Human Rights Politics & Government US

America Still Lags Behind on Racial Justice

The United States ranks 69 in the world for racial equality. This jarring statistic challenges the widespread notion that America is the place of radical liberty and equality, allowing for a more contextual consideration of the ongoing racist trends throughout the state.

On the topic of race, it is easy to champion the progress the world has made. After years of colonialism, oppression, slavery, and segregation, it is easy to assume that the globe has achieved racial justice. However, what is harder to admit is that racialized structures still exist—and they plague the modern world in more silent, covert forms than their predecessors. In America, the supposed “land of opportunity,” minorities–particularly Black people–experience these issues in a subtle and masked way, suffering from disparities in healthcare, crime, food access, and other areas of life. Creating change in the near future is imperative. The United States must learn from both scholarly theory and other countries in order to create the equal and just society it aims to provide.

America and Race

America champions itself as a beacon of progress in the fight for racial justice. The country claims repentance of its past injustices and the reversal of many of its most infamous systems of racial oppression, as well as equality legislation on the federal and state level. However, as exemplified by the many companies who post statements in support of Black Lives Matter, but fail to make any commitment to support Black communities, this facade masks the dark realities that minorities truly face in the “land of opportunity.” Although these companies were certainly motivated by the popularity of the movement and drive to increase profits, this explanation does not provide a justification for the lack of meaningful action. In a capitalist country where companies are a thriving part of the social system, private promotion of justice matters. People of color are highly underrepresented in the political landscape, making up only small percentages of Congress, governorships, state legislatures, and other governing bodies. In its 300-year history, America has elected only one man of color as President, and only one woman of color as Vice President. The statistics in the report also show the country’s disturbing wealth divides, with white and Black people owning $102 trillion and $6 trillion in assets, respectively. This disparity is similarly reflected in wages, poverty rates, and upward mobility, demonstrating the crippling effect racism in America has had on wealth distribution. While these monetary differences are certainly present when comparing individuals of the same industry and social class level, college enrollment can serve as an important pathway to higher earnings – and many Black people are locked out because of their already low wages, perpetuating a self-enforcing cycle. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted glaring divides between whites and minorities in terms of healthcare, with hospitalizations and lack of coverage being disproportionately high for Black people. Overall, markers of racial inequality in America are omnipresent. 

Many people in the United States, however, believe in a post-racial society—the idea that minorities in America have achieved racial equality. Such critics point to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and race, as well as the election of  President Barack Obama. Furthermore, explicit negative behaviors towards people of color on the basis of their race remain relatively taboo. It would seem, on a legislative and cultural level, that racism has been addressed and quieted. However, the assertions that are true in legality do not necessarily reflect the lived experiences of people throughout the country. Rather than self-eliminating following the equality legislation, racism has disguised itself, taking on various forms in different areas of life in order to remain pervasive in a “race-neutral” society. America is not beyond the topic of race; in fact, the subtle and clouded nature of racism today makes discussing this form of oppression more important now than ever.

Rather than overt attacks, subtle forms of discrimination occur across the United States. Although many discriminatory government programs were abruptly ended, many minority Americans deal with the fallout and ramifications. For example, racially restrictive covenants used to serve as a form of socioeconomic categorization, designating all-white neighborhoods as more prestigious than those with people of color. White homebuyers were more likely than their minority counterparts to be approved for loans, and thus had greater access to wealth accumulation. With wealthy white neighborhoods came good schools, healthy grocery stores, and valuable cultural and social capital—all resources that have helped white people succeed. Today, many people of color remain locked in low-income housing communities, and are unable to build any notable sum of wealth. They remain physically and socioeconomically distanced from healthy food options, creating health problems that make them more susceptible to diseases such as COVID-19. 

The impact of racially-motivated mass incarceration cannot be ignored. As the American prison system has increased in size, so has the proportion of Black and Brown people put behind bars. As argued by scholar Michelle Alexander (2010) in her text The New Jim Crow, the prison-industrial complex present in the United States today serves to police and control people of color, especially Black people. Furthermore, she contends that the system today is only a continuation of past forms of domination and power, such as slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws. In our purportedly “race-neutral” society, critics of Alexander would likely note that those past systems have ended, and the laws that put people behind bars apply to all members of the nation. However, factors such as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk put people of color in a disproportionate amount of danger, forcing racial minorities into prison at higher rates than their white counterparts – with Black people being incarcerated at five times the rate of their white counterparts. Additionally, the criminal justice system and bail process both ensure that white people, who have greater access to wealth and resources, get preferential treatment when it comes to the punishment of their crimes.

Looking Forward for Inspiration

According to the 2021 Best Countries Report, the United States ranks 69 in the world for racial equality. This jarring statistic challenges the widespread notion that America is the place of radical liberty and equality, allowing for a more contextual consideration of the ongoing racist trends throughout the state. But, when formulating a roadmap for the future, where should the United States look for inspiration? How can the country begin to imagine a way forward, especially given today’s “race-neutral” climate? While other countries around the world are far from perfect, many of the initiatives that they have implemented allow American onlookers to imagine their own more just society.

Canada has been a worldwide leader in racial equality, having had government leaders explicitly acknowledge the need for this kind of justice. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put forth an extensive antiracism strategy, which has been in effect since 2019, that emphasizes both a top-down and bottom-up approach, with changes at both the federal and community-based levels. With regards to governmental changes, Canada currently allocates $4.6 million towards an Antiracism Secretariat, which works across all government agencies to combat racial discrimination. The plan also establishes strong federal-provincial networks, engaging local leadership as partners in the fight for justice. On a community level, the Secretariat addresses and combats pre-existing employment barriers, as well as providing more social participation opportunities for marginalized races. The administration also remains aware of the sizable Indigenous population, pledging to create avenues for Native peoples to be part of decision-making spaces. As a result of its progress, Canada is lauded as one of the best places for racial equality in the world; nevertheless, its predominantly white federal government recognizes that there is always more to be done.

Norway, too, exceeds many of its fellow states on the topic of racial equality. Its Action Plan is primarily centered around knowledge and research, allocating funds for data collection on racial discrimination across the country. The Norwegian plan operates at the intersection of many bases for marginality, examining racial discrimination in conjunction with religious, ethnic, sexual, and gender identity. While the plan aims to facilitate the creation of a great deal of theoretical knowledge, it has a multitude of more practical programs in place: legislation is being drafted and changed, educational programs are being reformatted, new agencies and bodies are being created, and dialogue meetings, forums, and seminars are set to take place. Norway’s initiatives take a holistic approach to racism, understanding the nuances that racial discrimination takes and earning Norway the distinction of one of the most racially just societies in the world.

It is important to acknowledge that both Canada and Norway are far different from the United States. Their overall populations are smaller, their economies are dependent on different resources, they have different sets of social programs, and their racial demographics differ from the United States significantly. What worked in those countries will not necessarily work in America, and any sort of value-comparison between the United States and either of the two countries will not solve the nuanced racial issues that take hold in the so-called “land of opportunity.” Nevertheless, these examples provide a picture of countries that worked with their own circumstances to provide a comprehensive, successful set of solutions that changed the landscapes for their populations—providing proof that America may just be able to do the same.

Moving Forward in Policy

While a critical examination of the policies of other countries provides inspiration, America can only move forward by championing policies of its own. The well-being of people of color has long been a priority of the United Nations. In 2021, the UN Human Rights Council released a report on racial discrimination and xenophobia, outlining policy recommendations for countries looking to adjust their landscapes and overcome histories of violence. The report recognizes the immense progress that has been made, while simultaneously lamenting the gaps that still exist in terms of achieving full equality; as such, it champions a way forward in many ways that would be applicable to the United States.

Firstly, the report recommends addressing systemic racism and reversing cultures of denial. Systemic racism refers to the form of racism engrained in institutional systems that results in both overt and covert discrimination within a society. Often, systemic racism can manifest even after the abolition of large-scale systems of marginalization, such as slavery and segregation. Without such large-scale mechanisms, however, it is easy to deny the fact that racism still exists. Racist structures are ever present in educational attainment, financial opportunity, workplace equality, healthcare access, and the like. Actively unlearning and undoing these structures of oppression, especially those that still exist in a purportedly “race-neutral” society, is known as antiracism. Given the racial reckoning undertaken by most of the world in light of slavery becoming largely taboo, many governing bodies have begun to take antiracist actions—namely, the European Union, which has urged five of its member countries to codify antiracist actions in the workplace. 

The United States, too, must be forced to confront its ugly legacy and take steps towards meaningful progress. Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when racially marginalized communities are more likely to suffer, action must be taken. While individual measures such as wearing masks and socially distancing are certainly effective, a more holistic approach that takes into context racial healthcare disparities is imperative. As such, the Biden administration should revisit the merits and seek to pass H.R. 666, a stagnant Congressional bill that establishes a National Center on Antiracism and Health. Rather than allow a culture of denial to continue, this legislation would address healthcare racism head-on and facilitate systemic changes that would impact people of color for the better. As a country with many institutional resources, America could lead the way in ending systemic racism related to the pandemic by conducting research and creating policies through this body that would benefit the world at-large.

In addition, society at-large has a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized identities. Too often, debates about the rights of marginalized peoples occur among white policymakers, who are, in overwhelming numbers, male and affluent. When people of color take to the streets and engage in peaceful protests—which are typically their only available means of activism—they are met with incredible resistance. If their protests are of a scale large enough to be taken seriously, they engage the widespread problem of government violence against peaceful assembly. Governments, themselves, have been known to pose restrictions on protests in light of COVID-19; notably, in Northern Ireland and Bristol in 2020 and 2021 respectively, Black citizens were found guilty while protesting for their rights on the basis of breaking COVID-19 restrictions. On both accounts, the charges were later found by the respective governments to be racially motivated. Perhaps more damaging and concerning, however, is the global response of police forces against peaceful protestors. Police have largely been present at protests to protect marginalized races, yet have been notorious for using excessive violence. Wrongful arrests have served as a common defense tactic, and unprompted use of the military has allowed for a questionable power dynamic between peaceful advocates and the state. The violence present during such protests must be understood in the broader context of the worldwide silencing of human rights defenders—especially with regards to racism. Whether it takes the form of physical violence, verbal abuse, online harassment, or government sanctioning, it is silencing all the same, and should not be tolerated. 

The United States has its fair share of police presence at peaceful protests, as well as violence and sanctioning that have been omnipresent around the world. Even though the right to peaceful assembly is delineated in America’s First Amendment, law enforcement is known to take advantage of those who do not know their rights. Initiatives that are already underway, such as the resource toolkits created by the NAACP and ACLU, must be spread more widely and specifically target states with higher rates of racism among their police forces. Furthermore, America has an obligation to uphold the right to peaceful assembly. Currently, 45 out of 50 states have taken or considered action against peaceful protestors, and we must do all in our power to prevent that number from increasing. Raising awareness, as well as ensuring that constituents are equipped and able to hold their lawmakers accountable, is essential. A grassroots effort, that could theoretically be started by any average American, might prompt meaningful phone banking or letter writing and subsequently tank unconstitutional initiatives.

Call to action

America is a purportedly “race-neutral” society, free from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, but the high rates of racial discrimination today tell a different story. Its many shortcomings are present in the disparities between whites and people of color at many levels of society—notably, wealth, the housing market, and the criminal justice system. Given the realities of modern-day American racism, the United States falls behind the rest of the world in terms of equality for all, and must challenge itself to do better. A look at countries that have implemented antiracism policies, such as Canada and Norway, is useful in creating change—as too is an analysis of United Nations antiracism initiatives that can inspire America’s own legislation. Every day that Americans do not act, however, more people of color—especially Black people—are hurt by confining systems that weren’t built to work for them. The time for action is now, and I challenge you, as a reader, to answer the call.

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By Alyssa Fong

Alyssa Fong is a third-year undergraduate at UCLA pursuing a triple major in political science, sociology, and gender studies.

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