Extraordinary changes have occurred in the civil rights recognized for ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. However, despite all the legal reforms that have taken place since the 1950s, including desegregation and affirmative action policies, the United States remains in many ways a segregated society. After a half-century of increased opportunities for people of color, residential housing patterns, school enrollment, and crime and victimization trends all reflect de facto segregation.
Although residential segregation based on race has seen sharp declines, high proportions of African-American families still live in poverty in inner-city neighborhoods with low performing schools. Almost 60 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, educational gaps between white and black children persist. African-American youth are two to three times as likely as whites to be suspended, and are much more likely to drop out of school and have contact with the juvenile justice system. Blacks are highly overrepresented in prison populations, fueling a cycle of poverty, unemployment, and broken families in their communities.
This example illustrates the persistent long-term impacts of segregation in the U.S., despite some dramatic changes and opportunities. It demonstrates the promise and the limits of legal reform in instilling cultural change. A similar pattern may be observed among other groups.
Although the movement for community care for people with mental illness and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities began about a half-century ago, barriers to integration persist. In accordance with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Olmstead v. L.C, many people with disabilities and chronic disorders are living in their communities; however, some still lack access to supports that would facilitate greater integration. Legal rights have not translated into social acceptance, and negative attitudes have interfered with employment, health care, and self-esteem of people with disabilities.
Public attitudes have witnessed significant shifts in other areas, reflecting generational differences. The gay rights movement, for example, has led to dramatic changes in media portrayals and social acceptance, particularly among young populations. Support for the rights of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals is at a record high. Therapies intended to change sexual orientation in minors have been banned in California, the first U.S. state to ban these controversial therapies. A 2012 Gallup poll shows that for the first time, over half (53%) of the American public supports same-sex marriage. Indeed, same-sex marriage has been recognized as valid in eight U.S. states as well as eleven other countries.
Research demonstrates startling increases in the past generation of mental health problems in children and adolescents. As schooling narrows to fit a predetermined mold and pressures to be “perfect” mount, anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy become much more common. At the same time, deep and trusting relationships are less common than in previous generations. Youth who lack social support and experience instability in their home lives can become overwhelmed with isolation and stress. These trends are becoming increasingly ingrained in society as our child mental health, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems are unable to respond effectively to the unprecedented need.
Community development initiatives have demonstrated the importance of neighborly informal support in child and family well-being. Yet neighborliness and socializing with community members has been on the decline. What can spark changes in today’s cultural trends?
The Fifth Annual Greenville Family Symposium offers a forum for constructive dialogue on these and related issues, and an opportunity to engage in crafting policy and program responses to the most pressing issues of our time. We will examine culture as a process of change in response to larger economic and sociopolitical contexts, as well as the bottom-up effects of individuals who contribute to movements that facilitate positive change in the status of different groups. In that context, we will also consider the ways that human service professionals and organizations can promote the inclusion of stigmatized individuals and help communities enjoy greater well-being as culture ebbs and flows. How can a better understanding of large-scale trends of change (and resistance) illuminate the challenges for families and communities? What kinds of strategies have been most effective, and what can human service professionals do to develop further change in a positive direction?