Blacks Fight for 'New' Civil Rights

While voting rights, educational access and racial hatred are mainstays of the continuing civil rights fight in the United States, many rights groups have begun looking at pocketbook items — health care, income and Social Security (search) — to address quality of life issues for African-Americans.

Blacks lag behind whites and Hispanics in household income. According to 2003 government figures, the median household income for whites was $48,000; for blacks it was $30,000 and for Hispanics it was $33,000.

In addition, 19 percent of African-Americans did not have health insurance in 2003, compared with 11 percent of whites and 32 percent of Hispanics. Black newborns are more than twice as likely to die in their first year of life than whites and are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS (search).

While some groups blame blatant racism for today's problems and demand increased affirmative action enforcement and government assistance, others suggest new approaches are needed to equalize the playing field. They de-emphasize affirmative action and entitlements.

Dan Williams, a African-American community activist in St. Paul, Minn., blacks should start looking at established community institutions to jumpstart new strategies in homeownership, small businesses and personal retirement.

"You have faith-based organizations, which are staples within the community, fraternities, human services and community action groups that can start now, spending time asking what they can do with young adults and take the step now to be independent," Williams, a Republican, said.

Other black conservatives suggest supporting President Bush's (search) proposal to permit personal savings accounts from Social Security could open doors to generational stability.

"This has been a BAMPAC issue since our inception," said Alvin Williams, president of Black America's Political Action Committee, which sees the future of the black community emboldened by free enterprise and conservative ideals. "We've explored the options and concluded that it's the way to go."

Since he introduced the idea publicly in his State of the Union speech on Feb. 2, the president has been arguing that future retirees could benefit from taking a portion of their Social Security contributions and placing them in personal investment accounts. The idea is that the money can get a higher rate of return in the open market than from the government's securities options.

Another benefit to African-Americans, the president explained, is the ability to pass on those earnings to spouses and families, instead of returning the money to the pot when a person dies. Since black men have a life expectancy of 68 years — at least six years fewer than the average white male — black men not only do not get to enjoy the full benefits they spent decades earning but they can't pass down their earnings.

"Current statistics show that blacks are the losers in the current Social Security system," said Peter Kirsanow, an African-American and Republican-appointed member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Kirsanow added that one of the reasons whites are less dependent on Social Security than blacks is that many whites have chosen alternative investment plans to buffer their retirement.

But some of the bedrock civil rights groups, which have stood squarely with Democrats over the years, remain skeptical. The National Advancement for the Advancement of Colored People and members of the Congressional Black Caucus say African-Americans would be disproportionately hurt by any future reductions in promised benefits.

"For African-Americans already suffering from high employment, privatizing Social Security would only cause more harm," NAACP President Julian Bond said at a December press conference.

According to a recent report by American Association of Retired Persons, the nation's largest organization for seniors and an opponent of the president's plan, Social Security pays out more to lower-income workers when they retire. Because blacks make less than whites on average, they receive more of the benefits they pay into the program than whites.

African-Americans receive 18 percent of all the annual Social Security disability benefits, although they make up 11 percent of the labor force.

"African-Americans depend on [Social Security] not only for the benefits, but for the survivor benefits and the disability benefits that workers' children under 18 and their spouses get when the worker dies," Paul Braithwaite, spokesman for the Congressional Black Caucus, said.

Brathwaite said CBC members, who are all Democrats, are unconvinced a "crisis" is mounting in the current system, but they do know "that private accounts will not solve the problem."

Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the CBC, suggested the president doesn't seem to realize the disproportionately negative impact personal accounts would have on black Americans.

"It is quite apparent this president lives in a world just totally removed and unappreciative of the challenges that millions of African-Americans face every day," he said after the State of the Union address.

Bush Tries Other Appeals

The president listed several dangers to the African-American community that he wants to resolve in the State of the Union address including: expanding rates of HIV/AIDS; the growth of gangs; and limited access to DNA evidence.

On those remarks, Bush earned some positive reviews. Still, blacks are wary. The president earned just 11 percent of the black vote in the November election — up from 9 percent in 2000 and hardly the inroads he had hoped to pull from this demographic.

Much of the electoral increase, say several analysts, came from blacks who voted on social issues like a ban on gay marriage, one area where black voters break with Democrats. Other than that, however, Republicans and the White House have only marginally appealed to blacks on issues like educational access, faith-based initiatives and economic security.

"He will continue to have the same problems that the Republicans have long had in that black unemployment continues to be high and there is little evidence right now that African-Americans are doing particularly better in terms of economic improvement," David Bositis, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Studies, said.

As far as education is concerned, Bositis said African-Americans haven't given much support to school vouchers or charter programs because many believe that poor kids will be left behind in crumbling public schools.

"School vouchers aren't much of an issue right now," he said. "Bush has not gotten anywhere, nor have the Republicans gotten anywhere."

Alvin Williams, however, said supporting private school vouchers and charter schools to compete with public schools is the best way to start addressing the continued disparities in achievement between blacks in poor schools and whites in thriving ones. That lesson could apply to other areas the president is promoting as well.

"We've tried it the other way for 40 or 50 years and the results are dismal," said Williams. "We are well within our rights to try something else.