“Is this America?”

 //  Apr 25, 2014

“Is this America?”

It's been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty," and 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education held that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional.

Whether your paycheck is good, bad or indifferent, you know that inequality and de facto segregation live on in the United States. As James Dent says in this unsparing look at the resegregated school system in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, "It ain't going to get no better."

In April, the Supreme Court upheld Michigan's ban on the use of race as a factor in admissions to state universities. Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued before the Court, said that the ban "unfairly keeps students from asking universities to consider race as one factor in admissions, but allows consideration of factors like legacy status, athletic achievement and geography."

Rosenbaum's point about legacy admissions, for example, is borne out in a disquieting new statistic. Analyzing data from 30 top colleges, researcher Michael Hurwitz found that children of alumni had a 45 percent greater chance of admission. Because of legacy admissions, Evan J. Mandery observes in this New York Times column, "elite colleges look almost nothing like America."

And what of the legacy of the great civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who all but forced the Voting Rights Act on President Johnson at the Democratic National Convention of 1964?

"Is this America?" Hamer railed before the television cameras that summer. "The land of the free and the home of the brave?"

Fifty years later, Julian Bond, the former head of the NAACP, says that "the problem of discrimination in voting has not yet been eradicated."

Hamer risked her life so that black citizens like her would "be treated as human beings in our sick society." One can hear her words echoing through Atlantic City's old convention hall, where she fought in vain to win a seat: "I question America. Is this America?"