by F. Michael Higginbotham, the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law, University of Baltimore School of Law
Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America offers a prescription for moving America beyond its destructive race problem once and for all. While tremendous progress has been made, America remains unequal. Black unemployment, poverty, and homelessness are twice that of whites. Wealth accumulation for blacks is one twentieth of what it is for whites. Seventy-five percent of whites graduate from high school compared to less than 60 percent of blacks. While some blame personal choices for the discrepancies, the nation's deeply entrenched history of discrimination cannot be ignored. Emotional racial protests continuing across the country today prove that America is far from becoming "post-racial," to the chagrin of those proclaiming such when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
Ghosts of Jim Crow notes the three distinct eras, the nation’s founding, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement, during which progress towards racial equality was marred by periods of resistance and retreat. Talk of building a new nation, on the principles of liberty and equality, in the latter 18th century, meant little to the millions of blacks forced into chattel slavery or to the free blacks who were racially profiled, presumed to be slaves, and denied due process rights simply because they were black (Hudginsv. Wright, 1806). The promise of emancipation, following the Civil War, was cut short when the Supreme Court adopted a “separate but equal” theory in Plessy v. Ferguson, at the end of the 1800s. In the decades following, state and local governments' massive resistance to desegregation initiatives allowed "Jim Crow" segregation to flourish. This remained true even after such behavior was ruled unconstitutional, in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. During the late 20th century, just as the civil rights movement was beginning to show results, through race-conscious affirmative action programs, the Supreme Court limited the government’s ability to redress all but the most blatant examples of discrimination. The 2013 State of Florida v. Zimmerman case, where a white neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing the black teenager he allegedly profiled, Trayvon Martin, proves Ghosts continue to haunt black America. President Obama, who rarely comments on race, acknowledged as much in his recent comments.
Subtle, yet pervasive, racism, through presumptions of black inferiority and embraces of black separation and white isolation continue to perpetuate the racial divide. There are two types of racism that prevent equality currently – structural racism and cultural racism. Structural racism involves policies, laws, and programs that embed inequality within society, and in so doing, reinforce cultural racism, those beliefs and actions that embrace racial hierarchy and isolation. Both structural and cultural racism must be ended in order to create equality.
Legislative and judicial responses to continuing racial inequality have been inadequate. The approach of simply eliminating government racial classifications is not sufficient. We must eliminate notions of superiority to stop the cyclical process whereby racist thoughts and actions lead to disparities.