On July 28, in the year 2008, the United States House of Representatives, almost 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, passed H. Res. 194, offering a formal apology for the centuries-long, government-sanctioned enslavement of African Americans and for the generations of Jim Crow segregation and for the institutionalized discrimination that followed and that persists in this, the “land of the free.” Florida, Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia had done so previously.
Just a few days before the passage of H. Res. 194, in an ironic bit of timing, CNN launched its much-hyped documentary chronicling the plight of the contemporary African American people, Black in America. Most would read these two headlines and would not connect the dots. Well not this writer, for whom this seeming historic coincidence bears critical scrutiny.
For four hours CNN documented the mixed bag that is Afro America. To be sure, there is much to be proud of for America’s descendants of chattel enslavement, whose forebears, as the House resolution bluntly states, “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” for almost a quarter of a millennium. Which brings us to what I see as the major problem with Black in America: There was no substantial, meaningful historical context presented. Unless you count the meeting, with cameras rolling, of the two sets of Rand offspring: the ones descended from slaves and the ones sired by their slave-holding forefathers. But I digress.
In the face of incredible odds, African Americans have flourished in this country, in spite of the past. As the CNN report documents, more Blacks are attending and completing college than ever before. The so-called Black middle class is burgeoning. Moreover, for the first time ever, an African American man, albeit not a descendant of enslaved Africans, is actually within reach of the American Presidency. That’s the good news.
This notwithstanding, recent studies indicate that only 1 in 2 of today’s African Americans will graduate with a high school diploma. This is particularly alarming since the high school graduation rate serves as a societal bellwether and as an indicator of future skill and income levels. Indeed, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports that by 2006, after steadily declining in the 1990s, the poverty rate for African Americans had increased to nearly one-quarter of its population, 24.2 percent to be exact. This is in stark contrast to the 8.2 percent of impoverished Whites. The CAP analysis, The State of Minorities (April 2008), went on to report that the unemployment rate for African Americans, 8.3 percent, is double that of White America’s 4.1 percent.
And still there’s more. The Home Mortgage Disclosure Act revealed that, in 2006, of the 322,356 home-purchase loans made to African Americans, 172,055 were “high-cost.” That is a whopping 53 percent. Only 150,301 were at the market rate. In a rare instance of being outpaced economically by Blacks, the subprime rate was only 18 percent for Whites.
Then there are the staggering incarceration disparities between Blacks and Whites in America. Much has been written of it; however, it is clearly crystallized in a Washington Post article “New High in U.S. Prison Numbers” (29 February 2008). It broke to the world the news of the findings of the Pew Center of the States report, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008: “One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.” Truth be told, this is a new low.
I won’t even go into allthe dismal statistics relevant to the healthcare disparities in America. It’s too depressing. The AIDS pandemic in Afro America, which has been likened to that of some developing African nations, cannot be ignored here, though, as many contend it has been by the federal government. CNN’s Black in America sounded the alarm regarding the skyrocketing rate of HIV/AIDS infection among African Americans, particularly women between ages 25 and 34, for whom AIDS is the leading cause of death.
This modern-day “black plague” is particularly dangerous because the primary modes of transmission are behavioral, i.e. sexual intercourse, drug use, etc. Hence, it is far too easy for some, particularly in the church, to write it off as some sort of divine penance. Further, many fear that as AIDS becomes known as a “black disease,” still fewer dollars will be spent for medical research in this area. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Blacks were, well, mistreated.
Even the American Medical Association (AMA) has owned up to this, issuing an apology of its own last month. The nation’s largest organization of physicians is seeking forgiveness for generations of race-based discrimination against Black physicians, who for many years were denied entry into this professional enclave. In a written statement, the National Medical Association (NMA), the organization of Black doctors in America, graciously accepted the apology, but stressed the deadly legacy left in its wake.
This medical redlining, “a litany of discriminatory practices, [has] had a devastating effect on the health of African-Americans,” says Dr. Nelson L. Adams, NMA president. “These persistent, race-based health disparities have led to a precipitous decline in the health of African-Americans when compared to their white counterparts and the population as a whole,” added Dr. Nedra H. Joyner, chair of the NMA’s board of trustees.
Is this all accidental, this being the chasmic gap between Blacks and Whites in America? Of course it’s not. This is the shameful legacy of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and continuing racial discrimination in this country. And this is why the House of Representatives, with no mention of restitution, whispered their long-overdue apology. That is to say that there has been little to no media coverage of this historic resolution. Bringing to mind this time honored question: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
But what does all this mean? The short answer is this: it will take more than apologies to right the wrongs that America has heaped upon generations of African Americans. Regret without redress is just not enough. Not when these past transgressions undeniably led to the present uneven playing field. And more importantly, if the present high school graduation rate for African Americans is any indication, the future looms large.
Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.