Hearing President Obama's speech on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we are encouraged by the progress America has made to live up to its promise. Yet it marks a bittersweet moment. For although there are no more Bull Connors with dogs chasing down African Americans, we continue to bury our head in the sand regarding racial economic inequality.
Several years ago, I attended an event where some panelists argued that the rising black and brown majority would bring communities of color from the margins to the center of America's social and economic life. After the session, an African-American couple sheepishly told me, "We heard what was said but we fear that the nation will look more like apartheid South Africa in 40 years."
It's ironic that the couple spoke of South Africa, since news coverage following the death of Nelson Mandela emphasized how little progress black South Africans -- a group that has always been a demographic majority -- have experienced since the election of its first black president.
Unfortunately, a similar case can be made about the U.S. Although the Civil Right Movement made a positive and tangible difference in the lives of African Americans and other excluded ethnic groups, there is a lot of concern and evidence that this progress is slipping away.
It's almost embarrassing to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of any Civil Rights moment when analysts point out that for every dollar in wealth held by the typical white family in 2009, the typical Hispanic and black families only own six and five cents respectively. But at this moment it is necessary to ask why racial economic disparities persist despite the advances from the 60s.
It is my contention that, except for affirmative action -- which has benefited so many (including myself) but is under attack and on life support, there have been too few efforts to embrace what I call "liberation policy," or targeted strategies for promoting opportunity and success for historically excluded racial and ethnic groups.
We still live in a society that accepts separate and unequal education for low-income urban and rural students, many of whom are children of color. It's incredible that it remains a taboo to argue for truly equitable funding schemes that level resource disparities across schools and districts. Education is one of the greatest assets that any individual can possess yet we systematically (and consciously) deny it to children who have had the misfortune of being born into households with few economic resources.
We still live in a country that accepts second-class status for people of color who work hard for U.S. companies but are denied the privileges of citizenship (another important asset), including the opportunity to access public services and benefits that they help fund through their tax contributions. Like other groups before them, these people, many originating from Latin American countries, come to the U.S. for opportunity but end up being exploited and made to live in fear despite their outstanding contributions to society.
We still live in a country that allows certain politicians to make disingenuous arguments for and pass laws that restrict voting rights, another fundamental but often overlooked asset. Instead of poll taxes and literacy tests, we have allowed voter ID laws and residency and registration restrictions to prevail in states across the country. We have also allowed the racial and class bias evident in our judicial system to persist at the expense of communities of color and the credibility of the system.
If this anniversary celebration accomplishes anything, it should be a reminder to folks that social and economic inclusion depends on the substance of the policies passed, not just the personalities or parties of those we elect. For this very reason, at the end of this month I am honored to organize, in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and in partnership with a host of national organizations, the 2014 Color of Wealth Summit to discuss, "Shared Prosperity for All: The Policy Imperative for Closing the Racial Wealth Gap." This public discussion at the U.S. Capitol complex will focus on what it will take to eliminate barriers to socioeconomic success for racial and ethnic groups, including how targeted asset building strategies can help alleviate poverty and build wealth for all.
It is my hope that more policy-makers and their staffs will take note of their own historical role in passing the types of policies that will make it possible for the U.S. to celebrate the realization of an equitable, diverse, and inclusive society 50 years from now.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President of the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a social change nonprofit dedicated to making policy work for people and their environments. She is also a member of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Experts of Color Network.