Americans are constantly being reminded of their accomplishments regarding civil rights and racial equality. This sudden surge of televised introspective into the progress the U.S. has made is due in large part to election of Barak Obama, and the recent deaths of prominent civil rights activists including Rosa Parks – the black woman who was made famous by her refusal to sit at the back of the bus, thereby sparking a year long bus boycott and bringing racial segregation to the forefront of the American conscience. After watching and reading numerous biographical segments about her life and the lives of other civil rights activists, I began to wonder if much has changed since the days of racial segregation. It is true that blacks are not being lynched any more, but is that really enough to congratulate our collective selves? After all, there is very seldom a day goes by without news of racially motivated crimes. If we are too quick to congratulate ourselves we would neglect to face the very ugly reality that racial segregation still exists and is as strong as it ever was. Contemporary western society is as guilty today of racial segregation as it was 60 years ago, because a necessary byproduct of economic segregation is racial segregation. Take a drive down any middle or upper class suburb in Calgary and you would be hard pressed to find any blacks. You would think they simply did not exist in this city, until, of course, you take a drive down to a low income area. All of a sudden it’s all pepper and no salt. Here is how I think it goes: if you are colored you are more likely to be poor. If you are poor, your children are more likely to be poor. Poor children are exposed to nastier things than rich children, because the schools they go to and the neighborhood they live in is filled with other poor children doing nasty things: drugs, sex, gambling, gangs, etc. Children exposed to these elements of society are more likely to wind up in jail, pregnant at sixteen, or addicted to drugs. These things tend to limit ones ability to procure the amount of money it would take to move to the middle class suburbs. As a result, these children will grow up and have children of their own who will be raised in the same perilous environment as their parents, thus perpetuating this cycle of racial segregation via economic segregation. One needs to look no further than the places a disproportionately high amount of American blacks are concentrated: prison, the army, the ghetto, and low paying jobs. It is no secret that blacks make up roughly 13% of the American population. This fact is not debatable. So why do they make up 50% of the prison population? Are they more predisposed to commit crimes than white people? Absolutely. Poverty leads to crime, and crime leads to getting caught and winding up in jail. Why do they get caught? Because the police presence in poor (black) areas is much higher than it is in rich (white) areas. Some blacks slip through the cracks and defy virtually impossible odds to make it out of the low income areas and into the middle class suburbs. Many find a loophole by joining the army, because they will pay for College. As a result 25% of the U.S. army is made up of blacks, while only 13% of the American population is. That means that blacks are much more likely to get their heads blown off fighting an oil war so that rich white kids could gas up their SUV’s a little cheaper.
As a Canadian I am especially troubled by the North American Native reservation system that was setup hundreds of years ago supposedly for the sake of Native autonomy. Really? Upon studying the primary sources you will find that it was setup primarily because our founding fathers did not want the few natives that survived the smallpox they imported to the Americas living among them. Our legacy of systemic racial segregation is something we as Canadians cannot deny and have a well documented history of supporting. One might even argue that the present day reservation system in concert with the Department of Indian Affairs is guilty of promoting and propagating inequity and injustice, due to the squalor that many aboriginal people find themselves living in on reservations all over the country. All the while their Chiefs are some of the highest paid politicians in the country who are just as happy to take the billions of taxpayer dollars as the Government is in doling it out to buy their silence and cooperation.
What does all of this mean in the context of a fully functioning free and democratic society? To answer that question we must first ask: can a true democracy function where rampant and unchecked hyper-capitalism has allowed for the disparity of wealth to equal a disparity in political representation? Is it really any better that racial segregation based on skin color has been replaced by racial segregation based on income or a centuries old reservation system? Unless we attend to these issues and reform our democratic processes to first address and then mitigate the impact of the disparity of political representations, we will continue to find ourselves actively participating in a system which compounds and perpetuates segregation and injustice. Let us not congratulate ourselves too much, lest we forget there is much more to be done to promote true equality.