Opportunity is not black or white

Posted: Feb 14, 2006 12:05 AM
Former President Jimmy Carter said last week at Coretta Scott King’s funeral:

“The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of the people in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — those who are most devastated by Katrina — to know that there are not equal opportunities for all Americans.”

The unfortunate snapshot of poverty exposed by Hurricane Katrina is not an accurate portrait of the equal opportunity available all across America. Carter’s comment dismisses the millions of black Americans who ran through the doors of opportunity following the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he could not resist a chance to further stir feelings of racial resentment.

Our great nation was established on a concept once thought revolutionary, yet considered by our founders as so fundamental that they described it as “self-evident.” The concept is that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Although it took America nearly 200 years to live up to that ideal, the fact is that we are a long way from the struggle. Today’s challenge is to protect equal rights and opportunity for all of us.

Carter’s comments deny the successes achieved by leaders such as President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen, who was the driving force behind the Civil Rights Act, and the millions of anonymous heroes who fought for and achieved equality of opportunity for all American citizens.

Though the founders declared that all men are created equal, slavery was still permitted until 1862, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, soon after the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, banning slavery throughout the entire United States. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, which established citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the U.S., and guaranteed all citizens due process and equal protection under the laws. Discrimination against blacks in the electoral process still continued, and the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, stated that the right to vote shall not be denied on the basis of race.

Legal barriers to blacks’ full participation in our nation’s educational, electoral and economic processes continued through the 1960s. The famous 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education tackled the issue of forced segregation in schools. The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, abolished poll taxes that had prevented many blacks from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited both discrimination in employment and forced segregation in schools. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 further empowered the federal government to monitor voter registration and elections in counties and states with histories of racial discrimination.

Today, the word race has lost much of the meaning that it carried just over forty years ago when Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Prior to the 1960s and the enactment of these historical pieces of legislation, a person’s particular race determined where he or she could attend school, whether or not they could vote and even access to drinking fountains and swimming pools. Laws separated us by race, and it was these racial barriers that inspired many to give their lives – sometimes literally – to the cause of equal protection and equal opportunity for all Americans.

Enactment of legislation such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts did not guarantee equal outcomes for blacks and other racial minorities, but their passage did guarantee the opportunity for all to pursue their economic freedom through academic achievement. Millions of blacks and minorities took advantage of the educational opportunities available for the first time and found economic success in virtually every profession.

Today, with the absence of laws to segregate us and limit our opportunities merely because of our racial ancestry, race alone is no longer a barrier to success. Instead, academic achievement and making smart decisions in our personal lives remove the barriers we may have been born with. College entrance exams don’t care who holds the pencil, high school and college diplomas are colorblind, and money doesn’t care whose pocket it’s in. Today men and women of any skin color can compete for admission to any college or university, compete for jobs in the private sector and freely vote for their favorite candidates. Race itself is no longer an impediment to achieving academic success and economic freedom.

Every American citizen who chooses to pursue and achieve economic freedom has that opportunity today, regardless of his or her skin color. The current metrics and trends of the current economy also prove Carter’s assertion to be misleading. The unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, GDP has grown for over 4 years and most families are moving up the income brackets, as they have done in each of the previous three decades.

Race matters only to those who want to continue to keep the nation divided. Some individual Americans may from time to time stand in your way, but America does not. America is defined by its ideals, not by its limitations.

The charge young blacks and minorities must keep today – their debt for the struggle that took nearly 350 years – is to capitalize on all the opportunities available in the U.S. for academic and economic growth. People create limitations. America creates opportunities.

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