Cultural Contributions and Recent Concerns
Despite the patterns of prejudice and inequality that historically restricted their opportunities, African Americans have made significant contributions in many other fields as well. The work of Charles Drew in hematology leading to the establishment of the American Red Cross blood bank and the appointment of Ralph Bunche as undersecretary of the United Nations in 1950 are examples. The first black American in space was U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Guion S. Bluford, who took part in a 1983 Space Shuttle flight.
Ongoing Political and Social Issues. A continuing impediment to black progress has been fewer economic opportunities. Although modest economic gains were made in recent decades, too many blacks remain in poverty, and many blacks share concern that actions taken in the 1980s by the administration of President Ronald Reagan - withdrawing funds from programs to aid the poor and reducing support for affirmative action - seriously harmed their communities. Perceived indifference on the part of the administration of President George Bush sustained resentments. On Apr. 30, 1992, south central Los Angeles exploded in a fiery riot and demonstrations erupted in other cities after a California jury failed to convict four Los Angeles policemen charged with using excessive force in the videotaped beating-arrest of a black motorist, Rodney King.
During the years (1993-2001) of the Clinton administration, significant appointments were made of African Americans to high-profile positions (such as that of Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, and others), although there was some concern over a loss of momentum in the struggle for equality. A sense of frustration may have fueled a tendency toward separatist solutions, as represented by the views of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Adding perhaps to black frustration was the termination of most of California's affirmative-action programs after passage in 1996 of a ballot initiative. While no federal or state legislatures have passed similar affirmative action bans, the issue remains a potent one. That same year President Clinton also signed a welfare-reform law, raising much concern from advocates for the nation's poorer citizens. A year earlier, in the so-called trial of the century, the acquittal by a predominantly black jury of black football star O. J. Simpson, accused of murdering his white wife and her friend, revealed the dramatic polarization along racial lines between whites and blacks with regard to their trust in such institutions as the U.S. criminal justice system. More recently, racial profiling by police was another issue that no doubt contributed to black distrust of the system, and there were high-profile cases in New York and other cities of unarmed black men shot by police. In an attempt to address persistent race problems, President Clinton in June 1997 established a presidential advisory panel on race relations headed by historian John Hope Franklin. During his presidency, Clinton, besides addressing race relations at home, made two trips to the African continent.
In January 2001, George W. Bush became president after a month-long period following the November 2000 election when the presidential race was too close to call in Florida and during which many black voters complained of irregularities. Bush too has appointed African Americans to prominent positions in government. Among these are two cabinet appointees - Colin Powell as secretary of state and Roderick Paige as secretary of education - as well as national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, who heads the National Security Council. After a nearly 40-year period, Thomas Blanton, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in May 2001 for plotting the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four African American girls. Of the four men tied to the crime, only one other was ever convicted (in 1977), and he died in prison.