By Paul S. Penner
Half-life, a term from science, means the time period over which half of a radioactive element decays. When that period passes again, half of the remaining element decays, and so on. Some elemental half-lives are very long. At all times, when undecayed portions of the element are present, we are still left in a very dangerous situation.
Left undisturbed, social changes are also half-life phenomena, mostly very long. But generational change and scientific revelations do result in a steady movement toward improved social conditions. When an undisturbed social change is nearing its end, it may appear to be moving more rapidly. This is not correct. Rather, the change has simply proceeded to the point where it has overwhelmed the remaining unchanged aspect in its social effect.
The change in the status of peoples of African origin in America is a half-life social phenomenon. There have been free people and enslaved people in that category since the early 17th century. Up to the time of the Civil War, 200 years later, the vast majority of Africans were enslaved, indicating a very long half-life for improvement.
But slavery is not the only characteristic of the status of African-Americans. From the time of emancipation on, elimination of social discrimination in housing, transportation, employment, policing, voting and other elements of life was proceeding extremely slowly until another disturbance: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. This resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. This was 100 years after emancipation.
One final status characteristic of African-Americans remains unsolved: economic disparity. The first two disturbances in the half-life pattern were the result of majority support of Americans of all groups acting overtly to create rapid change.
We are now 50 years beyond the above legislation and little progress has been made for this last status change. The time has come for another disturbance, this time a change in the very meaning of the social half-life phenomenon: 200, 100, 50.
The pressure for this disturbance must again come from two directions. First, from all Americans who are no longer subject to economic discrimination, as most of us once were at various times in our history. Second, it must come from those Americans who are still subject to economic discrimination. Thus, we see the importance of various movements within the African-American community toward economic justice.
Without this substantive change, a significant minority of our citizens will continue to live in poverty, live half-lives, and we will still be left in a very dangerous situation.
Paul S. Penner, Ph.D., retired as assistant to the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo.