Achieving A "More Perfect Union" Requires Acknowledging Our Past Injustices

July 29th marks the 7th anniversary of the passage of H.Res.194, the first-ever official Congressional apology for slavery and Jim Crow. In Charleston, President Obama underscored the need for our nation to acknowledge past injustices and take action to rectify their consequences so we can live up to our founding ideals. Chief among those lofty goals is equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Abolition did not end government-sanctioned mistreatment of African-Americans; it continued in law and in practice for over 100 years, and its effects are still felt today.

When the promise of forty acres and a mule went unfulfilled, many African-Americans were forced from slavery to other forms of servitude. Some freed slaves worked for wages, but most entered into sharecropping agreements designed to leave them penniless or in debt. Segregated public spaces ensured that African-Americans could not fully participate in society. Discrimination in housing, employment, and education were openly practiced and governmentally sanctioned. Even after the Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal," schools were slow to integrate and "white flight" resulted in practical segregation in schools. Jim Crow-era laws ensured that most African-Americans did not obtain property, wealth, education or even political power, as poll taxes kept them from voting. Whether requiring IDs, limiting early voting, and other tactics, similar restrictions on voting rights being instituted today highlight the urgent need for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act's full protections.

In recent years we have become familiar with the term "wealth disparity" because of the widening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our nation. But the roots of that disparity for most African-Americans go deep, extending back to slavery and then burgeoning during Jim Crow.

Merely being born black in America leaves one vulnerable to the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow even today. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white Americans, and their children are almost 3 times as likely to live in poverty. While 15% of white Americans have zero or negative wealth, more than a third of African Americans live in debt or without any assets. The Pew Research Center estimates that white households are worth roughly 20 times as much as African-America households.

Even African-Americans' very health and lifespans have been limited because of income inequality. The rates for diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, kidney disease and infant mortality are much higher among African-Americans. The Affordable Care Act is helping reduce these racially disparate outcomes, but Democrats have had to rebuff more than 50 Republican attempts to repeal or dismantle the law--and we must remain vigilant.

As a nation we believe that our legal system should be blind, with equal justice for all, but the statistics belie that ideal. Arrest rates for African-Americans are far higher than for whites, up to ten times the arrest rates in some jurisdictions--even for crimes that evidence shows their white counterparts are equally as likely to commit. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and they generally lack the resources to afford the best legal representation.

Disparities in drug sentencing have resulted in substantially longer sentences for African-Americans than whites or Hispanics, as lengthy sentences have historically been applied to drug crimes involving drugs that African-Americans are statistically more likely to use, even if they are chemically and effectively similar to drugs white people are likely to use. Thankfully, President Obama is beginning to examine individual cases of such egregiously disparate sentencing and commuting the sentences of some.

In the past year we have seen heightened media coverage of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement. We have seen violence against African-Americans and African American churches because of racial prejudice. These tragedies are not a new phenomenon, but their widespread coverage is and it is helping reduce the public's tolerance for these injustices while increasing bipartisan support for the SAFE Justice Act and other judicial reforms in Congress.

A new generation is seeing our nation with fresh eyes and social media is ensuring that these incidents are not swept under the rug. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly six in ten Americans think race relations are generally bad, and many believe it is worsening. Whether race relations have actually worsened or whether that perception stems from more information reaching more people, it is obvious that we must re-dedicate ourselves and our government to eliminating injustice and promoting equality.

Dr. King's "fierce urgency of now" needs to resonate with all Americans. We must build upon the Congressional apology by acknowledging that the end of slavery ushered in a new era of discrimination and injustice, it did not resolve the underlying inequality that slavery created. We must acknowledge that many African-Americans live with the consequences of that injustice on a daily basis. And we must move forward determined to stop the continuation of those wrongs, toward the "more perfect union" envisioned by our Constitution, that Abraham Lincoln sought, and that President Obama is working to realize.

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