Why Celebrate the Civil Rights Act?
From my perspective as an African-American woman who grew up in the segregated South, I can think of few historical events more important to celebrate than the adoption of the Civil Rights Act. It fills me with great joy to have this opportunity to join with you in recognizing a moment in history that, even 50 years later, resonates with a sense of achievement relatively unequaled in its meaning and promise of equality, but also conflict and divisiveness. Sharing this time with other psychologists in Little Rock, Ark. is especially gratifying because of the important role psychology has and continues to have in addressing issues related to discrimination, prejudice and their impact, as well as diversity and ways to achieve it. I have a special place in my heart for Little Rock. I spent hours following the events unfold as the Little Rock 9 struggled and held fast to integrate Central High. I also fondly remember a number of visits to Central High as part of my first real job — the warmth with which I was treated and the great work being accomplished by the program.
First envisioned by President John F. Kennedy and eventually signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, the Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion or sex illegal. The law also authorized the attorney general to prosecute schools practicing overt segregation, and through the creation of the Equal Opportunity Commission, job discrimination became much more difficult. The Civil Rights Act benefited not only Black Americans, but women, religious minorities, Latinos and whites as well. The Civil Rights Act later became a model for other anti-discrimination measures passed by Congress, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (CNN Politics, 2014).
Commemorating the signing of the Civil Rights Amendment is important for a number of reasons. First, it prompts us to recall why it was enacted: the condoned exclusion and degradation of so many of our fellow Americans, and the struggle to obtain equal rights for Black Americans.
Second, it is important to assess where we are — to evaluate our progress — and the work that remains. Discrimination and inequality and the damaging impact they have on all of society, still remain. Former APA President Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, appointed the APA Presidential Task Force on Discrimination and Diversity to examine and compile the psychological research on discrimination and its impact. For my remarks I will draw from this important report: "Dual Pathways to a Better America: Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity" (American Psychological Association, 2012). The report notes that:
"An enormous toll is exacted on human capital when systematic biases, stereotypes, and discrimination are perpetuated… discrimination and prejudice affect people psychologically and physically, and families and communities suffer the consequences of the health, economic and occupational disparities stemming from inequality ... Research has demonstrated that discrimination or inequitable opportunities adversely affect individuals' cognitive abilities, spike blood pressure, reduce self-esteem, diminish trust, disable motivation, and contribute to depression and self-abusive behaviors, suicidal thoughts, and fantasies." (pp. 1, 38)
According to psychologist Brian Smedley, PhD, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the legacy of segregation continues through the “channeling of racial and ethnic minorities into areas of high poverty that lack things like schools with good resources, grocery stores that sell healthy food and public parks that offer opportunities to walk, bike or run. Looking at direct medical costs combined with the indirect costs of lost wages, diminished productivity and lost revenue caused by sickness and early death, Smedley estimates the drag on the economy to be at $1.24 trillion between 2003 and 2006” (Munsey, 2011).
Strong psychological evidence supports the understanding that everyone is affected by systems of discrimination… ”which generates exclusion and marginalization for certain groups and wraps a blanket of inclusion, security, and opportunities for others. We continue to live in a society in which the dynamics of exclusion are prevalent. Even those who consider themselves “bystanders” as opposed to “perpetrators” are affected by the cultural dynamics of exclusion, whether acknowledged or not” (American Psychological Association, 2012).
Two examples of evidence that more work needs to be done are found in rates of school segregation and unemployment. We may not see children being physically blocked by the National Guard from entering a given school, but American schools continue to be segregated at nearly the same rate as they were 40 years ago. This is largely because of residential segregation and the racial gaps in wealth and employment (Perry, 2014). Today it isn't the South, but the Northeast, particularly Washington, D.C., and New York, that has the most racially homogeneous schools, and as noted by First Lady Michelle Obama, “too often, those schools aren't equal, especially ones attended by students of color which too often lag behind, with crumbling classrooms and less experienced teachers” (Stolberg, 2014).
Discrimination in employment still exists, and according to the Pew Research Center: “The unemployment rate among blacks is about double that among whites, approximately the same as it has been for most of the past six decades” ( Desilver, 2013). Bayard Rustin, one of the major organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, in his "Preamble to the March," wrote that “integration in education, housing, public accommodations, and transportation would be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality persists” ( Rustin, 1963).
Psychologists have done extensive work on issues related to the causes and impact of discrimination. How can we best use the knowledge we've gained to create meaningful change? Is it possible to ensure that 50 years from now, African-Americans and other ethnic minority groups, women, gay men and lesbians, the poor, older people and those with disabilities can be free from discrimination and that diversity is fully embraced? I don't have the answers, but one thing we can do is begin talking honestly with each other.
“Societal norms and ground rules surrounding the discussion on topics like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and class differences hinder an honest and open discussion of these topics. The code of silence, politeness protocol, academic protocol, and stereotype constraint all intersect in a way that encourages people to avoid or only superficially engage in meaningful and honest discussion of these ‘socially taboo' topics” (American Psychological Association, 2012, p. 42).
Honest and open dialogues on race and other difficult subjects may begin to increase our understanding of each others' differences and allow us to see the many similarities. The report goes on to say: “Shifting the focus from destructive discrimination to the benefits of diversity may be part of an ongoing solution ... Embracing diversity benefits everyone. Indeed, there is substantial social science literature documenting the benefits of diversity in strengthening society and democracy ... Diversity breeds creative thinking, democratic communities and innovation ... Acceptance of and support for social diversity is critical to the health of the population, especially in light of the fact that the diversity of the U.S. population is ever expanding” (American Psychological Association, 2012).
In his book, "The Diversity of Life," Nobel Laureate biologist E.O. Wilson noted that diversity is the foundation of the survival and evolution of our species. “Differences among us benefit all. That we fear and retreat from our differences, or base aggressive hostilities and exclusion on them, is understandable but also regrettable” (Wilson, 1992).
Finally, acknowledging the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act encourages those of us who remember how things were before the struggle for equal rights, to recall the promise and hope engendered by its passing, to share with younger generations, and to recommit ourselves to the ideals and goals it set forth. This celebration tonight and the APA resolution are admirable testaments to your commitment.
I thank you for allowing me to share in this celebration with you. The following words from the song, "Man in the Mirror," written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard, and performed by Michael Jackson, are particularly relevant:
"I'm starting with the man in the mirror,
I'm asking him to change his ways,
And no message could have been any clearer,
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself and then make a change."
- American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Preventing Discrimination and Promoting Diversity (2012). Dual pathways to a better America: Preventing discrimination and promoting diversity . Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/promoting-diversity.aspx
- CNN Politics. (2014, April 10). What you might not know about the Civil Rights Act. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/10/politics/civil-rights-act-interesting-facts/
- Desilver, D. (2013, August 21). Black unemployment rate is consistently lower than that of whites. Fact Tank: News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center . Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/21/through-good-times-and-bad-black-unemployment-is-consistently-double-that-of-whites
- Garret, S. & Ballard, G. ( 1988). Man in the mirror. On Bad by Michael Jackson. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson: Epic Records.
- Munsey, C. (2011, October). Segregation's ongoing legacy. Monitor on Psychology , 42(9), 36. Presentation on Health Disparities by Brian Smedley, PhD, 2011 APA Convention. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/segregation.aspx
- Perry, I. (2014, May 16). Five myths about Brown vs. Board of Education. Washington Post . Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-brown-v-board-of-education/2014/05/16/fd84b82c-dc3b-11e3-8009-71de85b9c527_story.html
- Rustin, B. (1963) Preamble to the March on Washington. Social Justice Movements . Retrieved from http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php?title=The_March_on_Washington&redirect
- Stolberg, S. (2014, May 16). Michelle Obama cites view of growing segregation. The New York Times . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/17/us/mrs-obama-cites-view-of-growing-segregation.html
- Wilson, E. O. (1992). The diversity of life . London and New York: W.W. Norton and Company.