In 2012, black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death for walking through a white neighborhood while wearing a hoodie. Martin’s white killer was acquitted (Anderson).
These two cases, though 57 years apart, are almost identical. They force us to realize that we have not made as much progress as we would like, in terms of racial equality. Still, other evidence allows us to claim the opposite; after all, our current president is African-American. How can we draw conclusions about the modern state of racial equality if our facts conflict this much?
Certainly, it is undeniable that we have improved a significant amount since the time of Emmett Till. These improvements are mainly due to the protests and speeches of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. But it is equally undeniable that, in a world where a white man can murder an unarmed black teenager and not be convicted, we are not achieving true “liberty and justice for all.” Yes, the Civil Rights Movement changed enough laws to win African-Americans many of their deserved freedoms, but it did not succeed in changing the prevalently racist mindset in America. That mindset continues thriving today.
However, the Civil Rights Movement was far from useless. It succeeded in bringing about physical change in America. One such change, and a drastic one at that, was the law making integration mandatory in schools. This was the unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and the first clear victory for African-Americans (National Center). The Supreme Court allowed logic and reasoning to triumph over socially accepted racism when they declared that “the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group” (Warren). A hugely radical decision--especially among nine white judges--as well as an influential one, it led to the insertion of the Little Rock Nine at a previously all-white school, and eventually, it resulted in complete integration everywhere.
Or rather, this is the romanticized way of looking at it. The truth is that even though segregation is banned by law, it still occurs in a disturbing number of schools--and this is perfectly legal. Biased admissions committees can justify racist judgments by claiming that they only select the most intelligent students, and very few African-American students they test are on the level of applicants who belong to other races. This mentality is displayed very clearly in the race distributions of two New York schools, Washington Irving High School and Stuyvesant High School. Washington Irving, which was recently closed, had a student body that was 92% black and Hispanic (Inside Schools), while Stuyvesant, which is currently rated the best school in the city, is 72% Asian (Inside Schools). Add that to the statistic that Stuyvesant students are 88.7% more “college ready” than Washington Irving students (Inside Schools), and it is clear just how much more effort the city puts into teaching Asians than it does African-Americans. No law can change how people think, which means that no law can completely obliterate racism in schools.
Luckily, integration in schools was not the only problem the Civil Rights Movement attempted to fix. Another racist part of everyday life in the 1960s was voting laws. Before the movement, certain requirements were imposed upon voters before they could cast their ballots, such as grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes. Those requirements specifically targeted black people and were designed to keep them from voting. But the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was another breakthrough of the Civil Rights Movement (The United States Department of Justice). It made these racist voting laws illegal, and gave African-Americans the same voting opportunities as white people. Since voting is considered the most important American right, this truly erased the division between Blacks and Whites, because now both races are recognized as being equally American.
At least--the law recognizes both races as being equally American. But the people in the government are slightly more difficult to convince. As with any racial equality law designed by white people, there are a few loopholes allowing voting laws to be reinstated if the government can make a socially acceptable excuse. Recently, it was deemed time to use those loopholes. Claiming to be taking action to prevent the not-particularly-frequent occurrence of voter fraud, the present government has created a law that requires each potential voter to have some form of identification. Since there is only one fraud in every fifteen million voters (Khan and Carson), this should not be an important enough issue for the government to address--unless it has an ulterior motive, which, in this case, is to prevent low-income minorities from voting. Voter ID laws do this by forcing everyone to spend up to $25 on identification, which not all citizens can afford, especially black ones. Just because the government has gotten better at hiding its racism does not mean that the racism does not exist.
But even voting laws were not the most significant part of the Civil Rights Movement. The heart of the prejudice against African-Americans, and therefore the most important problem for protesters to solve, was fear of interracial marriage. The logic was that if interracial marriage were legalized--which was what white people were trying to prevent--racists would accept defeat in all integration battles. So it was the biggest victory of all when interracial marriage became legal federally after the triumph in the 1967 case Loving v. State of Virginia (Warren). This was also a breakthrough because there were no loopholes. No one could do anything to prevent interracial marriage besides not marrying interracially themselves.
And the Civil Rights Movement did all it was possible to do about this particular issue. Unfortunately, forcing people to accept interracial marriage did not have a lasting effect on their overall tolerance of marriage equality. If it had, there would be no question about whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is opposed in a majority of America--especially in the states that originally wanted interracial marriage to be illegal (Stein). The Civil Rights Movement was able to change one law, but this was not a well-received law, and once again, that law could not change people’s personal perceptions of marriage equality.
In each topic discussed above--education equality, voting equality, and marriage equality--we have certainly improved since before the Civil Rights Movement, but only in the laws. There are still people who are racist, because no amount of protest, violence, or legal action can force people to change how they think. But forcing is not the same as convincing. By not being racist ourselves, by focusing on what the Civil Rights Movement did accomplish and by appreciating it to the fullest extent, people will grow used to a non-racist lifestyle. And someday, what the Civil Rights Movement began will be complete.
Anderson, Washington Monthly
The United States Department of Justice
Khan and Carson, News 21
Warren, Chicago-Kent College of Law
Stein, Huffington Post
This piece won an Honorable Mention in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.