Right past wrongs to prepare for a globalized future

With the advent of the internet, satellite television, and social media, people across the world are transforming into global citizens. Nations unable to adapt to this reality will be left behind economically and politically. With a diverse population comprised of various races, ethnicities, and immigrants from around the globe, the United States is positioned to play a leading role in an increasingly globalized world. But do do so, individuals and communities in America must have equal opportunity to maximize their potential and succeed through access to quality education, gainful employment, and the political process.

Fifty years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, significant strides have been made toward those ends; however, American society remains structurally encumbered by racial inequality, gender disparities, and xenophobia. At a national civil rights conference held at Texas A&M University, renowned scholars from across the country addressed social, legal, and political structures that produce inequities including unequal pay for women in the workplace, inhumane immigration policies, a racialized criminal justice system, and anti-Muslim discrimination.

Many Americans today believe that the nation has become “post-racial” wherein a person’s station in life is determined more by her work ethic and intelligence as opposed to her race, gender, or ethnic origin. While this is certainly truer today than it was when the Civil Rights Act was passed, the structural inequities based on racism, sexism, and xenophobia created over a century ago persist until the present day. To be sure, our society now condemns overt expressions of bias that once were accepted. But social science research shows that explicit bias has transformed into implicit bias where we act on negative stereotypes about particular groups. Moreover, the means in which wealth, quality education, work, and other resources are distributed today are driven in large part by structural inequalities established under past generations.

Take for instance the education and criminal justice systems. In a de facto racially segregated society, most black and brown students in the U.S. are in classrooms where at least 75% of their peers are minorities and the majority of their peers are poor. Because schools are assigned based on place of residence, the only way to attend a better school is to move to a wealthier neighborhood – an unrealistic option for the disproportionately larger number of minority families living in poverty. Coupled with research that shows education is a major contributor for rising out of poverty, the result is that racial minorities are more likely to remain in poverty than whites by virtue of the circumstances of their birth.

Similarly, 58% of those incarcerated are African American or Hispanic even though they comprise only 25% of the U.S. population. As a result, black unemployment rates, particularly among men, have declined as their incarceration rates have spiked. In turn, the poor communities from where most inmates come shoulder the economic, social, and political problems arising from incarceration. The cycle of poverty, thus, becomes inter-generational such that only the most gifted are able to break out of it. Being locked into under-privilege lies at the heart of structural racism and bias.

Rather than waste resources incarcerating, segregating, and discriminating against minority groups, our nation should be leveraging the immense opportunities that come with its rich racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. The first step is to acknowledge that structural bias still exists and then move forward in dismantling it. Conferences like the “Global Citizens and Equality Fifty Years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act” held at Texas A&M University are an important step toward that end.

Sahar Aziz, Texas A&M University

Sahar Aziz, associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law where she teaches national security, civil rights, and Middle East law.