MERRILLVILLE | “Are we there yet?”
That question asked repeatedly by generations of seatbelted children applies equally well to the progress made and challenges still faced in the arena of civil rights in the nearly 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Speaker at the opening session of the Indiana Consortium of State and Local Human Rights Agencies/National Association of Human Rights Workers joint training conference drove home the answer: Not yet.
The conference is taking place through Friday at The Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza.
Chicago resident Martin Castro, chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, used the analogy of a car ride “as an opportunity to see how far we’ve come” since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law on July 2, 1964.
“Of course, we’re not there yet, but we’re in the car. Sometimes, the car has a flat tire. Sometimes we have to stop for gas,” Castro said during his keynote speech to the 90 conference participants from across the nation.
“We’ve made tremendous progress. We are a lot farther than we were in 1964, a lot farther than in 1865,” he said. “But some things are entrenched. … There still remain gaps for our most vulnerable communities.”
The partisan, conservative atmosphere of the nation and especially in the U.S. Congress makes the work of human rights workers more difficult, Castro said.
For example, laws are being changed that impede the progress of civil rights, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to revise the Voting Rights Act, he said.
Today, Castro said, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights tackles myriad civil rights issues not addressed in the past. These include sex trafficking as a form of gender discrimination; attacks on those of Arab heritage and the Muslim faith; harsher school discipline for children of color; discrimination of veterans’ civil rights and bullying.
“For the first time, we are examining LGTG (Lesbian Gay and Transgender) as gender discrimination,” he said.
Immigration is another hot button issue that the Civil Rights Commission is investigating with a report to President Barack Obama expected in the next six months, Castro said.
“An undocumented person is still a person,” he said.
However, Castro said, African-Americans continue to experience civil rights discrimination as the statistics indicate: two times the unemployment rate, more than half the prison population, higher poverty rates and more substandard schools.
“Are African-Americans forever free,” he said. “I think not.”
As a Latino and person of color, Castro said he personally knows that “racism and discrimination is alive and well in America today. This anniversary (of the Civil Rights Act) will catalyze a new movement in the country.”