Lit­tle progress on civil rights is­sues


Fifty years af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr., Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of progress to­ward racial equal­ity re­main largely di­vided along racial lines, a re­cent AP-NORC poll shows . The ma­jor­ity of African-Amer­i­cans sur­veyed saw lit­tle to no progress to­ward equal treat­ment in key ar­eas that the civil rights move­ment sought to ad­dress. White re­spon­dents fre­quently por­trayed a rosier picture. A re­view by the As­so­ci­ated Press shows that the avail­able data more of­ten align with African-Amer­i­cans' less op­ti­mistic re­flec­tion of their re­al­ity.

The sur­vey asked re­spon­dents how African-Amer­i­cans have fared in top­ics rang­ing from ac­cess to af­ford­able hous­ing to po­lit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Three top­ics gen­er­ated the most po­lar­ized re­sponses from African-Amer­i­cans and whites: treat­ment by po­lice, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and vot­ing rights.


King's 1963 “I Have a Dream'' speech set po­lice bru­tal­ity among the chief is­sues civil rights ac­tivists sought to ad­dress. Poll re­sponses show that more than 7 out of 10 African-Amer­i­cans think lit­tle or no progress has been made in treat­ment by po­lice over the last 50 years.

As­sess­ing any change in po­lice treat­ment of African-Amer­i­cans isn't easy be­cause com­pre­hen­sive data on po­lice in­ter­ac­tions and use of force is dif­fi­cult to ob­tain, es­pe­cially in a his­tor­i­cal con­text. How­ever, sev­eral stud­ies have at­tempted to use fed­eral sur­veys, state ad­min­is­tra­tive data from traffic stops, and FBI ar­rest data to gauge the scope of the racial dis­par­i­ties. Their find­ings in­di­cate sus­tained in­equal­ity in this area.

Traffic stops are the main rea­son po­lice in­ter­act with the pub­lic, and some stud­ies in­di­cate that the ex­pe­ri­ences of white and black driv­ers are re­mark­ably dif­fer­ent. A Stan­ford Univer­sity study pieced to­gether data from 16 states to show that black driv­ers are more likely to be stopped, tick­eted, searched and ar­rested than white driv­ers. An­other study by a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Univer­sity com­piled data from fed­eral sources and con­cluded that when black driv­ers are stopped by po­lice, they are more likely to be grabbed, hand­cuffed and have a gun pointed at them than white driv­ers. Sim­i­lar data from po­lice in­ter­ac­tions in the 1960s and 1970s aren't avail­able for com­par­i­son.


At the time of King's as­sas­si­na­tion, the U.S. prison pop­u­la­tion was a frac­tion of its cur­rent size, and the rate of in­car­cer­a­tion for African-Amer­i­cans was more than five times the rate for whites, data from the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics show. In the AP/NORC poll, more than 6 of 10 African-Amer­i­cans said that lit­tle or no progress has been made in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem's treat­ment of African-Amer­i­cans in the last 50 years.

By the late 1990s, the rate of black in­car­cer­a­tion had risen to over eight times the rate for whites. While that gap has nar­rowed, data from BJS shows that in 2016 it still re­mained slightly wider than it was in 1968.

The crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem's dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact on the African-Amer­i­can community goes be­yond the in­car­cer­a­tion rate. African-Amer­i­cans make up around 12 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion but ac­count for 38 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion on pa­role, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics . Of the 3.8 mil­lion Amer­i­cans on pro­ba­tion, nearly a third is African-Amer­i­can. Vi­o­lat­ing pro­ba­tion terms can re­sult in a longer pro­ba­tion pe­riod or fur­ther in­car­cer­a­tion, and ac­cord­ing to a study by the Ur­ban In­sti­tute , blacks are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to have their pro­ba­tion re­voked than whites.


In his “Give Us the Bal­lot'' speech in 1957, King fiercely called for equal vot­ing rights and em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of par­tic­i­pa­tion in civic life. In the AP/NORC poll, vot­ing rights was the is­sue given the most pos­i­tive re­sponse: 63 per­cent of blacks and nearly 90 per­cent of whites in­di­cated at least some progress. The Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 aimed to pro­tect African-Amer­i­cans from wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices, and voter reg­is­tra­tion trended up­ward shortly af­ter. But crit­ics say new ob­sta­cles _ such as voter iden­ti­fi­ca­tion laws and reg­u­la­tions for those with felony con­vic­tions _ lim­ited those rights over the years.


Fifty years af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr., Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of progress to­ward racial equal­ity re­main largely di­vided.

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