It is an undeniable reality that, even in the 21st century, structural racial discrimination continues to persist throughout the United States. While there are certainly still instances of outright discrimination against people of color, most modern-day discrimination takes the form of institutionalized practices that have a profoundly negative impact on racial minorities. The racial justice movement seeks to fight these inequities through a multi-faceted approach that includes litigation, policy advocacy, community organizing and other means to effect social change.
In California, the work of racial justice advocates became considerably more challenging in 1996, with the enactment of Proposition 209, California’s anti-affirmative action initiative. This constitutional amendment limits public entities’ ability to take race, ethnicity or gender into account when creating remedial measures traditionally undertaken to combat discrimination. Yet, even with this legislative constraint, proponents of social justice have fought vigorously to shed light on the issues that disproportionately affect minorities. Those include: increasingly high poverty rates; disparities in the criminal justice system; lack of resources in public schools located in property-poor neighborhoods; and racially segregated housing. Civil rights attorneys continue to fight back against these trends, in cases such as Williams v. City of Antioch, a recently-certified class action that challenges the City’s policy and practice of harassing African-American section 8 housing tenants.
Disparate impacts based on race are also present in healthcare where, for example, African-American mothers are twice as likely to lose their newborn babies due to higher infant mortality rates. We also know that low-income Latinos and African-Americans are substantially more affected by Environmental Justice concerns because they live in neighborhoods with toxic manufacturing plants, which cause environmental and health safety problems. Racial justice advocates bring these disparities to light, and then work through community organizing, legislation, and litigation to close these gaps.
In the criminal justice system, across the country and particularly in states with large urban centers such as California, young men of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for drug charges, including minor offenses like marijuana possession. Other drug-related charges often lead to felony convictions, which exclude a disproportionate amount of African-Americans and Latinos from voting. Fortunately, a recent California case determined that persons in county jails as a condition of their probation do have the right to vote while incarcerated. This victory allows approximately 150,000 people who were formerly disenfranchised to participate in the political process.
The presence of such systemic and structural discriminatory practices illustrate why the fight for racial justice is so critical. We all have a role to play in the struggle for equality. As supporters of racial justice work, we must challenge everyone to speak out against all forms of discrimination when we encounter them.