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The final phase

1/31/2012, 5:47 p.m.
“Well, if you want to get rich, you can start by doing your homework.”

The final phase

African Americans now confront the most challenging period in their quest for full equality. The struggle to attain economic parity looms before them. However, a sustained decline in overt racial confrontation over the years may have rendered blacks less attuned to battle.

In the past there has always been a cadre of citizens of good will ready to join the fray to eliminate racial discrimination. During slavery times, whites were active in the emancipation movement. They supported the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865) to outlaw slavery.

While blacks’ status as citizens was assured by the 14th Amendment (1868) they were still second class citizens. Although blacks were entitled by the 14th Amendment to “… the equal protection of the laws,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that “separate but equal” satisfied that requirement.

Jim Crow reigned in the confederacy from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement. There were continual challenges in the courts to invalidate the oppressive segregation laws. Finally, the doctrine of separate but equal was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Shortly after that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 created legal impediments to racial discrimination in employment, education, places of public accommodation and voting.

Many white citizens were involved in this long campaign of equal rights for blacks. There is a moral repugnance against racial discrimination in America. And the major battleground was the court house. It is unlikely, however, that many whites will be protesting for blacks to acquire greater wealth. While the Constitution affords equal opportunity, it does not require that every American must become rich.

Unlike every other period in the struggle for full equality, African Americans are now on their own. They must do it themselves and with sophisticated alliances, or economic parity will never happen. The task is onerous. In 2009 during the recession, 25.8 percent of blacks lived in poverty compared with 12.3 percent of whites. Latest reports indicate that the poverty percentage for blacks has now grown to 27 percent.

Black unemployment also hovers around twice the white rate. In 2010 when white joblessness was 8.7 percent, the black rate was 16 percent. As one might expect, there was also a great disparity in income. Median family income for whites in 2009 was $62,545, but the level for blacks was only $38,409.

It would be folly for black leaders to confront this problem as a civil rights issue. Absent racial discrimination in hiring, what would be the legal basis for such an approach? In these economically perilous times it is unlikely that even whites of good will would rally to such a cause on a racial basis. Rick Santorum voiced what is probably a general sentiment when he said on the campaign trail, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them someone else’s money.”

However, there is still an opportunity to influence public policy. The census bureau has found that 97.3 million Americans live just above the poverty level but below the middle class. Together with those in poverty, this group includes 48 percent of the U.S. population. Obviously, any political effort with an alliance of this group must be based on economic status and not race.

Regardless of the prospects for political action, there is no substitute for self effort.