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Picturing Black History, Part 5: The Black Lives Matter Movement

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Welcome back to this five-part series, where we're learning the history of people of African ancestry in the United States through photography.

In the fourth part of our series, we took a look at the Civil Rights Movement and how it succeeded in overturning Jim Crow Segregation and improving the conditions of life for African Americans in the south. We also briefly introduced the Black Power Movement, and attempts to address the myriad problems facing African Americans in the north.

Source: Envato Elements

If you've missed the earlier parts of this series, please see:

In this article we round up our five-part series by taking a look at the Black Lives Matter Movement.

"The African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American."Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, NMAAHC

Throughout this series we've attempted to frame, humanize and historicize the African American experience in the United States through archival photography. We ended the last part by asking: Did the gains of the 1960s finally bring about the racial justice that Martin Luther King, Jr. famously dreamed of? Now that we've come to contemporary events, let's see where things stand.

Recent History and Current Events

In 1968, towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement, a spate of urban riots broke out across Northern cities in America. Two major commissions—the McCone Commission and the Kerner Commission—were tasked with studying the causes of the riots and to recommend how to prevent more.

Photograph showing a soldier standing guard at 7th and N Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photograph showing a soldier standing guard at 7th and N Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., taken April 8, 1968, by Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

Both commissions concluded that the riots were caused in large part by extreme segregation, limited housing choices, concentration of poverty, poor schools and limited work options for African Americans, as a consequence of racism and rampant discrimination in housing and labor. The Kerner Commission report concluded that the "nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Though the reports believed in full integration as a long-term solution, they proposed immediate relief was possible through targeted government investment in housing, education, and employment programs, and more robust social insurance programs. 

Queensbridge public housing complex, New York
Queensbridge public housing complex, New York, by Metro Centric (converted to black and white)/Flickr

Housing

Over the decades since the 1960s, residential segregation has decreased. America's suburbs used to be more than 90% white, but as a result of the Fair Housing Act, they are now more diverse, as the most overt exclusion of African Americans from accessing particular houses or neighbourhoods has been outlawed.

But although things are better than they were in the 1960s, many American cities remain highly segregated, as this detailed Washington Post study shows. This means that ultimately the the Fair Housing Act has failed to deliver on its key tenet: creating an integrated society.

  The demolition of a Robert Taylor building in January of 2006.
The demolition of one of the Robert Taylor public housing buildings, South Side Chicago, January of 2006, by artistmac/Flickr

What's more, everyday discrimination continues. Some incidents stand out, like the police being called on African Americans attempting to enter their own homes in affluent neighbourhoods, or one where a black couple found their house was valued 50% higher when they had a white friend pose as the owner. These ongoing disparities have severe consequences for the ability to build wealth, contributing to the fact that white families have on average around ten times the net worth of African American families. They also affect education opportunities, as we'll see below.

Education

In education too, there has been progress, but racial disparities still remain. African Americans' educational achievements, whether measured by high school completion, test scores, or college attendance, have steadily increased over recent decades and have been catching up with those of whites, but there is still a large gap.

First grade class of African American and white school children, Albemarle Road Elementary School, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1973 by Warren K. Leffler Source/Library of Congress

A major reason for that gap is the lingering residential segregation we discussed earlier, which leads to educational segregation. After becoming more integrated in the 1960s and 1970s, American schools started becoming more segregated again from the 1990s. African American children are five times as likely as white children to attend schools that are highly segregated by race and ethnicity, and twice as likely to attend schools with high poverty rates among students.

More than half a century after Brown v Board of Education, millions of African American children are attending underfunded schools in poor neighbourhoods, with dire consequences for educational attainment and consequently job opportunities in later life.

Senior citizens protest in Chicago
A senior citizens' march to protest inflation, unemployment, and high taxes, stopped along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, by John H. White/The National Archives

Employment

One important outcome of the civil rights era was the introduction of a range of employment laws, along with the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure they were enforced. Workplace discrimination has decreased as a result, but is still widespread. Studies have repeatedly found that job applicants with white-sounding names receive more interviews than those with black-sounding names, and that black employees tend to be paid less and receive fewer promotions.

African Americans also experience consistently higher unemployment rates than whites, even when they have college degrees. And, crucially, the higher reaches of corporate America still don't reflect the composition of the country. Black directors account for just 4.1% of board seats at large companies, and just four companies in the Fortune 500 have black chief executives.

Health

African Americans die, on average, 3.6 years earlier than white Americans. The "life expectancy gap" has decreased by 50% since 1970, but it still exists, along with a wide array of other shocking health disparities: lower rates of healthcare coverage, higher rates of chronic illness, a higher cancer mortality rate than any other racial group, an infant mortality rate of almost twice the national average.

This is partly connected with the other inequalities we've covered here—poor neighbourhoods, lower incomes, less access to healthcare, lack of mobility that comes with high rates of involvement with justice systems, and so on. But studies have also shown that racism has a direct, measurable negative effect on people's mental and physical health, causing higher stress, depression, anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and more. And one study found that doctors systematically underestimate and under-treat pain in African Americans due to racial bias and false beliefs about black people having thicker skin or a higher tolerance for pain.

Voting

The 1965 Voting Rights Act and other legislation protecting African Americans right to vote was a key gain of the Civil Rights movement. It enabled hundreds of thousands of African Americans to register to vote for the first time, and research has shown that black voter turnout rates increased sharply after it was passed. The number of African American elected officials also increased over the decades at all levels of government, culminating in the election of Barack Obama as the first black President in 2008.

The gains of the Voting Rights however received a huge blow when the supreme court decided in Shelby county v Holder that some of the protections afforded African Americans in states with a history of discrimination were not longer necessary. This has had a dire impact on African American voters.  Because African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat, Republicans have spent decades working on voter suppression efforts, such as purging voter rolls, introducing voter ID laws, and barring felons from voting. Already in the first couple of months of 2021, states have introduced 165 bills to restrict voting access.

State-Sponsored Violence

President Nixon's advisor, John Ehrlichman, once explained how the Nixon administration created the "War on Drugs" to destroy its perceived enemies of anti-war demonstrators and black people:

"We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration upped the stakes in the War on Drugs even further, introducing criminal penalties 100 times higher for crack (mostly used by African Americans) than for powdered cocaine (mostly used by whites). The drug war became a means for funnelling black people into the criminal justice system, with the US prison population exploding from around 400,000 in 1970 to more than 2 million today, with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The racial inequalities in sentencing and criminal justice persist today. Here are just a few of the statistics compiled by the NAACP:

  • Although African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times higher.
  • Although African Americans represent only 5% of illegal drug users, they make up 29% of those arrested and 33% of those incarcerated for drug offences.
  • A Black person is five times more likely to be stopped without just cause than a white person.
  • Black people are sentenced to death at a higher rate than any other racial group.
  • 82% of people on Death Row were convicted of crimes in which the victim was white.
 George Floyd memorial mural outside Cup Foods at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota
George Floyd memorial mural outside Cup Foods at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by Lorie Shaull/Flickr

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement has recently highlighted police brutality against black people, but the issue stretches back for decades. What has changed recently is that advances in photography and video technology now allow people to record the beatings and deaths, abuses that used to go unrecorded and unreported.

The 1991 beating of Rodney King was the most famous example, but cellphone cameras now make these horrific images and videos much more common, and rapid sharing makes public reactions faster.

The outcome, unfortunately, is usually the same: the police officers are almost always acquitted, while the victim is put on trial in the media. And the same outrage that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots has led to new Black Lives Matter protests after the brutality of our own time.

Banner At Front of Protest Parade March - Justice For Regis - Not Another Black Life rally and March - May 30, 2020, Toronto, Canada
Banner at front of protest parade march - Justice For Regis - Not Another Black Life rally and March, May 30, 2020, Toronto, Canada by Jason Hargrove/Flickr

Backlash Against the Gains of the Civil Rights Movement

As we've seen, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement have been mixed. African Americans have achieved some measures of progress, but are still held back in the most important areas for supporting human life, such as housing, education, job opportunities, and more.

Yet even that minimal progress has outraged some white people, who fear that they're now the ones being left behind.

Because of the changes to discriminatory laws won by African Americans in the civil rights movement, Federal employers and State college admission office attempted to redress the exclusion of African Americans, women and others by considering race and gender when considering hiring and college admissions. This was called "Affirmative Actions" by President Kennedy and, out of it, a myth developed among white Americans that African Americans were being given an unfair advantage over them in employment, education, and more.

Donald Trump, well before he was elected, encapsulated this fear in a 1989 TV interview: "A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. … If I was starting off today, I would love to be a well-educated black, because I really do believe they have the actual advantage today." But no word on what that advantage actually was (or how it could be better than being given hundreds of thousands of dollars by your father to start a business.)

As we have seen, African Americans do not have the advantage in any area of life in America today. The changes in practices of hiring and college acceptance were merely attempts at redressing some of the abuse, exploitation and exclusion they suffered for centuries. And even so, research has found that white women, not African Americans, have been the main beneficiaries of affirmative action in both education and employment. Furthermore, it is legacy connections—usually held by whites—not race, that provide the biggest advantage in college admissions. 

Back in the 1970s, Allan Bakke, a white man who was rejected twice by U.C. Davis, sued the university, accusing it of "reverse discrimination". In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, while allowing that colleges could legitimately use race as an admissions criterion to ensure diversity.

Subsequent court rulings have generally upheld this decision or weakened affirmative action even further. Nevertheless, the charges of "reverse racism" continue, with a 2011 study showing that white people believed they were the victims of racism more often than black people.

Why the Black Lives Matter Movement?

Because President Trump tapped into this tale of white victimhood so often and so successfully, it wasn't surprising that when asked to respond to the killing of black people by police last summer, he claimed that "more white people" were killed by police than black people.

Because whites outnumber African Americans by almost five to one, his statement was technically true, but still dreadfully misleading. The research is clear: black people are shot and killed by police at twice the rate of white people.

The Black Lives Matter movement first gained prominence in 2013, when activist Alicia Garza used the phrase in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida man who shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. After that, the notorious killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and so many others led to more outrage, more protests, and the growing popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Renowned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick added his support by kneeling during the national anthem, saying:

"To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

After continuing his protest throughout the 2016 season amid a furious backlash, he was released by the San Francisco 49ers, apparently blacklisted by the NFL and has never played again.

 News helicopter flies over protest against police violence , Minneaspolis, Minnesota, May 26, 2020
News helicopter flies over protest against police violence , Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 26, 2020, by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Although the Black Lives Matter movement was founded on the issue of police brutality, it is also about more than that. The slogan resonates with African peoples and other disenfranchised people all over the globe because it ties into the entire history of oppression that we've catalogued in this series. Africans were kidnapped because their lives didn't matter, transported across the Atlantic in inhuman conditions because their lives didn't matter, exploited and brutalized for centuries because their lives didn't matter, lynched and segregated, arrested and excluded, and abused because their lives didn't matter.

As cofounder Patrisse Cullors wrote on the Black Lives Matter website recently:

"There is so much more to our organization — and movement — than just telling the global community that our lives matter. We will never abandon our fight for racial justice and our struggle for liberation."

I hope this post and this series have given you a context for that struggle and inspired you to join it.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining us in our overview of African American History in pictures and text. We hope you have learned something of why Black History Month is important and why the history of people of African ancestry cannot be separated from the larger American history.

If you've missed the earlier parts of this series, please check out:

Must-See Collections

If you want to learn more about black history through photography, explore some of these wonderful archives:

1. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division

Explore over 300,000 images in this section of the New York Public Library system that's dedicated to black history.

2. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress holds millions of photographs, books, newspapers and other documents that can help you explore any area of black history that interests you.

4. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The museum itself is well worth a visit when Covid-19 allows, but in the meantime, you can explore the museum's digital archives on its website.

5. National Archives

The U.S. National Archives contain a wealth of historic photographs, including a special section on African American history.

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