by Jennifer Swayne, Staff Attorney- Health Justice Program
Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. This March took place during a time of great upheaval and racial tension and represented a growing swell of actions highlighting the injustices that permeated American society. Marchers traveled from near and far to call for equality in civil, political, economic, and human rights. On this anniversary, individuals are once again convening on the Washington Mall. This time, the purpose is to not only commemorate the historical March of 1963, but to also take stock of where we have yet to go as a nation.
Today, we no longer face water hoses, attacks by police dogs, “whites only” signs, and literacy and jelly bean tests for voting. Instead, we face systemic inequality. Instead of “whites only” signs, we continue to face the pervasive notion that people of color do not belong in certain spaces, as evidenced by the murder of Trayvon Martin, or that they pose a threat, as demonstrated by the illegal use of “stop and frisk.” Instead of jelly bean tests that disenfranchise black voters, Justice Antonin Scalia labeled the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement” before the Supreme Court obliterated the Act.
The healthcare setting is another sphere where systemic inequality remains. Low-income communities of color face unequal access to healthcare and bear a disproportionate burden of poor health outcomes. One example is the continued loss of healthcare services in medically underserved neighborhoods. In New York City, we are in the midst of a crisis where institutions such as Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn, Holliswood Hospital in Queens, and two Immunization Clinics in the Bronx and Queens will be closed. The barriers to healthcare that medically underserved communities face fit hand in hand with the other forms of inequality mentioned above—they reflect a perverse disregard for people of color and low-income communities and demonstrate that we still have much further to go to realize the dream of full equality.
While we have moved forward from some of our darkest moments in 1963, many challenges lie ahead. Yet today’s gathering in Washington reminds us that we can work together to make positive changes for all communities. In addition to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream,” we should also heed his words that “[t]his is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”