it” (p. 2). Mass incarceration of Blacks for non-violent offenses has created a new Jim Crow based on being a criminal. It is an acceptable and widely used form of discrimination.

Strategies for Transformation

If we are to create a dynamic and sustainable change then we must transform the current system. First, we need to address the mass incarceration of Blacks. Specifically, we need to reframe the problem of drug addiction, offenses, and convictions directly by correctly re-labeling the problem.  Drug addiction and the mental health issues (mainly depression) that accompany those addictions are health issues and medical problems. They are not crime problems and as such they should be treated based on the medical model and public health model, not the penal model.

If we are to transform race and give all citizens equal opportunity, then as a country we need to expand the number of drug treatment facilities while decreasing the number of prisons and funding for prisons. In addition, outpatient programs should be bolstered and opportunities for disenfranchised youth should be expanded. This crisis calls for a paradigm shift in how we think about, conceive and treat drug addiction. As a nation we cannot financially and socially afford to criminalize addiction.

Second, additional laws need to be passed to address discrimination. In his book, “Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America,” Michael Higginbotham (2013), a legal scholar, argues that we must end racial profiling and criminalize private race-based acts of discrimination to deter future racism.

Third, at the professional level the field of public administration needs to address racism and make it a priority. Although it is a subject matter of high importance and critical significance it is not addressed in mainstream public administration literature. This is unfortunate given the pivotal role that scholars and practitioners can play in ending discrimination.

Fourth, at the individual level white people need to be stronger advocates for the black community and minority groups. The adage, “not on my watch,” applies here. We need to take a stand when we witness overt and covert bias, prejudice, and discrimination in our organizations and communities. We accomplish this task by demanding openness, fairness, and transparency. In sum, failure to replace the old system with a new system will lead us back to the status quo. In the words of Martin Luther King, “this is no time to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” If we want to live in a post-racial America, then we must focus on the content of our character and start with the inmates in our prisons.

 Lorenda A. Naylor, PhD, MPH, MPA, is Associate Professor & Director, Government and Public Policy Program at the University of Baltimore, College of Public Affairs in the School of Public & International Affairs.          

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