Broken Systems Pt. 1

Broken Systems Pt. 1

Maya Angelou

(The following is part one of a two-part essay I'm writing for one of my educational theory courses in my doctorate program. We were asked to identify and provide context for a broken system in America. I chose to share this as part of a larger conversation I believe we should be having with each other and ourselves regarding our knowledge of African American history, where we are today, and where we're headed. This barely scratches the surface. Part 2, which will be released next month, will be my response with potential solutions. Read, share your responses and critiques, and #STUDI with me as we continue to work to figure this out!)

To be Black in America is to be broken. There is not a system or structure in this country that was built with the intention of African Americans being included in its success and prosperity. Education, health care, politics (voting), economics and Corporate America, housing, and more were all masterminded in terms of creating world’s greatest country, so it is unfortunate that these systems all exist, by origin, to work against African Americans. Rather than exploring each system from the African American perspective, it is far more poignant to explore African American history as a broken system.

After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. This law demanded that slavery come to an end and that all enslaved people be freed effective January 1, 1863. The proclamation did not impact most slaves though, as the Confederate states in the South had seceded from the Union and felt no obligation to adhere to President Lincoln’s demands to free their slaves. African Americans’ existence as merely property instead of as people, without the protection of the American government to force their freedom, is the first example of being part of an overall broken system. It was not until the Union defeated the Confederacy in 1865 and the 13th Amendment passed that officially ended slavery.


Even in freedom, African Americans only knew life in bondage, with no education, no ability to read, write, or compute numbers, and no knowledge of how to pursue these things to provide for their families. Additionally, there were still many Confederate sympathizers that did not want to see African Americans obtain any prosperity or equality in American society. Thus, during the period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), several protections were passed to integrate the former slaves into American society, such as the 14th Amendment, which made all people born on American soil citizens of this nation, granting them the rights and privileges of being an American citizen. Also, according to Hatfield (2009), “In March 1865, the U.S. Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to aid African Americans undergoing the transition from slavery to freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-65). The Freedmen's Bureau, as it was more commonly known, was the first organization of its kind, a federal agency established solely for the purpose of social welfare.” Jensen (2006) found that “the Bureau distributed train loads of free food and clothing to both freed slaves and to Southern refugees. They built hospitals and provided medical care that helped over 1 million people. They built over 1,000 schools attended by African-American children. They founded Howard University in Washington D. C. and other colleges for African-Americans. They helped some former slaves find jobs and to be elected positions in the new government of the South. They wanted to give land to former slaves so they could grow food and take care of themselves.” Even with these systems and military protection in place, Southern whites found a way to break them by creating the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist militia organized to terrorize the black community and instill fear in their progress, and Black Codes, laws that were passed to suppress the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans, keeping them in debt with high labor/low wage jobs, and discriminate against them. It is from the Black Codes that the Jim Crow laws are derived.

The state of Mississippi is a great example of how the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were used to encourage voter discrimination and keep African Americans broken. Per the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF) (2015), “more than a half-million black men became voters for the first time in the South as a result of the 15th Amendment.” Unsurprisingly, all this changed when Reconstruction ended in 1877 and Union soldiers withdrew from the South. With the military no longer present to protect the rights of black citizens, white supremacy quickly returned to the old Confederate states, and several obstacles were created to discourage Black voting. Black voting fell off sharply in most areas because of threats and violence from the Ku Klux Klan. Also, the state suddenly required an annual poll tax, which voters had to pay for two years before the election, a difficult economic burden to place on black Mississippians (2015). The CRF also found another “formidable voting barrier put into the state constitution was the literacy test. It required a person seeking to register to vote to read a section of the state constitution and explain it to the county clerk who processed voter registrations. This clerk, who was always white, decided whether a citizen was literate or not” (2015). Furthermore, Mississippi also enacted a "grandfather clause" that permitted registering anyone whose grandfather was qualified to vote before the Civil War (2015). Obviously, this benefited only white citizens. Finally, in 1902, according to the CRF, “Mississippi passed a law that declared political parties to be private organizations outside the authority of the 15th Amendment. This permitted the Mississippi Democratic Party to exclude black citizens from membership and participation in its primaries.” Voter suppression is a harshly blatant example of American society working against African Americans as a broken system. A lot of work, effort, thought, money, and legislation was spent ensuring the system forever remained broken for Black people. Mississippi was one of eleven Confederate states, each of which crafted hundreds of these Black Codes (and later Jim Crow laws) to encourage segregation to the highest degree.

One of the greatest political movements in history, the Civil Rights Movement, was the best fighting chance African Americans had at achieving equality and eliminating the cruel and racist Jim Crow laws that fueled segregation across the nation, not just the South. Small groups made attempts at sparking revolutionary uprisings reported as early as the 1930s, including the founding and anti-lynching campaign of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but it was not until Brown v. Board of Education passed in favor of African Americans in 1954, which deemed the segregation of schools that “separate but unequal” unconstitutional, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, sparked by Rosa Parks and led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that the movement gained steam and felt the effects of actual change (2010). For thirteen years, until his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was the poster child for a Civil Rights Movement that sought justice via nonviolent protest. He published books, wrote letters, led protests and marches, helped organize students and clergy alike, traveled the nation, and even met with the President of the United States several times on behalf of African Americans across America, seeking justice and demanding equality.

Dr. King famously pressured President Lyndon B. Johnson into signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It also ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public” (2010). This Civil Rights Act was intended to strictly enforce the protections provided to citizens of the United States, including more than just African Americans, that were given via the 14th and 15th Amendments. Dr. King’s efforts were celebrated around the world, even earning him the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first African American to earn the award. Subsequently, white supremacists and racists across America continued to give African Americans a hard time, even with this new legislation in place. This time though, African Americans began to fight back, marching across the Edward Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to register to vote, even when dogs, fire engine hoses, and state troopers were used to attack them and try to scare them away. Unfortunately, across the United States, race riots began to ensue as a result of African Americans being fed up with the unfair treatment and harsh punishment they faced every day. New York City, Watts, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, etc. all famously erupted in violent uprisings during the 1960s. After King’s assassination in 1968, 125 cities across America burned in anger and mourning for the fallen leader (2008). Consequently, these cities were predominantly urban areas in which the majority of the population was African American. Thus, entire neighborhoods of these cities remain abandoned, graffiti riddled, and desolate presently, described by Dyson as “urban blight” (2008). White flight, a term used to describe “the uprising of White populations across America to suburban communities,” affected the homes and businesses of the inner-city, and government at the local, state, and federal levels have chosen to keep the system broken for African Americans by not funding the demolition and renovation of these broken communities.

In present times, African Americans still face societal brokenness. Lack of government interference in urban neighborhoods and communities has made way for a process called gentrification, which while on face value appears positive, it keeps African American communities broken. According to Jamusa (2015), “gentrification is a process of renovation and revival of deteriorated urban neighborhoods by means of influx of more affluent residents, which results in increased property values and the displacing of lower-income families and small businesses.” In Nashville, “near major private universities Belmont and Vanderbilt is the 12South neighborhood, once a predominantly Black working class neighborhood, which experienced a 269% increase in average home costs from 2000 to 2012, with prices topping $500,000, forcing 58% of its Black residents to move elsewhere (2015).” African American families established their own communities decades after riots and protests decimated their neighborhoods, and today many cannot afford to remain there. Black men represent the vast majority of America’s prison population, many facing long mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Conversely, the Millennial generation is producing a record number of high school and college graduates, but many face mountainous student loan debt because of the astronomical cost of higher education. Finally, unarmed black men have been shot and killed at the hands of police officers at alarming rates, and many of the police officers never face conviction or even indictment, even when there is video evidence suggesting they escalated the situations.

In all, America has not been the “land of the free” for African Americans. Black people continue to face obstacles and injustice daily. Progress has been made, opportunities have been capitalized upon, and achievements have been mounted, but many systems remain broken for Black people. Therefore, it can be concluded that African Americans themselves will remain a broken system, despite the hard work of ancestors and predecessors that worked so hard for freedom and equality.


Dyson, M. E. (2008). April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death and how it changed America. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Hatfield, E. (2009). Freedmen's Bureau. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

Jamusa. (2015). The Ballad of Alienation: Gentrification in Nashville. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

Janken, K. (2010). The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s, Freedom's Story, TeacherServe®, National Humanities Center. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

Jensen, R. (2006). Jensen's Guide to Reconstruction History 1861-1877. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

Race and Voting in the Segregated South. (2015). Retrieved December 1, 2016, from

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