On a hot, dusty June day fifty years ago, during what became known as Freedom Summer, college students began to arrive in Mississippi—then the most closed society in America—to help register black residents to vote. Three civil rights workers were brutally murdered, a trauma that pierced the heart of our nation and thrust into the open the racist oppression of black political rights by Mississippi’s leaders.
Since that momentous summer, our country has made great strides to extend civil and political rights to all Americans regardless of race. Still, African Americans today face obstacles just as real as poll taxes and segregated restrooms; the difference is that these obstacles are now embedded in our institutions and social structures instead of being posted on public walls.
The reality is that, a half-century after Freedom Summer, African Americans continue to face severe barriers not just to voting but also to economic security. In fact, on the economic front, some indicators have even gotten worse and problems more entrenched in recent decades. The gap between black and white household incomes, for example, is actually wider today than it was in the mid-1960s. So if the primary Civil Rights struggle 50 years ago was for basic political rights, today it is for equal access to the ladder of economic mobility.
A key factor behind persistent racial inequality involves the failures of our education system. While African Americans may no longer be barred from attending school with white children, they still face disproportionate challenges in accessing the quality education that is a stepping stone to a decent life in America. One example is that black students today must survive a climate of punitive and discriminatory discipline that unfairly pushes them out of school and into the criminal justice system. Only last year, a sweeping federal settlement of charges of discriminatory discipline was finalized in the town of Meridian—the same town from which the three murdered civil rights workers left in 1964 on their final day of advocacy. Continued support is needed for such efforts to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
The job market is another area still rife with racial inequities. While high school graduation rates for African Americans have improved dramatically since 1964, nearly 35 percent of recent black male high school graduates nationwide have no job—a far higher jobless rate than any other group. However, this summer, 100 of these students in the Mississippi Delta and Biloxi are now working full time in a project to support the restoration of federal summer jobs programs. Although it was launched on short notice, this initiative was flooded with three times more applications than available positions. Providing summer jobs opportunities is a vital first step towards ensuring economic stability.
In higher education, the white-black gap in college graduation has worsened, setting the stage for similar racial disparities in the job market. One problem is that African Americans seeking to advance beyond a minimum wage job often are recruited through targeted advertising into fast-track for-profit career schools as an alternative to traditional college education. Many of these companies charge hefty tuition fees, even as they fail to deliver degrees that qualify people for their intended career. Over the past several months, the U. S. Department of Education has proposed regulations to curb the misconduct of these predatory schools and ensure that career degrees lead to employment. Reining in these predatory schools will require support for strong final regulations, which are to be issued this fall.
It’s not just education and jobs: Deregulation in the lending industry in the 1980s further narrowed opportunities for many working African American families. Even as families supported by a minimum wage earner sank below the poverty line, state legislatures enabled the emergence of the predatory payday lending industry by carving out exceptions to their usury laws to allow small dollar, high-interest loans. So, just as the paychecks of poor families no longer met basic survival needs, and as traditional banks withdrew service from low-income neighborhoods, the payday industry ramped up pressure to ensnare borrowers into a cycle of high-interest loans that become a revolving door of debt.
In Mississippi, after fast-cash lobbyists blocked reforms in the state legislature, the Mississippi Center for Justice launched a new model for providing loans to low-income borrowers: the New Roots Credit Partnership, an alliance between employers and banks to provide emergency loans on fair, non-predatory terms. A growing number of Mississippi employers are signing up for this program, which is a promising model for helping low-income families achieve economic security. We need to expand such efforts and ensure all Americans have access to fair banking services.
Fifty years after Freedom Summer, we recognize that America cannot know true racial justice until there is economic justice. We should attack those more subtle forms of discrimination with just as much energy and determination as did those who started a powerful movement in the long, hot summer of 1964.