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The Racism Never Stopped

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We Americans love to tell ourselves a story about how Black people were oppressed and then the Civil Rights Movement happened and Rosa Parks refused to move and Martin Luther King gave a speech and then racism was, if not ended, abated. But not only is that a narrative much more about ameliorating white fragility about their own complicity in racism than true, but it also just covers up the fact that on schooling, policing, poverty, and so much else, the structural conditions of racism are just as bad as they were at the end of World War II. Take the racial wage gap for instance:

The black-white wage gap shrunk substantially from 1950 to 1980, and especially during the 1960s. Civil-rights laws and a decline in legally sanctioned racism most likely played some role. But the main reasons, Mr. Charles said, appear to have been trends that benefited all blue-collar workers, like strong unions and a rising minimum wage. Because black workers were disproportionately in blue-collar jobs, the general rise of incomes for the poor and middle class shrank the racial wage gap.

One law was especially important: the 1966 amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act. When Congress passed the original law, during the New Deal, it deliberately exempted service and other industries with many black workers from the minimum wage. “Just expanding the minimum wage to those industries,” Ellora Derenoncourt, a University of California, Berkeley, economist, said, “boosted the relative wages of black workers substantially.”

Since 1980, however, the wage gap has increased again, and is now back roughly to where it was in 1950. The same economic forces are at work, only in the opposite direction: The minimum wage has stagnated in some states, unions have shrunk, tax rates on the wealthy have fallen more than they have for anyone else and incomes for the bottom 90 percent — and especially the bottom half — have trailed economic growth. Black workers, again, are disproportionately in these lower-income groups.

It’s not just that we need to revisit Reconstruction as the place where building positive movements for justice in American history begins (arguably anyway). It’s that we need a Third Reconstruction, to borrow from historians going back several decades, to even begin to move this nation toward something like equality. We aren’t even close to it.

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