Do we, as some claim, live in a post-racial society that no longer requires any special measures to aid equality of opportunity? After all, we have our first black president. What further proof of racial opportunity could anyone want?
Well, a lot. Our racial history casts a long shadow particularly in black-white relations, (though other people of color endured onerous discrimination too). That shadow hangs even over Northern cities with a reputation for liberalism, say for example, Portland, Oregon. Portland? Yes, Portland. Even as it joined the union as a “free state” in 1857, Oregon passed a law making it a crime punishable by “not less than 20, not more than 39 stripes” “upon his or her bare back” for a “negro or mulatto to come in or reside” in or own property in the state. In 1919 the Portland board of realtors barred members from selling houses to African Americans. In 1945 Portland was declared the “most discriminatory city north of the Mason Dixon Line” by a social work journal.
As late as the 1970’s, a white property owner in Portland had to go around collecting signatures of approval from neighbors before selling to an African-American. But that history is essentially erased from white minds. Until a friend mentioned it to me and I began to research, I had heard nothing of it. But very likely, black people in Portland remember it.
Similarly, Milwaukee had, within the memory of people still living, officially segregated parks and lakefront beaches (as attested in Sue Doro’s poetry-memoir, Sugar String). In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage, but it was not until November, 2000 –interesting date—that Alabama removed anti-miscegenation from its state constitution: 40 percent of voters opposed that move.
Has progress been made? Yes, some has, but statistics don’t tell the whole story. For example, some universities used affirmative action to recruit the most privileged people of each historically underrepresented group (children of upper-class African immigrants recently), people who would have had little difficulty enrolling without aid, and then patted themselves on the back for their strides in racial and ethnic diversity.
Perhaps the best place to see whether or not equal opportunity exists is prison. New York State has a vast university system. Even so in the 1990s, more black people went to jail for drug offenses in that state than graduated from all its public colleges and universities. One could almost say where whites go to college, blacks go to prison. In high-poverty black areas, incarceration is an everyday occurrence; everyone knows someone who’s been to prison. And most damning of all, “thirteen percent of all black men in the U.S.” can’t ever participate in democracy because of a past crime which they have supposedly paid for. And the end of that trend is nowhere in sight. Today the state of California spends more on prisons than on education.
Are we a post-racial society with equal opportunity? Really? What’s scary is that people in power think so.