By Bill Schneider
I grew up in the segregated South. I tell students the story of how, as a young boy, I went with my mother to Bloomberg's Department Store on High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia. There was a stack of doilies on the ladies' hat counter and I asked my mother what they were for. She explained that a black woman had to put a doily on her head before trying on a hat, because a white woman would not purchase a hat that had been on a black woman's head.
My students think I am making all this up. They refuse to believe such things were true. It is too absurd, they insist.
In his "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination." While the problem of discrimination has not been fully resolved, the country has made great progress since King spoke in 1963, which was before passage of the Civil Rights Act.
King also addressed the problem of economic inequality, saying, "The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity." In many ways, the problem of economic inequality has gotten worse. And not just for African-Americans.
In his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Barack Obama focused on economic inequality. He told the New York Times that the civil rights coalition "wasn't just folks who believed in racial equality. It was people who believed in working folks having a fair shot."
Obama is the first national African-American leader who did not come up through the civil rights movement. He came up though the progressive political movement. Race has never been at the top of Obama's agenda, and he has addressed race only occasionally as president. Obama's big causes have been economic and anti-war. His coalition is not racial but multicultural, united by a commitment to diversity and inclusion. I call it the New America.
Many years ago, I did some research in Northern Ireland. It bears the burden of centuries of hatred between Protestants and Catholics. But a casual visitor could not tell much difference between them. They look the same, talk the same and economically, the two groups seem roughly equal. Nonetheless, the religious divide is deep and rigid and often violent.
Every summer, Ulster Protestants march defiantly through Catholic neighborhoods to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James and ensured the continuation of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. I asked one marcher what he had against Catholics. "Are ye daft?" he replied. "Their religion, of course."
In Northern Ireland, the problem is discrimination more than inequality. In the United States, inequality has become the bigger problem.
Both whites and blacks in the United States believe civil rights has changed the country for the better in their lifetime, according to this summer's Gallup poll. Most whites say it has "greatly improved." Most blacks say "somewhat improved."
The area where both blacks and whites see the least improvement: dealing with the police and the courts. The Trayvon Martin case shined a harsh light on that problem. The area where there has been the greatest improvement: voting rights. Since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the turnout of black voters has moved closer and closer to the turnout of white voters until, last year, the black turnout rate actually surpassed the white rate for the first time.
At the same time, economic inequality has gotten worse. The Pew Research Center reports that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased since the 1960s. The huge and widening gap in household wealth is truly shocking. In 2011, the median net worth of white households was $91,405. The figure for black households was $6,446.
Whether government can or should do something about that kind of inequality is a central problem on the political agenda. According to Gallup, 54 percent of blacks believe government should play "a major role" in improving the economic and social welfare of minorities in this country. Only 22 percent of whites agree. The role of government is at the core of the partisan division in this country. It's a racially charged issue — but it's a lot bigger than race. Obama wants to commit the federal government to reducing economic inequality. It's a way of addressing the race problem without talking about race.
Republicans are terrified by the demographic changes in the country that brought Obama and the New America to power. So what have Republicans done? As soon as the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Voting Rights Act was out of date, Texas and North Carolina moved to impose tougher restrictions on voting. Those restrictions are a threat to the New America's political survival. The Obama administration is responding aggressively by suing to block the Texas restrictions.
In defending the decision to strike down the core of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, "Our country has changed."
Maybe not so much.
(Bill Schneider is professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.)