Still waiting for change

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The Texas History Museum is nearly as big as the state itself. It houses stuffed cattle, interactive maps and historians dressed as infamous Texans. Reading each and every word of the information posted on the walls would take visitors days.

Tucked away behind the taxidermy and Texan flags, is arguably the most important section of the museum. Ostensibly, it’s about what happened after the annexation of the 28th state, but to me the most interesting element was the personal stories of the first black politicians in the state.

Some had been slaves right up until annexation, others travelled from the free northern states, sensing the opportunities that would be available to them in Texas. All campaigned on issues important to the African-American population.

Like Matthew Gaines. He was born into slavery in Louisiana in 1840. He tried to escape from his owners twice, and was both times caught and punished. Despite a tough upbringing, Gaines spoke French, Spanish and English, and learnt to read by candlelight, from books smuggled to him by a white boy who lived on his plantation. After reconstruction, Gaines stood for office to represent black people who were struggling. His chief concerns were education, prison reform and voter turn out among the African-American population. In 1869, he became one of the first black Senators in the newly formed state of Texas.

Exactly 145 years after Gaines was first elected, the United States is still struggling with the exact same issues. Black men are under-represented in universities, and over-represented in prisons. They perform worse in school than white and Asian Americans. Violent riots like the one in Ferguson, Missouri were in part sparked by a widespread belief in black communities that authorities and institutions don’t speak for them, and don’t have their interests at heart.

Poverty plays a big role in these kinds of riots, educator Celeste Douglas says.

“When people are hungry and angry, certain things will happen.”

The Brooklyn-based Middle School principal says education is the solution.

“I think the real movement has to be around how do we reverse the achievement gap and how do we reverse the engagement gap [for black and Hispanic boys]”.

The Civil Rights Centre in Atlanta is full of photos from the 1960s of fearless black teenagers walking proudly through crowds of angry white students on their way to newly desegregated schools. To them, the end of segregation wasn’t only a symbolic gesture that said: “we’re equal to you and we deserve the same treatment”. It also had practical applications. The end of segregation meant black students could access the best schools in their area, instead of settling for inferior ones.

Segregation doesn’t exist anymore in the United States. Not formally, anyway. But the sad reality is that economic segregation disproportionately affects black and Hispanic families. A lower socio-economic status means the best schools in the country are out of reach for all but a few scholarship students.

The election of the country’s first black president gave students some hope for change, but that hope was short-lived. And while inequality exists, the possibility of future Fergusons exists.

“Riots, especially in [Ferguson’s] case, are a political means,” RT blogger Tomaso Clavarino writes.

“Protesters were attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs. It is the only way to show that they exist.”

Many black Americans are still waiting for the change that Matthew Gaines and his fellow legislators hoped would come all those decades ago.