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"Great Cause for Optimism,"

by Wade Henderson May/June 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

The survey gives me great cause for optimism. Throughout history, people have drawn boundaries based on differences of race and ethnicity, and untold conflicts have resulted. America—and in particular, our civil rights movement—changed that by enshrining the principle of equality under law and by promising tolerance and respect for all people. Distrust isn’t completely absent (and the survey reflects some of that distrust)—but what is remarkable is the degree to which today’s African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans are bonded by friendship and a commitment to working together to make America a more just and equal society.

Strikingly, all three groups view the civil rights movement as establishing a template for equality which benefits all Americans. Until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, America lived a contradiction, denying African Americans its foundational ideal of equality. As a result, African Americans, but Latinos and Asians as well, were stigmatized and denied opportunities solely because of race.

The fully‑realized American promise now benefits African Americans, but also Latinos and Asian Americans. Indeed, Title VII established protections against discrimination not only for African Americans, but for those of any race or national origin; Brown v. Board of Education banned the separate‑but‑equal doctrine for all minorities. So it’s not surprising that nearly 70% of Latinos and Asian Americans believe that the civil rights
movement helped them and almost 90% of the three groups believe they should work together for their collective good.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement left an indelible imprint on our national fabric, so that America would never again betray our founding principles by excluding minorities. Today, anti-immigrant sentiments test these principles. But the legal tenets and the tolerance the civil rights movement established continue to turn Americans toward equality.

Wade Henderson is a former PRRAC Board member, President and CEO of the Leadership Conf. on Civil Rights, and Joseph L Rauh, Jr. Professor of Public Interest Law at the David A. Clarke School of Law, Univ. of the Dist. of Columbia.

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