The Juneteenth celebration on June 19 commemorates the date when the last slaves in the United States were notified of their liberation in 1865. The date was remembered this year across the U.S. with marches calling for reduced funding for police and for addressing the systemic racism that continues to exist in the country. These marches followed on from the weeks of protest that began with the murder of George Floyd and others by the police.
At first glance, these calls for radical change may seem unnecessary and extreme; in short, the U.S. recently had a black president and slavery ended long ago. However, they are the product of government actions that created and enabled institutionalized racism throughout the 20th century and into the present. These patterns have become impossible to ignore with the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 and unemployment have had on the black community.
In particular, the protests are in response to the unsuccessful reform initiatives that have been pushed for decades to end the killing of unarmed Black people by police across the country, a failure that is directly related to the isolation and control of Black and Latino communities and the underfunding of services to these communities. The American experience offers a fairly clear perspective on the persistence of racism and racist policing practices in the rest of America.
Institutional racism does not manifest itself solely in the form of slavery.
Most people in Latin America know that the U.S. economy was built on slave labor, especially in the cotton plantations, and that the mid-19th century saw a civil war in the U.S. that culminated in the abolition of slavery and the adoption of constitutional amendments that guaranteed equal protection, citizenship, and voting rights for former slaves.
Many acknowledge that inclusion efforts in the post-war Reconstruction period were abruptly halted in a context of enforced segregation, white militias terrorizing the black community, denial of electoral rights to black voters, and the re-imposition of slave-like practices in prisons and rural areas of the country, such as sharecropping and engineering. Formal segregation in the South, known as “Jim Crow” laws, was prohibited only in the 1960s, with the confluence of Supreme Court decisions, federal laws, and the use of federal military forces to enforce them.
However, much less is known about how disinterest and specific government policies in everything from housing and labor rights to impunity for lynching and massacres to mass incarceration have influenced the African American experience in the 20th and 21st centuries. Those responsible have not only been impersonal economic forces, such as the deindustrialization and depopulation of the old industrial cities of the North, but also deliberate state decisions that have produced intolerable economic, health, and educational outcomes and triggered the outrage we see today.
While a full review of these policies cannot be included here, some highlights are presented below:
A continuing history of violence, especially against prosperous black communities. One of the best-known events was the 1921 destruction of a section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as Black Wall Street, during which at least 300 people were killed and thousands more lost their homes. But there are also the events in Rosewood, FL, in which the town was destroyed and up to 150 people were killed in 1923, and events in other neighborhoods of the Black community.
Between 1882 and 1968 there were at least 4743 lynchings of African Americans, a crime that is not yet federally defined. These were not outbreaks of violence by private actors, but rather local authorities contributed to or at least observed what was happening, sometimes accompanied by crowds of people enjoying the spectacle, and the crimes went unpunished.
Nor was it a phenomenon exclusive to the south of the country: many lynchings occurred in the Midwestern states. This history of violence and subjugation kept black communities controlled and suppressed by purely white police and sheriffs, who were formed from slave hunters and militias that hunted down members of the black community. All this combined with the KKK and other terrorist militias.
Segregation in access to housing was created with the support of all levels of government: the federal government, through the Public Works Administration – a federal agency created in the 1930s under the New Deal – demolished houses in integrated neighborhoods to build racially segregated public housing.
And it established a white-only mortgage insurance program: in the years following World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) subsidized the development of housing complexes and entire new neighborhoods to house returning ex-combatants and other working-class families.
These measures were aimed exclusively at white people. Whites could receive education and low-cost housing loans under the G.I. Act for ex-combatants, but obtaining these benefits was nearly impossible for non-whites. White families who benefited from this mid-century federal housing program gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in increases in the value of their real estate, and thus their added value. Partly as a result, the total wealth of white people amounts to at least 10 times that of black people.
Redlining” was a process by which the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a federal agency, assigned ratings to neighborhoods as criteria for guiding investments. The policy is named for the red or “risky” neighborhoods that were considered the most dangerous, largely because they were home to racial minorities.
The red-lining policy was explicitly discriminatory and made it difficult for residents to obtain loans for the purchase or maintenance of housing, and this generated cycles of disinvestment. The situation was exacerbated by the use of restrictive covenants that limited the sale of homes in “white” neighborhoods to other white people, and later by the “urban renewal” projects of the 1960s, which effectively divided or destroyed black neighborhoods and displaced thousands of people.
Education in the United States is largely funded locally, through property taxes. That is why residential disparities translate into educational disparities. This explains why, in 2016, school districts with a majority white population received state and local funding by an overwhelming $23 billion more than those with a non-white population composition, despite having virtually the same number of students.
It also explains why, since the 1960s, mostly white communities reacted to the mandate of school integration by legally separating from cities and creating new localities and school districts in the suburbs.