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Racial EqualityThe Continuing Struggle

Historically speaking, it is only recently that the belief in racial equality has refuted biological arguments that support racial hierarchies. In the early twenty-first century it has been commonplace for scholars to refer to race not as a biological concept but as a social construction. It is also only recently that the belief in racial equality has helped mobilize social change through a variety of tactics that resulted in the dismantling of legalized segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. Despite these gains, however, racial equality remains elusive. As King and others had already observed in the late 1960s, changes in the attitudes of whites as well as legal and legislative changes to promote equal treatment, voting rights, and equal opportunity are all necessary steps in the effort to establish racial equality. The next set of steps includes a strong enforcement of civil rights as well as a major restructuring of economic resources, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and political influence (King).

In the United States, several issues since the early 1970s serve as reminders that racial equality remains elusive. Fifty years after the Brown decision, there are increasing levels of segregation in the public schools of large, Northern cities, indicating that residential segregation also exists. College attendance rates for Latinos and blacks continue to lag behind those of whites and Asian-Americans. Indeed, gaps in educational achievement measured by standardized test scores have spurred the reemergence of biological explanations of race and intelligence (Gould). Incidents of police brutality and the harassment of black motorists (referred to as "racial profiling" or "driving while black") are signs that civil rights enforcement is still needed. And despite an emerging black middle class, there is controversy surrounding "affirmative action," a range of policies to ensure equal educational and employment opportunity.

On affirmative action and other issues, large differences of opinion between white and black Americans are emerging—so large that some scholars have labeled them "chasms" (Smith and Seltzer). Ironically, some invoke Dr. King's notion that individuals should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, to oppose policies intended to promote racial equality. Some find the goal of "color blindness" laudable; others believe diversity should be respected through pursuance of a "multiracial" set of policies that are conscious of race and targeted at ameliorating racial inequalities as a better path toward racial equality in the United States.

In global terms, several issues continue to demand attention and controversy. The legacies of past injustices, such as the Holocaust, slavery, segregation, and apartheid, have led to debates surrounding apologies, compensation, and reparations. South Africa has established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the injustices of apartheid as well as to promote national reconciliation as it builds a multiracial democracy. The U.S. Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which issued an apology and offered a small monetary compensation to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. However, calls for an apology or compensation to black Americans for the legacies of slavery and segregation remain controversial (Brooks).

Additionally, the rights of economic and political refugees and migrants continue to be a focal point of the struggle for racial equality in Europe and the United States. Indeed, migrants and refugees constitute a cheap and exploitable source of labor but also spark xenophobic and nationalist reaction. Right-wing movements and leaders have emerged in France, Germany, Austria, and the United States to oppose the immigration of people they see as culturally, linguistically, or racially inferior. These and other concerns were the focus of the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in August and September of 2001. However, due to concerns that the conference would take strong stands against Israeli treatment of Palestinians as well as potentially open the door to reparations for slavery, the United States did not participate.

It is clear from these and other issues that the goal of racial equality remains in a constant and ongoing struggle against racism, both its current manifestations and its legacies, within the United States and around the world.


Brooks, Roy L., ed. When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Davis, F. James. Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Dittmer, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890–2000. New York: Viking, 2001.

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——. White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. Rev. ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Lawson, Steven. F. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Miles, Robert. Racism. London: Routledge, 1989.

Montagu, Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Smith, Robert C., and Richard Seltzer. Contemporary Controversies and the American Racial Divide. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Winant, Howard. The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy since World War II. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Gregory W. Streich

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEquality - Racial Equality - Racism As Ideology, The Politics Of Racial Inequality, The Struggle For Racial Equality, The Continuing Struggle