There are people still alive today who remember Jim Crow laws. Half a century ago, segregation of drinking fountains, public restrooms, public buses, and public schools was still legal. Fifty years ago blacks in many states could not make a living except to work in jobs that resembled slavery in their wages and work conditions. The Civil Rights movement ostensibly changed everything. Yet decades of political correctness and affirmative action have all but glossed over the deeply rooted problems of racism and other forms of injustice evident in the daily lives of many Americans. African-Americans are also not the only minority group to suffer from systematic discrimination. Half of all Americans -- black, white, rich poor -- experience daily discrimination at home and in the workplace. Less than a hundred years ago, women could not even vote. Suffrage created twice as many voters and like the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, feminism promised to change the outlook for American women in general. Yet females still earn less money than their male counterparts and as a result many women of all colors live in poverty. Innumerable legal measures, from Brown v. Board of Education to Roe v. Wade, have vowed to improve the lives of millions and for the most part situations have improved over all. Separate drinking fountains are certainly a thing of the past, thrown right out of the American landscape along with "black face." Likewise, a handful of female politicians and CEOs prove that feminism has made an impact on American society. Oprah Winfrey stands in a unique position, straddling both realms of oppression: African-American and female. Yet the Oprah Winfreys among us are rarer than woodland truffles. Most blacks in the United States in 2004, which is over a century after abolition, deal daily with issues like discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, and worse: physical effects like poverty, health issues, and political disenfranchisement. Similarly, women across the United States fare far better now than they would have a hundred years ago, but still can't seem to get on equal footing with their male counterparts. Many women live in shame or at the mercy of violent husbands, having few options or opportunities for change. In spite of the many successful measures taken since World War Two to improve the legal lots of millions of oppressed Americans, the United States has a long way to go before total political, economic and social equality are enjoyed by all its citizens.
The problems plaguing such large numbers of Americans are overwhelming. They are related to gender and race but also to class. In fact, socio-economic class impacts prejudice considerably; most of the problems now facing black America are problems directly related to poverty. Poverty and race are tightly linked together, creating vicious cycles that begin in early childhood. Families with access to good schools and medical care tend to send their children to college, and kids who go to college are on the whole more likely to get jobs that pay better than kids who don't. Oversimplified but true, the poverty cycle prevents many Americans from breaking free from the bonds of oppression.
The government has also become less and less willing to acknowledge poverty as a systematic, institutionalized problem and instead promotes a "blame the victim" mentality through media propaganda and shoddy education. The benefit of the doubt is offered to the large corporations that restrict wages for blue collar workers while expanding the salaries of top executives to figures in the millions, even billions. Fiscally conservative politicians prefer to cut budget spending on socialized health care and public schools under the guise of improving the economy through Reaganomics. What trickle-down economic policies like Reagonomics really do is prevent the poor from being able to effectively break free from the bonds of oppression. Unfortunately many of the real victims are African-American.
The lingering effects of slavery can still be witnessed on the streets of many urban centers. Whites may not have the legal power to impose forced labor on persons of color, but all too often, it is the African-Americans who work for white supervisors at minimum wage jobs that are insufficient to pay the rent. When African-Americans turn to illegal means of supporting themselves such as drug dealing they are labeled as being criminals and deviants and thrown in jail, without addressing the underlying social causes for the problem. Many Americans don't realize that Jim Crow was mere decades ago and still prevents black communities from prospering. Furthermore, an increasing black middle class struggles with unique social and economic issues that are all but ignored by the United States government. African-Americans who work at skilled jobs are still generally earning less than their white counterparts. Discrimination prevents blacks from being promoted to positions of power or positions earning higher wages. Discrimination also blinds many voters to African-American politicians, creating a woefully unbalanced and non-representative force in Washington, D.C. Politicians who cannot properly represent the needs of their constituencies will be unlikely proponents of measures that could potentially funnel funding into poor communities and offer new, novel solutions for existing problems.
American politicians not only don't represent the population of the nation entirely in terms of race and ethnicity but also gender. Women of all colors and classes are still grossly underrepresented in politics and in spheres of economic power. The majority of politicians in the nation and all of its presidents are white males. White males generally tend to support laws, policies, and institutions that favor white males. Due to increasing awareness of the deleterious effects of racial and gender discrimination, laws have evolved over the past half-century or more to end discrimination on the books. In many cases the laws have shifted public consciousness and created great awareness. Conditions for African-Americans and women are generally better today than they were before World War Two. Yet in many ways the progress has been superficial. For example, school kids learn romantic visions of Abe Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Students are taught about black Americans during the month of February and are scolded when they use derogatory terms toward their classmates. Anti-discrimination laws prevent employers from hiring only whites or only males, but African-Americans and women are not visible in most boardrooms or other places where power is wielded.
For the most part anti-discrimination laws are enforced. Yet in other cases the laws are also not enforced, such as instances of police brutality toward African-Americans, and turning a blind eye to race-related hate crimes or domestic disputes. Much media attention has been given toward cases of rampant discrimination. The disproportionate number of black Americans in prison is another testament to the government's and law enforcement's continued discrimination practices. Though separate drinking fountains are a thing of the past, being black in America is still a liability in many areas. "Driving while black" might seem like a clever catch-phrase but is a daily reality for many people who know that they are more likely to get pulled over than the white person in the adjacent automobile.
The paucity of female or African-American politicians and CEOs creates systematic imbalances and inequalities that may not be able to be addressed properly by existing laws. In fact, it is possible that new laws are not the answer for either racial or gender discrimination issues. A plethora of anti-discrimination laws already exist on the books but are either poorly enforced or meaningless. Women and African-Americans are treated like second-class citizens and viewed as inferior to white males way too often. The American government since World War Two has attempted to instate social programs and laws that bolster Black communities and women's rights. Yet more of than not these programs are painfully under-funded or short-lived. Many American schools remain segregated…