Fifty years ago this summer, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Back then, it was reasonable to expect that by 2014, America would be a fully integrated nation in which equality prevailed. But as the events in Ferguson, Mo., dramatize, the country still resembles what a presidential commission described in 1968: "two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal."
There is a big difference in the routine experiences of the two races. White teens have little fear of police, but black teens generally view them with mistrust. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 24 percent of young black males said they have been treated badly by cops because of their race just in the past 30 days.
In conversations with black high school students in Chicago who have visited the Tribune, I've been struck by two things. The first is how hard it is for them to navigate their lives in violent neighborhoods plagued by gangs.
The second is how negatively they regard cops. Being stopped and frisked is a common experience for the boys. They are acutely aware that encounters with police can be humiliating, dangerous, and even fatal.
Law-and-order types will respond that blacks have more of these encounters because, as a group, they are more likely to commit crimes. But innocence is no protection. In New York City, in 2012, 90 percent of the people stopped and frisked were not arrested or ticketed. Blacks were more likely than whites to be searched for weapons—but less likely to be carrying them.
All this gives extra pertinence to a magazine article published recently in The Atlantic. Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations" makes a powerful argument that the economic and social ills afflicting many African-Americans stem from pervasive mistreatment and discrimination that continue even now. Behind it is a toxic combination of entrenched practice, private prejudice and deliberate government policies.
Even after the major civil rights laws were passed, blacks faced discrimination by real estate agents and lenders. Just two years ago, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $175 million to settle a Justice Department complaint that it pushed black homebuyers into subprime mortgages even when they qualified for regular loans.
There is persistent racial bias in hiring. A 2009 study in the American Sociological Review found that "black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison." Criminal justice is rigged: Blacks make up 14 percent of drug users but more than a third of those imprisoned on drug charges.
In many places, most blacks have been consigned to inferior schools. They face high obstacles in trying to escape blighted neighborhoods. They are more often exposed to pollution that harms brains and bodies.
Many whites doubt that discrimination matters anymore because there are laws against it and because they personally don't engage in it. They see that many blacks have ascended to the middle class. They assume what holds blacks down are pathologies rampant in many poor minority neighborhoods: criminality and family breakdown.
But how did these neighborhoods become so dysfunctional? Coates says they are "precisely what you'd expect of a community that for centuries has lived in America's crosshairs."
Conservatives blame welfare. But if public aid programs are so powerful in discouraging productive behavior, it's curious that, as the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, "A majority of poor families are poor despite work."
How are children raised in places where such conditions prevail supposed to learn responsible habits? How fair is it to blame children raised in poor, lawless communities for turning out badly as adults? How would your kids do if they had been raised in those circumstances?
Nor does positive behavior necessarily pay off. Minority workers have suffered badly from stagnant wages and the departure of inner-city factories—which were not caused by the people who showed up at the plant every day.
Participating in self-government is a hallmark of citizenship. But Republican legislators in state after state have adopted laws aimed at preventing blacks from voting. The African-Americans marching peacefully in Ferguson, exercising a constitutional right, were confronted by cops in riot gear pointing rifles at them.
Black Americans still live in a different country, with different rules, different dangers, and different rewards than those faced by others. It's easy for whites to forget that. What has happened in Ferguson is a bleak, sobering reminder.