The Civil Rights Movement: From Overt to Covert Discrimination

The Civil Rights Movement:

From Overt to Covert Discrimination


Since the actions of organized Civil Rights activists in 1950’s and 1960’s America brought about legislative changes in overt discrimination in such areas as segregation; discrimination can still be seen, though in more covert forms.  In has been demonstrated in this 40 year history how progress has been slow in the form of the majority idea and evolution of the separate but equal clause.  In these last 40 years in the United States legislation has passed to pacify African-Americans, but unequal distribution of wealth, poverty, and an alarming and disproportionate rate of incarceration among other social problems, plagues this minority group.  The less obvious type of discrimination can be seen in modern America in the form of geographic segregation and a negative self-identity of blacks as inferior through centuries of slavery, oppression, and discrimination.  From the individual perception of the role blacks feel that they must portray, to hostilities from others, and finally institutionalized discrimination all add up to more covert forms of oppression that leaves many gaps in economic, educational, and other measurable outcomes for blacks.  Other groups, such as gays and immigrants have come under fire in the 21st century, proving that the equality does not apply to all citizens or potential citizens of the United States.  This creates the conclusion that there has been little change since the Civil Rights era and much more work is needed.

A History of Complacency in the Cessation of Discrimination

The 1950’s and 1960’s was a time for slow legislation and a backlash toward blacks as a group.  When the NAACP went to battle over segregation in public schooling, the result was the epic court battle; Brown v. Board of education, where the courts ruled that “the separation of schoolchildren generates a feeling of inferiority…that may affect their hearts and minds in a way that is unlikely to ever be undone”. [1]  The courts also went on to say that the cessation of segregation would be put in place “with all deliberate speed”. [2]  This decision came down in 1954, but as of 1965 southern states still had over half of the public schools segregated.  Only through the actions of dedicated black leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and groups such as the SNCC or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did the standard of equality become at least an outward reality across America.  Though this process and precedent took over a decade, despite legal rulings.

The anger at the slow pace of change lead to not only Dr. King’s nonviolent call to action, but other leaders and groups to display a more aggressive form of uprising with rioting and other types of violence.  However, these oppressed blacks did not have protection from the government in terms of being able to safely vote and being safe from physical harm.  Several civil rights laws were passed “in 1957, 1960, and 1964.  They promised much, on voting equality, on employment equality, but were enforced poorly or ignored”. [3]  It was in reaction to the ignorance and slow pace of legislation that led finally to the Voting Rights Law of 1965, which protected blacks in registering to vote and going through the voting process.  However, spontaneous acts of violence toward blacks and the back and forth reactions of both black and white Americans led to a need for protections that are now considered the cornerstone of Civil Rights for all people under the condition that encouraging or participating in riots would not be protected or allowed in any way by any person or group.

This law known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 “would make stronger the laws prohibiting violence against blacks; it increased the penalty against those depriving people of their civil rights” [4].  This law in particular can be read as a success to blacks in that violence against them would not be tolerated and instead punished, and more so this created the overarching umbrella of protection for all people deprived of their civil rights.  This is true for gays and immigrants, however this continues to be seen as slow progress, just as the many legislative actions for blacks has been historically slow.

The New Versus the Old Segregation

Since history has demonstrated a lag in change for the benefit of all Americans, not just the majority class, segregation although outlawed in public schools can still be seen in a more covert form.  In literal desegregation “students of different races [are placed] in proximity to each other.  Efforts are often limited to moving and mixing racial populations to end racial isolation”. [5] However forced isolation is vastly different than chosen isolation through the shift of whites moving out of cities to the suburbs and the subsequent gentrification and regional shift of whites moving back into certain areas of cities.  The regional segregation is massive in that not only do blacks and whites typically live apart, but all groups tend to isolate with members of their own group.  “It might have been a comforting illusion to believe there was once an America where we were ‘all in it together’.  To the extent it were ever true, the myth was shattered in the thirty years from 1950 to 1980”. [6]  The previous passage was taken from Ray Suarez’s book The Old Neighborhood which gives data to support the changing landscape of cities from integrated to segregated by choice during this time period.

The physical separation of racially and culturally diverse groups is not the only issue with this new type of segregation, the most important negative outcome is the barriers that are put up in terms of opportunity and access to proper education and employment.  The poverty gap and the inability of schools to see how total assimilation from one culture to the dominant culture is unfeasible and inherently racist are two issues that arise from the regional gaps that serve as barriers for all minorities that live in predominately poor, urban areas.  The economic problem then has not changed as it is still a system that is in favor of wealthy whites in areas that they maintain and control.  “Capitalism’s direct connection to white racism has also operated in the acquisition of land and raw materials which, like cheap labor, play a key role in the rapid growth of industry and wealth”. [7]  This is important to note both in employment terms and in education where minority schools are under funded while predominately white schools are at an advantage.

The numbers show these discrepancies between blacks, Latinos, and whites in terms of home ownership, income levels, and other measurable variables. Black families only make 60% of what white families do and less than half of blacks own homes while 75% of whites do.  [8]  Dropout rates as well as rates of incarceration are fundamentally flawed in progress from what was hoped for during the Civil Rights era.  “Nearly four of 10 Latinos and more than 1 in five blacks dropped out of school”.[9]  As well Latinos and Blacks are highly and disproportionately represented in prisons compared to whites, leading to a type of covert segregation of opportunities in education and employment that was never fully addressed during the Civil Rights era and continues to be a problem with little progress in the modern era.

Minority Identity and Health

In addition to the economic and educational gaps between minorities and whites, personal health both physical and psychological is an effect on any minority group that is forced to identify with what may be considered a negative connotation.  As far as physical health is concerned, blacks and other racial minorities are at a heightened risk of mortality.  The personal idea that one may be discriminated against certainly is a factor in the stress levels of minorities and the willingness to seek medical treatment and to seek such medical treatment from a trusted family physician is effected.  As well, it goes without saying that being uninsured certainly inhibits any person from receiving proper health care.  Just as with the other gaps mentioned, blacks are seriously more at risk for negative outcomes in terms of health and psychological factors must be weighed in.  The identity of minorities as being worthy of a healthy life and a productive future is vastly important in making strides in health care and in other gaps.

The issue of inferiority can be seen as a part of the everyday life of minorities and a sort of paranoia towards the system for being psychologically abusive and confirming ideas of one being inferior, is certainly unhealthy. “’It is utterly exhausting to be Black in America’ writes the children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, who is black, ’physically, mentally, and emotionally…there is no respite for your badge of color”. [10]   It seems that minority groups must wrestle constantly with their self-image and will try to avoid situations where their ideas of being inferior are possible.  Therefore, structural racism exists in schools and places of employment and also in medical establishments.  The same kind of avoidance can be seen in the lack of trust in the police, as racial profiling can lead to arrests and prison.  The common ground here is health and safety, as minority groups will steer away from the police if they actually need protection if they feel that the police with simply reinforce stereotypes in their interactions with them.  As well, health problems may be ignored if there is an idea that those in the medical field will act in a stereotypical manner.

Since the Civil Rights Movement there was a fear on the part of the ruling class that blacks would create their own identity and be harder to control when the Black Power movement emerged.  It is interesting to note however, though there have been gaps in all the aforementioned areas, the ideal of the Black Power movement was to separate from whites.  In terms of regional separation and the avoidance of majority controlled institutions, it can be said that independence has been seen although the effects are negative in terms of the continuing covert discrimination that is not being discussed at the present as much as it was during that era.  This separation is also inherently unhealthy if blacks and other minorities cannot feel that their identity is solid and acceptable.  In 1967 a report to the National Advisory Committee on Urban Disorders said civil unrest at that time “‘involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society’, symbols of authority and property in the black neighborhoods-rather than purely against white persons”. [11]

This refusal to participate in areas of white dominated culture can still be seen, though the impact of that is negative without the positive affirmations that come from each minority group possessing their own symbols and structures that allow them the authority to be Americans and an American of their own making, not a watered down assimilated version.  This issue of identity and polarization since the civil rights movement has been put under an umbrella theory of multiculturalism, and this theory applies to any group that may or may not wish to be assimilated into the mainstream.  The idea of assimilation as being the answer is most certainly a type of ignorance toward the differences in culture.  Multiculturalism, however, is far from discriminatory against persons that are deemed to be different, but instead this idea is one of accepting and  embracing diversity.

Immigrants and Assimilation

America has historically been a land of immigrants, but the civil rights and the treatment of immigrants today is seriously flawed and in need of examination.  It can be said, however, that immigrants from other countries may be linked in with blacks in the Civil Rights era in terms of voting power.  The hostility toward these groups may very well be due to the changes in politics and the processes that are being seen at the present.  “Demographic projections indicate a growth of the Hispanic population and a continuing enlargement of the Asian-origin population…[where] citizenship rights are well established, the normal processes of political incorporation are already at work”. [12]  The bargaining power of blacks in the voting process certainly did influence much backlash during the Civil Rights era and voting by blacks today is seriously considered by politicians, as well as the power of immigrants.  On a federal level this can create much discourse when the white majority can no longer hold onto the numbers of voters that they can identify with.  This can cause confusion over whether all groups should assimilate into a common, American culture or whether each culture and subculture, such as that of gay Americans should be considered unique and diverse.

“Multiculturalism extends the model of blacks’ struggle for equality in two senses.  First it regards all the distinct cultures within the country as morally and intellectually equal, most notably new immigrants from Latin American and Asia” [13].  This idea of multiculturalism as being accepting of all immigrants is certainly not the common feature of the American landscape and it can be argued that in times like these of recession and economic turmoil, that the battle over resources is the root cause of conflict with racism being the prominent legitimizing feature of the struggle.  At this point a concerned person would have to ask if discrimination is really about the perceived authority of the majority versus the perceived inferiority of immigrants, minorities, and subcultures, such as gays.  It seems that the roots of much discrimination is simply a struggle over scarce resources that is engendered as racism and perpetuated out of fear and intolerance.

Gay Rights, Privilege, and Patriarchy

All of these continuing civil right issues that have not been ameliorated since the Civil Right era all fall under the system of patriarchy in the United States.  From the earliest days of America, white men have had access to and authority over decision-making processes that tilt into the “moral majority” and this idea that the ideal American is Christian, white, heterosexual, and hardworking.  This serves the majority group and their families well, but is still an issue for any person that falls outside of this realm.  The blame the victim type of mentality also plays into this patriarchy with any minority group.  “Lesbians and gay men may be told ‘they’re asking for trouble’ by flaunting their sexual orientation by, say, holding hands in public-in other words, by being open about being gay or lesbian as heterosexuals are about being straight”. [14]  Therefore the same type of paranoia that blacks feel about being stereotyped is similar to the stereotypes of gays and immigrants of deserving any negative experiences in their lives, simply for being different.  This is extremely covert and extremely dangerous, as the psychological toll of this type of discrimination can create an atmosphere that supports patriarchy but can cause suffering in gays and other minorities.

There is no law that can protect these groups from this type of covert discrimination and this is why the Civil Rights Movement and legislation is essentially useless in America today.  The idea of privilege and white superiority is so engrained into the American landscape that many whites do not even realize that they are operating under a system that helps reinforce whiteness and heterosexuality as better and anything else as inherently wrong.  “The sense of entitlement and superiority that underlies most forms of privilege runs so deep and is so entrenched that people don’t have to think about it in order to act from it” [15].  Therefore laws cannot prevent people from acting in ways that are patriarchal and as old as the time of slavery and predating the Civil Rights era.  The reaction to the anger of oppressed groups in the last forty years has, at least, brought attention to the idea of white, heterosexual, male privilege, however when the protesting for equal rights is over so is the thinking that accompanies it.  People then act upon preconceived notions of superiority or inferiority, especially if it is reinforced by geographic segregation, structural discrimination, or negative encounters with individuals who do not understand how much patriarchy and capitalism continue to fuel the fires of discontent.

Blacks, immigrants, and gays are all excluded and therefore denied the privilege of inclusion and the notation of their good behaviors.  Instead focus is put on negative behaviors, such as blaming the victim in the case of gays discussed earlier.  As well the illegal acts of immigrants and blacks are more focused upon than any good that these groups do.  Therefore, it is not just the people that are excluded, but all that makes a person who they are is ignored and all their behaviors are associated with all that is wrong with society.  This type of scapegoating may not be so obvious, as mentioned previously, but has remained virtually unchanged since the Civil Rights era.  Laws can be enacted and acted upon, but the power of the majority, capitalism, privilege, and patriarchy cannot be fought in a courtroom.  Instead these covert forms of discrimination are being played out in casual and institutional encounters everyday.


Much attention was brought to the issues inherent with African-Americans in the last 40 years in the way of protest, riots, and the ensuing laws that were meant to protect the civil rights of all Americans.  However, America is a very exclusive country with it’s own geographically segregated  populace and majority thinking that denies that discrimination even exists.  To the white, heterosexual, male it is of the utmost importance to keep the patriarchal, capitalist structure as is even at the risk of harm to American minorities.  The exclusion and negative identity forced upon minority groups is psychologically unhealthy and is no doubt a root of the problems that still exist for blacks and can be seen comparably with other ostracized people.  Lack of proper healthcare, school funding, and high rates of minority incarceration are the product of this patriarchal structure.

The problem is, many of the majority do not acknowledge that discrimination exists and minority representation seems to only be important during times of elections and other national events where groups converge to demand change.  However, these groups want to be treated as equal and seem to be more concerned with being separate and unique and special instead of as part of an assimilated America that does not benefit them.


1.  Zinn, Howard.  “Or Does it Explode?” in A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.  (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 450.

2.  Ibid., 450.

3.  Ibid., 457.

4.  Ibid, 465.

5.  Ware, L & Ware, M.  “Plessy’s Legacy: Desegregating the Eurocentric Curriculum” in Georgia State University Law Review.  1996, 12.

6.  Suarez, Ray.  The Old Neighborhood.  (New York, The Free Press, 1999), 15.

7.  Johnson, Allan G.  Privilege, Power, and Difference. (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001), 48.

8.  Lecture Notes.

9. Ibid.

10.  Johnson, Allan G.  Privilege, Power, and Difference. (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001), 61.

11.  Zinn, Howard.  “Or Does it Explode” in A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.  (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 461.

12.  Zald, Mayer N. “The Trajectory of Social Movements in America” in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change 10: 1988: 19-41.

13.  Wortham, Anne.  “The Melting Pot, Part I: Are We There Yet?” in Annual Editions: Social Problems.  (March 2004). 83.

14.  Johnson, Allan G.  Privilege, Power, and Difference. (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001), 120.

15. Ibid., 127.