Research News

50 years later, the civil rights movement has a long way to go

Velma Murry (Image courtesy of Murry)

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black individuals still earn 20 percent less than their white counterparts for doing the same job and are twice as likely to live in poverty conditions, a Vanderbilt researcher says.

Velma McBride Murry, Lois Autrey Betts Professor of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development, was one of the scholars selected to submit a brief for the The Council on Contemporary Families online symposium Feb. 4-6, 2014. The three-day web-based event provided a forum for the nation’s top scholars to weigh in on what has changed in the past half-century for the populations affected by the passage of the landmark law, including religious groups, racial and ethnic minorities, and women.

In her brief, “Are African Americans Living the Dream 50 Years After Passage of the Civil Rights Act?,” Murry notes improvements in regard to increased earnings in black households (up 500 percent since 1964), and the rise of black individuals to positions of power in business, politics and entertainment (notably Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama).

Overall, however, race-based disparities in education, employment, income, health and life expectancy stubbornly persist.

“[lquote]It is clear that, despite the progress made in many arenas of life, African Americans are still burdened by the legacy of slavery, segregation and discrimination,” Murry said.[/lquote] “In fact, it may be that the dramatic successes of a minority of blacks have made it harder for Americans to recognize the continuing disparities and injustices facing the remainder.”

African American children remain at a greater risk for problems associated with growing up in poverty, she said. “This helps explain why African Americans are disproportionately affected by chronic illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and, because of lack of access to quality health care, are more likely to die from these illnesses and diseases,” she said.

An area that has not improved and has, in fact, worsened is the rate of imprisonment for African Americans in the past half-century, she said.

“Incarceration rates among African American males are three times higher than 50 years ago and the disparity between incarceration rates for African Americans and whites has continued to grow,” she said. “African American males are more likely to be arrested and receive longer sentences for nonviolent drug crimes than whites committing similar or more serious offenses.”

Co-author of the paper was Peabody research assistant Na Liu. To read the brief in its entirety, visit the CCF online symposium.

Watch a video of Murry speaking on this topic at a Vanderbilt symposium.