The words, “liberty and justice for all,” have been recited by school children across America since they were written by Francis Bellamy in 1892. But for many children of color, these words simply do not ring true.
As we celebrate Juneteenth in many states across the country, we need to determine how to make these words apply to everyone in the United States, regardless of race, color or national origin. On June 19, 1865, the Union Army finally announced Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the remaining slaves in Texas. Lincoln’s proclamation was actually issued on September 22, 1862, but it took nearly three years for the news to reach Texas.
But the end of slavery was not the beginning of freedom for blacks in America. Once slavery ended, Black people were subject to a series of Jim Crow laws. These laws were designed to keep Black people from succeeding socially, politically and economically. These laws were reinforced by the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson where the court ruled that separate but equal segregation of Black and white people was constitutional.
Under Jim Crow laws, African Americans were disenfranchised by racial gerrymandering which diluted the Black vote across districts making it difficult for Black people to consolidate votes and to elect specific candidates. Banks, real estate developers, and other institutions also participated in the redlining of Black neighborhoods. In redlined districts, loans and other investments inside these neighborhoods were considered risky and therefore these communities of color remained underfunded and underdeveloped.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the 1954 landmark decision in Brown vs Board of Education. Ten years later, most of the remaining Jim Crow laws were effectively abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act one year later in 1965.
But the story does not end there. Even after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws and even after the passage of landmark legislation, the United States essentially remained a two-tiered system of liberty and justice. Today, what’s left is a criminal justice system where Black and brown men are incarcerated at rates that far exceed their white counterparts. Slavery officially ended over 150 years ago, and yet a disproportionate number of Black people remain at income levels below the poverty line. And even when African Americans have tried to amass wealth and to achieve the American dream, incidents like the Tulsa Massacre in May 1921, and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, remind us that racism and discrimination are far from over in the United States.
In fact, systemic or institutional racism permeates the very core of our social, political and economic systems. Although there are many on the political right who would deny the existence of systemic racism in the United States, this form of racism currently exists in all aspects of society including employment, housing, criminal justice, healthcare, education.
For example, communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic because of higher rates of pre-existing conditions. One could easily argue that pre-existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes are the direct result of lack of healthy food sources and adequate healthcare resources.
Systemic racism also permeates police departments across the United States. We need only look at the shooting and killing of Black men, women and children by police officers in recent years including Eric Garner in New York City in 2014, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, Sandra Bland in Hempstead, Texas in 2015, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky in 2020, and of course, the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020. And the list continues.
Systemic racism also permeates state legislatures across the country. State legislatures were emboldened by the 2013 landmark Supreme Court decision in Shelby County vs Holder which struck down several key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This led the way for state legislatures to further erode the right to vote and to further disenfranchise the Black vote.
Stricter identification requirements and other voter reforms in Florida, Texas, and Georgia have made it far more difficult to vote. For example, in March 2021, Georgia enacted stricter voter identification requirements, limited the distribution of food and water, and decreased the number of official ballot boxes. In a recent press conference, President Joe Biden said that these attempts to limit voting rights “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
One has to wonder whether there will ever be liberty and justice for all in the United States. The first slave ship landed in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619. Four hundred years later, people of color still experience racism and inequalities. We may never change the way some people feel about people of color, but we can fight for liberty and justice by supporting voting rights legislation like the For the People Act, also known as HR 1. And with the help of Attorney General Merrick Garland, who recently said that the Justice Department will dramatically increase its focus on voter suppression, there is hope that one day there will actually be liberty and justice for all.
Terri Austin is an attorney and legal analyst who has appeared on a number of networks including ABC News, CBS News, Court TV, Fox 11, Inside Edition, and Law and Crime. She previously served as an Adjunct Professor at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. Prior to that, she served in numerous roles including Chief Corporate Policy Officer for S&P Global, Chief Diversity Officer for AIG, Litigation Associate at Richards & O’Neil, and Assistant Counsel at the New York City Law Department. Ms. Austin holds a BA in political science from Grinnell College, a JD from Columbia University School of Law, and a MS degree from the Columbia School of Journalism.