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The New Jim Crow

By Dennis O. Ojogho

In elementary school, I learned about the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans. I also watched chilling black and white footage of the Civil Rights Movement, where young men and women, beaten and bitten, bruised and bloodied, marched toward freedom.

I realize now my teachers blanketed these tales under the guise of distant history. They gave me the false impression that racism in America died after the Civil Rights Movement—that somehow, because there were no longer white-only signs on water fountains, vicious dogs and stinging fire hoses, or black men hanging from trees, my country had vanquished racism forever and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream had become reality.

My elementary school view of modern America fell right in line with the post-racial or colorblind narrative that describes the attitude of some Americans today. In the eyes of post-racialists, as long as there are no laws that facially discriminate against certain ethnic groups, discrimination—and racism along with it—doesn’t exist at all. And yet racial discrimination does not have to be overt, nor does it have to be sanctioned by specific laws. If people are systematically treated differently and denied equal opportunities because of the color of their skin, they are being racially discriminated against.

Post-racialists may point to the successes of black music artists and athletes, or even our black president, as signs that America has moved beyond its shameful past. But the existence of a few black millionaires does not change the fact that white billionaires continue to control and appropriate black music and own the vast majority of professional sports teams. And as for President Barack Obama, less than half of Americans said in 2011 that they believe he was “definitely born in the US.” This skepticism is something that none of his 42 white predecessors ever had to face.

I am unwilling to accept the story that continues to be woven in our public discourse—that these differences, along with disparities in wealth, education, healthcare, housing, criminal convictions and sentences between whites and people of color, are completely due to colorblind factors. This is the post-racial narrative, and it is dead wrong. To say that America is post-racial is to be blind to reality.

Black youth are arrested for drug crimes at a rate that is ten times higher than white youth. Black defendants receive harsher punishments for the same crimes committed by white defendants. Some post-racialists may justify these statistics based on the ill-conceived notion that black people are simply more likely to use drugs, ignoring studies indicating that white people are actually more likely to abuse illegal drugs than black people. Legal mistreatment lives.

Despite the Supreme Court’s 1954 rejection in Brown v. Board of Education of the doctrine “separate but equal” in education, many public schools continue to be just as segregated (and in some cases more segregated) than they were 40 years ago. This is due to a combination of quiet, discriminative housing practices that keep colored homebuyers out of white communities and the continued use of property taxes to fund the majority of public schools across the nation. With poverty enduring in many communities of color as a result of hundreds of years of legal discrimination, many black and Latino families have no choice but to send their children to the underfunded and low performing schools in their neighborhoods. Separate but equal lives.

An invisible, new Jim Crow casts a looming shadow over America. After many of the black and brown children of this country either graduate or drop out from low performing schools, they will be stopped, arrested, convicted, and sentenced at higher rates than the white children who grew up across town. When they are released from prison with felony on their records, they will not be able to vote, employers will refuse to hire them, and the government will be able legally to refuse to give them public benefits. The New Jim Crow lives.

All men are created equal.” Our nation was founded on these words 238 years ago. But with these words hanging in the balance, America has been the ground for the genocide of its native people, the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of human beings, a legalized caste system that prevented people of color from voting, working, learning, and living with the freedom and dignity that every human being deserves, and today a disguised continuation of that caste system.

To deny the existence of America’s race problem is to perpetuate it. The word “slavery is not once mentioned in the United States Constitution prior to the 13th Amendment. Americans stood idly by, feigning ignorance, as the Southern United States created a system of legal discrimination as bad as slavery for an entire century after emancipation. Today, those who pretend that America is post-racial preserve that legacy of denial.

I do not write this to say that America has made no progress. We have made progress. But progress is not enough. We must confront racism to truly move past it, and that begins when those who continue to deny it decide to wake up.

Dennis O. Ojogho ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Winthrop House.

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