50-Year March Still Going
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. On this historic day’s 50th anniversary, thousands of citizens from around the country - including our nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama - convened in Washington to commemorate the milestone in civil rights history. President Obama, as well as members of the King family, lawmakers, and civil rights leaders, addressed the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King expounded his iconic speech. Although the U.S. has seen a great deal of progress on civil rights issues since 1963 and institutional segregation is no longer legally practiced, we - as a nation - still need much improvement.
While it is true that we do have an African-American president, a major racial wealth gap ensues. Although sources vary in specifying the exact numbers, the average black family’s net worth is approximately $6,000 while the average white family’s net worth is nearly$110,000. “Wealth is how you grow; income is how you eat,” David Honig, the Co-Founder and President of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, has explained. Wealth also helps people start businesses and attain high status in the world of business. Only in 1998 did the first African-American become CEO of a fortune 500 company (Franklin Raines, CEO of Fannie Mae), and there are currently only 6, or only 1.2% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, who are African-American, according to CNN. Lastly, of the 442 billionaires in the U.S., only one is African-American: Oprah Winfrey.
Perhaps closing the academic achievement gap would help close the wealth gap. According to Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes academic achievement, 60 percent of whites earn bachelor’s degrees within six years compared to 40 percent of African-Americans. The Department of Education had another disparaging study in 2009, where white students from K-12 scored on average 26 points higher (on a 0-500 scale) than their Africa-American counterparts on all assessments of the Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Placed into a larger perspective, however, the results do not seem as unfavorable. The Department of Education reports that between 1976 and 2010, the percentage of African-American college students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent and its National Assessment of Educational Progress shows some progress in narrowing in the achievement gap since 1978 - albeit slow progress.
The most daunting disparity, however, may be the incarceration rates of African-Americans in comparison. According to the NAACP, African-Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total incarcerated population (2.3 million) and are incarcerated six times more than whites; in fact, one in six black men have been incarcerated as of 2001. Additionally, even though African-Americans represent only 12% of the total population of drug users, they are 38% of those arrested for drug offenses and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. The list of shocking statistics continues and this imbalance is emotionally and economically detrimental to families, extremely costly to taxpayers, and perpetuates racial stereotypes.
The courts can also influence progress on civil rights issues. This past summer, the judicial system made two major decisions that stirred up civil rights-related discussion in the media and public sphere: Shelby County v. Holder and State of Florida v. George Zimmerman.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decisionthat Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional. Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to combat discriminatory voting laws by requiring certain jurisdictions to receive preclearance from the U.S. Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before enacting changes in voting laws. Now, the federal government may no longer use the coverage formula to subject jurisdictions to the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 preclearance enforcement when these jurisdictions attempt to alter their voting laws.
Now, the federal government may no longer use the coverage formula to subject jurisdictions to the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 preclearance enforcement when these jurisdictions attempt to alter their voting laws. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision attribute much of the progress in minority populations’ voting participation since Congress enacted the VRA to the Act itself, citing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Lastly, the murder of Trayvon Martin that resulted in the high-profile State of Florida v. George Zimmerman case, involving Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin believing the African-American teenager appeared suspicious, incited a great deal of media attention and discussion on racial prejudice and ‘stand-your-ground’ laws. The jury eventually acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder and of manslaughter charges, leading to many protests and NAACP requests that the Justice Department file a civil rights charge.
These cases highlight the continued presence of these issues from 1963, today. John Lewis, who was the youngest speaker to address the estimated quarter-million people at the March on Washington in 1963, is now a Democratic congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon. Rep. Lewis lamented he never thought 50 years later many of the same issues in 1963 would be back on the table.”I thought we had completed the fight for the right to vote, the right to participate in the democratic process. I thought we were in a process of reforming the justice system.”
Even the non-racial grievances of 1963’s march echo today. Arlene Holt Baker, the Executive Director of the AFL-CIO, and Congressman Keith Ellison from Minnesota, who serves on the Economic Policy Institute’s Board of Directors, both emphasized at the Unfinished March Symposium that the March on Washington was not only a march for freedom, but also a march for jobs; the U.S. is capable of providing good jobs for everyone and Americans who work full time should be able to feed their families. Today, 50 years later, the economy in general and unemployment/jobs are the biggest issues for Americans, according to an August 2013 Gallup poll.
50 years have passed since MLK stood at those same steps where President Obama stood in August, yet even the first African-American president insists there is much more room for improvement. “When it comes to the economy, when it comes to inequality, when it comes to wealth, when it comes to the challenges that inner cities experience, [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] would say that we have not made as much progress” in the civil and social, “and that it’s not enough just to have a black president,” President Obama said at the march’s 50th anniversary. The president is right: having an African-American president does not serve as proof that the civil rights struggle and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom are over. We must fight the institutional barriers that perpetuate the racial wealth and educational gaps. We must fight for reforms that combat disparate treatment and disparate impact in the judicial system so that incarceration tears fewer families apart. We must fight for fair voting laws, fair LGBT benefits laws, and all other laws that fight discrimination, because we are all fundamentally equal under the law. We must fight for economic justice, for wages that place Americans above the poverty line, and for fair jobs. It’s all part of the dream.
Labor Activists in Action: COLA at Work
“Advancing the World of Work” is more than the ILR School’s motto to members of COLA and me – it’s our cause, a fight for social and economic justice. COLA, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action, was founded in the 1970s when ILR students supported campus workers organizing. Since then, COLA has become affiliated with the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), a national grassroots student movement founded in 1997, and has led successful campaigns against several multinational brands, including Russell, Nike, and Adidas.
After COLA and other USAS affiliates pressured their universities to cut contracts with Russell when the company shut down a Honduran factory whose workers attempted to unionize, Russell gave in to the student and economic pressure and rehired all 1,200 workers in 2009. The Nike campaign resulted in similar success in 2010: after being the victims of labor violations, Honduran Nike factory workers received a relief fund, job training, and one year of health care. More recently, after Adidas refused to pay $1.8 million in severance pay to 2,700 Indonesian workers, COLA pressured Cornell to cut its contract with Adidas, and other universities followed suit; Adidas acceded and paid last year.
This year, COLA has been working on four campaigns - the Bangladesh Worker Solidarity, Tompkins County Living Wage, Dunkin Donuts, and the TCAT campaigns – in addition to providing student leadership in planning the Labor Roundtable and Union Days ILR events.
The Bangladesh campaign began last April when the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. In response to this and frequent factory fires, over 150 brands signed onto the Bangladesh Accord for Building and Fire Safety, and COLA led the way to the Cornell administration agreeing to include in our Code of Conduct that our licensees that produce apparel in Bangladesh must sign onto the Accord. However, VF Corporation, whose subsidiaries include JanSport, continues to produce apparel in unsafe working conditions and refuses to sign onto the Accord. COLA’s goal is to get Cornell to cut ties with VF until the company signs onto the Accord, and the club has worked on this through letter drops at President Skorton’s office, a “Working Out for Workers’ Rights” awareness campaign, and more are to come.
The Dunkin Donuts – or “Donut Discriminate” – campaign began after an Ithaca Dunkin Donuts employee reached out to COLA as he was being the target of racist discrimination in the workplace. After meetings with COLA members such as Daniel Marshall ’14, he was able to receive legal aid from the Tompkins County Workers Center was offered a settlement.
The Living Wage campaign has been very community-based. Although Tompkins County is a living wage employer, the Tompkins County Workers Center is pushing for all Tompkins County-contracted workers to earn a living wage. COLA has supported living wage activists Pete Meyers, Stanley McPherson, and Milton Webb by rallying, speaking at the county legislature, talking about the issue on McPherson and Webb’s local TV show, and more. COLA member and anthropology PhD student Emily Hong recently created a documentary on the living wage and local efforts on the campaign.
The campaign in its earliest stage for COLA – and for many other students taking action – regards the issue of Cornell considering to discontinue providing free bus passes for first-year and graduate students. In addition to a student issue, it is a worker issue, Marshall explained to the Progressive, because Cornell pays only one-third of the TCAT costs despite providing 80 percent of the bus system’s ridership; decreasing the TCAT’s revenue could mean layoffs or other detrimental results for the workers. COLA members and other students who are passionate about the issue plan to pack an upcoming University Assembly meeting as well as plan other actions to prevent the administration from following through with this possible TCAT plan.
In the past two weeks alone, COLA members have heard from American labor leaders at Union Days and Bangladeshi garment workers at a weekly meeting. Their messages, although they come from different industries and different parts of the world, remain the same: good work is what allows people to live, and we must stand in solidarity to improve working conditions for all.
Progressive Spotlight: Food Recovery Network
Becker dining Chef Tony Kveragas, CALS Professor Jane Mt. Pleasant in the Horticulture department, CALS Professor Robert Gravani in the Food Science department, and Cornell Dining Manager of Staff Training and Development Therese O’Connor have “gone above and beyond their job descriptions” in helping the club in areas such as sustainability and food safety, according to Lowry. This week, the FRN will speak with the Tompkins County Health Department before beginning a food recovery pilot program that will occur after Thursday night dinners at Becker.
After dining hours, the food will be cooled to below 40 degrees (since bacteria can grow more rapidly when food is between 40 and 145 degrees) and then placed into sealed containers in iced coolers. The Friendship Donations Network, a large organization that distributes food to local pantries, will deliver the food to locations such as Loaves and Fishes, the Tompkins County Red Cross, and Caroline Food Pantry. The pilot program will aim to prove that this system works and can be integrated into dining halls throughout campus.
While cutting down waste and feeding people in need simultaneously is certainly an auspicious goal, Lowry stresses that the latter is the project’s focal point. “Dining has done an awesome job at cutting down waste,” he says. “This project isn’t as much about waste as it is about food insecurity. Parents sometimes eat just one meal a day so that their children can eat… we want this idea to inspire others” to find ways to combat food insecurity.
CAMP OUT IN FEB FOR HOCKEY TIX FOR MY LIL
It’s official: I’m going to go to the New Year’s Eve mixer on Wednesday night and then go to the AstroTurf and camp out for hockey tickets to the Harvard game. It’s THE game. THE rivalry. I have to get a ticket for myself and for my little. It’s going to happen. IT IS! I won’t freeze. I’ll leave her a ticket on her desk on the last day of big/little week, and then after big/little reveal, we’ll have a lineage dinner and then we’ll go to the game and throw Swedish fish on the ice (not real fish because animals are not meant to eat, wear, or use for entertainment #peta ) and it will be a splendid time. IT WILL HAPPEN!