On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in various aspects of public and private life. We can comfortably describe the Civil Rights Act as a victory of the civil rights movement, in which black folks and their allies took to the streets to protest the racial apartheid that structured American life. Through marches, boycotts, and various forms of civil disobedience, these activists demanded change. They demanded inclusion into the body politic. They demanded a new racial landscape. The Civil Rights Act was passed in response to these revolutionary demands.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the legislation’s passage. As such, it gives us an occasion to pause and reflect on the law’s legacy. It gives us an opportunity to ask the sobering question: did it provide equality and justice for most black folks?
I find it hard not to be cynical. Did it provide racial equality and justice for black people in the United States? Um, not so much. While the legislation was designed to address the subordination that black folks were forced to endure in this country, they remain at the bottom of practically every measure of well-being in the United States. Black women are four times more likely than white women to die during childbirth. The infant mortality rate for black babies is twice the rate of that for white babies. Black folks have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease than any other racial group in this country. In general, black people are sicker and die earlier than their counterparts. This is true even when one controls for class.
And those are just measures of health. Census data reveal that the poverty rate for white people was approximately 11.6 percent between 2007 and 2011. The poverty rate for black people during that same period of time was 25.8 percent—more than double the rate for whites. Consider as well that approximately 1.5 million people are presently incarcerated in this country. About 500,000 of those people are white, 550,000 of those people are black, and 350,000 of those people are Latino. These figures are more disturbing when we think of them in terms of the racial composition of the United States as a whole. While white people make up 63 percent of the United States, they make up only 33 percent of those who are presently incarcerated. While Latinos make up 16 percent of the United States, they constitute 23 percent of those who are presently incarcerated. And while black people make up 13 percent of the United States, they constitute a whopping 37 percent of those who are presently incarcerated.
These facts (and many, many others) make me want to roll my eyes when people speak about the Civil Rights Act in celebratory terms.
But then I am reminded of a trip that I took late last year to Miami, my hometown, with my boyfriend. My dad, who is in his early 60s, offered to give my boyfriend, who had never been to Miami, a tour of the city. I rode in the backseat as my dad drove us around and pointed out the sights—the American Airlines Arena (where the Miami Heat had recently won two NBA championships), the Sun Life Stadium (where the Miami Dolphins have not won anything in recent memory—sorry, Dad!), South Beach (of course), Art Deco architecture (which is everywhere), etc. Towards the end of the tour we were driving over the Rickenbacker Causeway, when my dad said, “If you look to your left, you will see Virginia Key Beach. That’s the beach that I used to go to when I was a little boy. It was the only beach that black people were allowed to go to when I was growing up.” A jolt went through me. Although I have vague recollections of my parents mentioning the “black beaches” and “white beaches” of their childhood, I had completely pushed away those memories. Yet, there I sat in shock, reminded of the fact that my dad—my dad—had lived through the degradation and humiliation that was Jim Crow.
Our country looks very different than the one in which my dad grew up. And I can only imagine what my dad’s dad would think if he were still alive. My grandfather probably would be dismayed by the enduring racial inequalities that infuriate me. He would be upset that societal discourses construct young black men as criminals. (If he was alive to witness Trayvon Martin’s killing and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed him, he probably would just shake his head and say, “Some things never change.”) He would be upset that young black women’s fertility and desire for motherhood are treated as a social problem. He would be saddened that most of his sons have hypertension.
But, he would dispute any argument that I made that the Civil Rights Act does not deserve to be celebrated. Those black folks and their allies accomplished a lot. Indeed, they achieved formal equality for women and racial minorities. So, while the struggle for racial equality continues, and while those who are interested in racial justice must work to fight the sometimes obvious, oftentimes obscure ways by which racial stratification now is reproduced in this country, we ought to take the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as an opportunity to pause and say, “Nice job. Good start.”
Khiara Bridges, a School of Law associate professor of law and a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of anthropology and author of Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization (University of California Press, 2011), has written widely on the issues of race, class, and reproductive rights. She is an organizer and speaker of the LAW conference The Civil Rights Act of 1964 at 50: Past, Present, and Future, being held at the George Sherman Union November 14 and 15. The event is free and open to the public. Bridges can be reached at email@example.com.
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