Today’s national Civil Rights dialogue focuses largely on immigration, reproductive issues, and LGBTQ rights. Certainly, each of these issues critically requires our nation’s attention, but they should not be discussed to the exclusion of “old fashioned” racial discrimination. The African-American Civil Rights Movement is the foundation upon which these movements were built. The victories of the “classic civil rights era” were hard-fought, but the fight for true racial equality is far from over. State and federal authorities must guard against complacency, because African-Americans are still victims of racial discrimination in many different forms. Consider the following recent examples.
Racially restrictive covenants were the norm in cities across the United States until the Supreme Court decided Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 and Congress passed The Fair Housing Act in 1968. Since the enactment of these Civil Rights era policies, many have thought that housing discrimination was largely extinct. However, in September 2012, the Department of Justice filed suit against the owners and manager of rental properties in Eastern North Carolina, alleging racially based violations of the Fair Housing Act.
Residential racism appears quite alive according to the complaint, which alleges that housing manager William I. Cochran III refused to perform maintenance or repairs for African-American tenants, verbally harassed them, and threatened or retaliated against those African-American tenants who opposed his actions. Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, noted that the Justice Department continues to engage in “vigorous enforcement of fair housing laws.” The press release notes that “[f]ighting illegal discrimination in housing is a top priority of the Justice Department.”
Another example of modern day racial discrimination occurred last week, where the Department of Justice last week obtained an agreement with the Northeastern Local School District in Springfield and South Vienna, Ohio. This agreement was necessary because African-American students in the district were being harassed because of their race. The Justice Department conducted an investigation after receiving a complaint and found that a student at Kenton Ridge High School had experienced “significant harassment” because of his race and retaliation for reporting the harassment. The DOJ investigation concluded that the district “Failed to investigate the alleged harassment adequately, address it effectively, and prevent it from occurring.” The student who experienced racial harassment at his high school eventually transferred out of the district because he was afraid to go to school.
As part of the DOJ’s agreement with the Northeastern Local School District, the district will revise its policies and procedures dealing with harassment based on race, altering existing structures to become compliant with Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The investigation found that the district was not meeting its obligations under Title IV, which prohibits racial discrimination in public schools. The investigation revealed that the complaining student was not the only African-American student in the district harassed because of his race.
On October 2, Ryan M. Held a/k/a Ryan M. Foley of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to federal charges that, by force or threat of force, he “willfully intimidated and interfered with two minor victims.” Mr. Held, 21, saw one of the victims, a Caucasian woman, associating with the other victim, a black man, in her home. He returned to her home and placed a cross in her front yard, some 60 feet from her front door, and set it on fire. He then hid in the woods behind her home, watching the cross burn and waiting to see if anyone emerged.
The FBI conducted the investigation that led to Mr. Held’s arrest and prosecution. The U.S. Attorney’s office, together with the U.S. Attorney Hickton stated that his office “will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute criminals whose actions are driven by bigotry and hate.”
Each of these three instances, all of which occurred within the last month, illustrates that racially motivated crimes remain prevalent in our society, although they are not at the forefront of our media and may seem absolutely unbelievable to many. It is undeniable that individuals continue to struggle against those who would deny them their civil rights, in spite of the racial background of our President and claims of a post racial America. We cannot forget these individuals. We cannot assume people like Mr. Held and Mr. Cochran do not exist, and that acts like cross burning and racial harassment are a thing of the past. We cannot become complacent. We must insist on constant vigilance and aggressive enforcement of our Civil Rights laws.