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Life lessons and striving to overcome inequality

Dr. G. Aubrey Lee • Feb 11, 2018 at 8:00 AM

The best lessons we learn come from life experiences.

Those of us who were around when Dr. Martin Luther King was alive likely have memories that inform our perceptions of race and civil rights. Certain memories from childhood shape my thinking about the civil rights movement. They came to mind after recent allegations of President Trump's racially insensitive remarks about countries populated by African-Americans.

The news extensively covered recent observances of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, many highlighting the 50th anniversary of his death. Marches, presentations, sermons, and other events were held all over our region. These observances are essential to maintain our collective awareness of Dr. King's message.

Some of the greatest injustices our nation has ever perpetrated were seen in slavery, the Jim Crow laws and other discriminatory practices that, even in 2018, we can't seem to completely shake.

Growing up in Pennington Gap, Virginia, a town of around 1,700 people, I watched discrimination in real life almost daily in the 1950s and 60s. The town had a very small black population that lived in a neighborhood called Bucktown, about a half-mile from my house.

During the school year, the black students walked by my house and up the hill to the "colored school." This was a one-room school that housed students from grades one through seven. To get to school they had to walk past my elementary school.

My school had separate classrooms for each grade, a gym, an auditorium, a cafeteria, and a big playground full of swings, slides, basketball goals, and a ball field. We went there from grades one through seven and then went across town for high school.

After seventh grade the black students were bused 20 miles to the next county for high school since there was no black high school in our county. The "separate but equal" doctrine was law. It was declared legal in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.

The Supreme Court ruled that racially separate facilities, if equal, did not violate the Constitution. Segregation, the Court said, was not discrimination. Other readers in school during that era throughout the nation can recall similar circumstances. "Separate" was true, but "equal," no way.

There were of course many other situations that deprived black people of the same rights as whites. Restaurants had "colored" sections, the theater required blacks to sit in the balcony, and only one of the doctors in Pennington Gap, a white physician, treated black patients. But to receive care they had to enter the back door of the hospital.

All this began to change with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was a seminal legislative achievement of the civil rights movement.

But the key phrase is "began to change." A look at current facts suggests we have much work to do. While legal discrimination has ended, examining the quality of life of African-Americans reveals disparities that must be overcome.

Studies show that African-Americans are paid less than whites at every educational level. High-school-educated whites are paid an average wage of $18 an hour while blacks are paid $14.24. Whites with college degrees bring home $31.83 hourly with blacks making $25.77.

And black women fare worse. In 2017, an African-American woman had to work to the end of July in order to be paid the same wages as her white male counterpart was paid in 2016. In other words, she would have to work about 19 months to earn what white men earn in a year. African-American women earn only 67 percent of what white men earn in the same occupations.

Racial health disparities are alarming. Blacks have a higher mortality rate than any other racial or ethnic group for eight of the top 10 causes of death. Cancer rates among blacks are 10 percent higher than those for white Americans. Blacks are almost twice as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites.

These and other factors result in black life expectancy being about 3½ years lower than whites. While the Centers for Disease Control says these health disparities between blacks and whites are closing, significant gaps persist.

We have moved from the one-room school black kids attended in my hometown and other places. Black workers are making some progress toward equality in earnings and health, but major disparities still exist. We must do our part and encourage our leaders to work for equality.

But it's heartening to see efforts to create awareness, the first step toward the changes needed to eliminate pervasive racial inequality. The one room "colored" school in my home town is now the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center.

Langston High School, Johnson City's black high school, is being restored to preserve black heritage. The motto of Langston was "Enter to learn. Depart to serve." Serving to strive for equality is not a bad motto for all of us.

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