With Friday marking the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, recent statistics on income, employment and other quality of life categories paint a grim picture of the current state of black America. The anniversary also follows the seemingly racially-motivated mass shooting on Wednesday that left nine people dead at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
As events take place Friday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which marks the official end of slavery in the United States, here's a sobering statistic: Black Americans today are about 72 percent equal to whites.
That figure comes from the National Urban League's recent 2015 State of Black America report. The annual report, based on government data, measures the black-white "equality index" across five major categories: economics, health, education, social justice and civic engagement.
With a score of 100 representing full equality with whites, the report showed that the overall 2015 equality index for blacks is 72.2 percent. Although the black-white equality index is up slightly from 71.5 percent in 2014, the National Urban League concludes that "black America remains in crisis" on many fronts.
"There are African Americans and Latinos who have progressed in terms of economics and the like. There are some. But there are a lot more who have not," said George Mitchell, president of the NAACP Illinois State Conference, which was not involved with the report. "This concept that because Barack Obama was elected president, we no longer have a race-based culture. Well that's just not true."
The report also found the biggest gaps between whites and blacks in the categories of social justice and economics, though these areas did see some progress over the past year.
The 2015 black equality indexes for social justice and economics are 60.6 percent and 55.8 percent, respectively. Last year, the black equality index was 56.9 percent for social justice and 55.4 percent for economics.
When the 2015 report was released in March, the National Urban League found that, "The increase in the social justice index was the result of fewer blacks being victims of violent crimes and fewer black high school students carrying weapons, while at the same time, the rates for white high school students increased."
Regarding the slight increase in the economics index, that was due to "improvements in the income, poverty and home loan denial gaps," the report adds.
Although the economics index got a bit better this year, blacks are still more than twice as likely to live in poverty than whites. In 2013, the poverty rate was 27.6 percent among blacks and 11.1 percent among whites.
And when it comes to racial disparities in employment, the jobless rate among blacks has consistently been at least twice that of whites. In May, the unemployment rate for blacks was 10.2 percent compared to 4.7 for whites.
The disparity continues when household income is considered. The most recent figure for median household income dates back to 2013 and was $34,815 for blacks and $57,684 for whites. The median wealth for blacks stood at $6,314 in 2011, the most current data, compared to $110,500 for whites, according to the National Urban League's report.
Mitchell weighed in on the bleak figures.
"The disparity between the African-American experience in the United States as opposed to the white experience has a lot to do with the past and the culture of the past," he said. "The African-American community (was) in slavery, and people don't seem to recognize how that affects not just the African Americans, but how it affects the whites."
"There's a term called 'white entitlement' that exists, and a lot of white people tend to deny that there is such a thing as entitlement," Mitchell continued. "But it's there, and it's built into the processes. It's built into laws in many ways, and it's also built into the way in which we go about education and how we have access to resources. One of the things that's always amazed me is that there is a system of denial going on that the disparity exists. It's hard to prove in every case, but the bottom line is if you just look at the numbers, the numbers tell the story."
Health is an area where racial disparities have lessened, thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act. The black equality index for health ticked up from 78.2 percent in 2014 to 79.8 percent in 2015.
"The increase in the health index resulted from increased health care coverage for blacks since the Affordable Care Act went into effect and a decline in binge drinking among blacks," the report reads.
Mitchell said it's a shame that Congressional Republicans have been persistent in trying "to undo the good that (the ACA has) done."
The local NAACP leader also said he's concerned about the potential outcome of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could invalidate ACA health insurance subsidies for 6.4 million people, including over 232,000 in Illinois.
Asked for his take on the overall state of black America today, Mitchell said disparities persist when it comes to "way that African Americans are treated by perception in all aspects in life, including the criminal justice system."
But at least issues relating to criminal justice as well as community and police relations have now become a national conversation, Mitchell said.
"Quite frankly, when African Americans ... complained about police treatment, it's been ignored by the white population," he said. "But the great weapon that the African-American family now has in terms of criminal justice is a cell phone" to capture video of police misconduct.
"Once you see it on TV," Mitchell added, "you can't deny it."
To celebrate Juneteenth's 150th anniversary, the #LetUsBreathe Collective is at least one Chicago-area group that plans to commemorate the day.
Launched last August, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, which is comprised of activists, artists and others, "formed as a fundraising initiative to bring tear gas protection and remedies, medical and hygiene supplies, and water bottles to Ferguson protesters" in the wake of the fatal police shooting death of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown. The group works with several local organizations, including the Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, Black Lives Matter, Hands Up United, and Chicago Artists Against Injustice.
The collective is set to hold a "#LetUsBreathe Juneteenth Celebration" at Douglas Park Friday afternoon and into the evening. The event will be used to call attention to the case of Rekia Boyd, an unarmed African-American woman who was fatally shot in 2012 by Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin.
In April, a judge dismissed the case against Servin. The detective was facing charges that included involuntary manslaughter for killing the 22-year-old in Chicago's Douglas Park when he shot into a group of young people while off duty. Servin reportedly got into an argument with the group over the amount of noise they had been making.
"Juneteenth honors the history of black liberation work in America, and we use this day to lift up Rekia Boyd because of how her legacy is catalyzing contemporary black liberation work in Chicago and nationwide," said #LetUsBreathe spokeswoman Jennifer Pagan.
#LetUsBreathe co-director Damon Williams added: "We're continuing our critique of racially disproportionate police aggression by highlighting that though we've celebrated black liberation for 150 years, many black youth are still not free. And because North Lawndale is a community directly impacted by police violence and mass incarceration, we want to wrap that critique in love, joy, art and service."
Charleston Church Shooting
Juneteenth's 150th anniversary follows the Wednesday night massacre at a prominent African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine people dead, including a state legislator. The massacre, which is under investigation as a hate crime by federal authorities, took place during a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was burned down in the 1820s during slavery for its ties to a planned slave revolt before being rebuilt in 1834.
In an announcement addressing the Charleston shooting Thursday morning, President Barack Obama spoke to the history of the Emanuel AME Church.
"Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church," the president said. "This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church's steps."
Six women and three men were killed in Wednesday night's mass shooting, which was the deadliest attack in an American house of worship since 1991. The church's pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, was among the nine people killed. Pinckney was as a civil rights leader and South Carolina state senator, who recently helped spearhead a state law requiring that police wear body cameras following the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man who was gunned down by a North Charleston police officer six miles away from the church back in April. Scott's case is one of a number of police brutality and shooting incidents involving African Americans that have made national headlines in recent months courtesy of videos taken by nearby witnesses.
The suspect in the church attack, Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white male, has been charged with nine counts of murder and posession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, according to police. Roof, who was apprehended Thursday after a 14-hour manhunt, is alleged to have made racist comments during the shooting and had reportedly been plotting such an attack for some time.
NAACP President Cornell William Brooks on Friday called the mass shooting "an act of racial terrorism," adding that, "It should be treated as such." Brooks said the Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol needs to be removed, saying, "Clearly, we all have to be on the side of those who lost their lives in a church. The flag has to come down."
The South Carolina and American flags were lowered to half-staff on Thursday and will remain in that position for nine days -- one day for each victim of the shooting. But the Confederate flag remains at full-staff. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) says she has no juridiction over the flying of the flag due to a 2000 law that gives the state legislature control over how the controversial banner is handled.
Reaction to the horrific church attack has poured in from countless others, including ColorOfChange.org's Executive Director Rashad Robinson, who offered these comments on Thursday:
The ColorOfChange community offers its deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed in this unspeakable tragedy and the AME community at large. This day will be remembered as one of the worst mass shootings targeting South Carolina's black community in history.
Yesterday's massacre confirms that for black communities, there is no safe haven from the violence and brutality of racism, not even a house of worship. AME churches have long served as beacons of black autonomy, spirituality and liberation. This church is the largest and oldest black congregation south of Baltimore.
We support the Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office decision to investigate this hate crime and are confident they will prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law.
More than 52 years after the Birmingham Church bombing, which galvanized the civil rights movement, we are forced to face the reality that black life is under attack. Let this be a call to action for every person in America. The hard work of undoing systemic racism and building a country where Black folks are free from both state and vigilante violence, cannot wait.
Nothing short of a national people-led movement to transform the policies, practices, institutions and culture that keep anti-black racism alive will prevent us from mourning yet another tragic massacre 50 years from now.