"Once the courts made clear that you could not engage in inter-district busing, it left the story to become what it has become," says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "As whites moved to the suburbs, you ended up with inner-city school systems that were 80 to 90% African-American. That was contrary to the Brown decision, which was to break the back of segregated schools and advance the integrating of our schools and educating our children together."
Black students were stuck in a deteriorating school system funded by a shaky tax base that often failed to attract and retain the best teachers. The impact on black education has been devastating. Indeed, since Milliken virtually all school reform efforts aimed at poor African-American students -- community control, vouchers, school uniforms, charter schools, No Child Left Behind -- can be seen as little more than attempts to make the doctrine of "separate but equal" work this time.
The crack epidemic and the war on drugs
Arguments have raged over whether crack cocaine is a more virulent and more addictive drug than its powdered cousin. But it was addictive enough -- and it was cheaper. As a result it swept through poor black communities during the 1980s like a typhoon, leaving devastation in its wake. The murder rate among young blacks in the inner cities quadrupled during a five-year period as gangs battled for control of the lucrative drug trade. School dropout rates soared. Infant mortality began to climb. In a 2005 paper, economists Steven Levitt and Kevin Murphy estimated that African-American's postwar social and economic progress "was not only stopped cold, but was often knocked as much as 10 years backwards" by the epidemic.
It was not just the disease that ravaged inner-city communities, it was also the cure. Stiff drug laws and increased law enforcement resulted in an explosion of black men being thrown in prison. By 2008 as the epidemic had run its course, 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 was behind bars. The wave of incarcerations furthered shattered black families as more black men were either removed from the community or rendered unemployable, and thus less worthy of marriage when they were paroled. As a result, where 20% of black children lived with their mother but not their dad in 1960, by 1990 more than 50% were in homes without a father.
"Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow," Levitt and Murphy wrote.
The O.J. trial
When an all-black jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of charges of murdering his ex-wife and an acquaintance, black people cheered and whites gasped at both the verdict and the celebration. Generally, a sensational celebrity trial would not be considered a defining moment in race relations. But the reactions to the Simpson verdict laid bare, perhaps for the first time, the extent of the "Rashomon" nature of America's racial dynamic. Blacks and white looked at the exact same phenomena and can come to diametrically opposed conclusions.
Whites looked at the DNA evidence, the holes in Simpson's alibis, the fact that a bloody glove left behind at the murder scene matched another glove found near Simpson's home and concluded that he surely was guilty. But nine of the 12 jurors, either themselves or through a close friend or relative, had had a negative experience with law enforcement personnel and were susceptible to the defense argument that much of the incriminating evidence may have been planted.
That notion was helped when it was revealed that Mark Fuhrman, a Los Angeles police detective, had repeatedly used the n-word in a videotape after having denied he had ever uttered such a slur, and when asked about this seeming contradiction invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer.
"When the jurors heard evidence of Fuhrman possibly fabricating evidence, these were things that, instead of it being difficult to believe, these people on this particular jury, said of course that's possible," says Richard Gabriel, a trial consultant who served on the Simpson defense team. That assertion also rang true enough to the huge number of black people who watched the trial, many of whom also had had run-ins with cops.
What made the Simpson trial so important when it comes to how blacks and whites view each other was sheer number of people who watched it unfold. The televised verdict drew more than 100 million viewers, more than 90% of the people who happened to be watching television at that time.
The immigration wave
In 1965, as Congress was debating and passing major civil rights legislation, lawmakers decided to end what they saw as racial discrimination in the country's immigration policy. That year they passed an immigration reform act that did away with numerical quotas -- the set number of people that could enter the United States from particular countries that were heavily skewed toward European nations. Instead, the new law set up a system based on allowing people who have family already in the country to immigrate. No one thought the change would amount to much. "It does not affect the lives of millions," President Lyndon Johnson said at the signing ceremony. "It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power."
Five decades later the law, and subsequent measures in 1986 and 1990, has spawned the largest influx of immigrants since the Ellis Island wave at the beginning of the 20th century. The number of American residents born outside the country rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to more than 40 million in 2010. And the foreign-born had a much different hue. In 1960, 75% of them were white Europeans. By 2010, 81% came from Asia and Latin America, mainly Mexico. The huge wave of immigrants, coupled with higher birth rates among Hispanics has led to predictions that whites will be in the minority by midcentury.
For the most part, this immigration wave has added to blacks' political power as Hispanics and Asians have, for example, backed the same candidate for president in recent elections. There have been tensions, particularly pitting blacks and Hispanics on one side and Asians on the other over affirmative action policies. There is a suspicion among some black people that the greater acceptance of Asians by white people -- as evidence in the remarkably high intermarriage rates -- gives some whites a "racial escape valve," to say in essence, "How can I be racist? Look who I married."
But the main tension comes from those whites who feel threatened by the explosive demographic shift and a fear that "their" country is becoming unrecognizable.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports limiting immigration, says those fears are exacerbated by the concept of "multiculturalism," government classification of people by their race or ethnicity and the extension of some affirmative action programs to immigrants. Given those developments, Krikorian says that "increasing, through immigration, the percentage of so-called nonwhites in the population does create a very powerful incentive for a white identity or a white nationalism. If everyone has to fight to divide up the spoils, then you better get a team to belong to."
The election of President Barack Obama
There is, perhaps, no event that signaled the remarkable progress the country has made in race relations than the election -- and the re-election -- of its first African-American president.