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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Commentary

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act: How far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go


Published:

As Floridians celebrated Independence Day, we also marked another important anniversary in our nation’s history: the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This momentous anniversary is an occasion for tributes to the courage of those who worked and sacrificed to end legal barriers to racial equality in America, and to reflect on what has changed since 1964.

Compared to the time since we declared our independence from Great Britain, 50 years is not so long. But the changes that have happened in that time in dismantling the legal apparatus of racism — the distance we’ve come since 1964 — are as significant and as revolutionary as any in our nation’s history.

However, as we reflect on the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the incredible changes that it made possible, we do a disservice to the legacy of those who fought for that law if we do not also examine what is yet to be accomplished to end racial discrimination.

In Florida, we are still faced with racial disparities in education, employment, the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and in voting. Changes in these areas are critical if we are to fully deliver on the promise of the law.

We need to confront Florida’s continuing history of perpetuating a Jim Crow policy of permanently disenfranchising individuals who have a past felony conviction. About 1.5 million Florida citizens have been disfranchised by this policy — including one in four of the state’s voting-age black population, who are shut out of our democracy by a policy that was created in the post-Civil War era precisely to dilute the voting power of African-Americans.

As recently as 2011, we were confronted with a voter suppression law that made it harder for African-Americans to vote. An African-American voter mobilization effort, Souls to the Polls, was shut down when the Legislature reduced the number of early voting days and banned Sunday voting during the early-voting period.

We also must look at how our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts racial and ethnic minorities. Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in history. As Michelle Alexander has noted, Jim Crow laws may have been wiped off the books decades ago, but still an astounding percentage of African Americans are warehoused in prisons or trapped in a permanent second-class status. Our drug laws — more precisely, how drug laws are enforced in minority communities — have led to this outcome.

The school-to-prison-pipeline — a series of policies and programs that criminalize juvenile behavior and push students out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system — disproportionately feeds on students of color.

And as Florida’s immigrant population grows and Congress continues to refuse to fix our broken immigration system, Hispanic Floridians are stopped, questioned and detained by police who are implicitly encouraged to use racial profiling to enforce immigration laws.

To be sure, the Florida of 2014 is not the Florida of 1964. Explicitly racist laws and policies are no longer allowed, thanks in no small part to the Civil Rights Act. But subtler, more sophisticated and pernicious forms of racial inequity still exist 50 years after the law’s passage. We must make it the work of today to stamp those out.

In honoring the history that brought us to where we are and how far we’ve come in bending the long arc of the moral universe, we must also prepare ourselves for how much further we have to go.

Dr. Joyce Hamilton Henry is director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

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