This is Black History Month in the United States— a time to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made to our nation’s history and to take note of the progress that has been made in advancing racial equality and the challenges that remain.
A special focus of this year’s programs will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 by then President Lyndon Johnson. That historic legislation marked a turning point in American life, ending racial discrimination in public accommodations. In this context, Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on a past we should never forget and the extent to which the legacy of racial inequality is still with us.
Growing up in the North in the 1950’s, I was mostly unaware of the segregation laws that governed the southern states. In school we were taught about our nation’s long civil war and the abolition of slavery— but not much more.
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With the advent of the civil rights movement, my generation was shocked into an awareness of the reality of racism and its impact on the lives and fortunes of Black Americans. Our schools didn’t teach us about “white-only” water fountains and restrooms, lunch counters, businesses, schools, and housing. And they hadn’t taught us about the restrictions that were placed on the right to vote. Nor did we learn about the brilliant Black writers, artists, scientists, explorers, and other heroes who had contributed to so much, only to be denied recognition and, oftentimes, the fruits of their labors.
This is what made Black History Month necessary. It was not to teach a separate history, but to provide a corrective to the skewed history we had been taught, so as to insure that future generations benefited from a more complete telling of the American story.
Legislation banning discrimination, insuring the right to vote, and creating new opportunities for those who had been victims of discrimination did create new possibilities for African Americans. Colleges and universities were forced to open their doors; Affirmative Action provided some needed correction in hiring practices; a new generation of African Americans won elections to public office; and through the efforts of civil rights pioneer Jesse Jackson businesses were pressed to award franchises to black entrepreneurs helping to create a new black middle class.
But progress has been incomplete. The legacy of racism is still with us and profound challenges to equality remain.
Ever since the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, some politicians saw fit to play off of the resultant backlash of white fear and resentment. Political campaigns were waged and elections were won by those who exploited this sentiment, in ways that were subtle and not so subtle. Warnings about “welfare fraud”, “crime”, and the unfairness of “affirmative action” became coded ways of exploiting white fears.
Even today with an African American in the White House, the shrill attacks from elements of the Tea Party establish the persistence of race and fear as factors in our politics. The charges that the president is “not like us”, “not born here”, “not a real American”, emanate from a movement that polling shows is made up of individuals who are disproportionately white, middle aged, and male; and who believe that blacks are favored by government and have unfair advantages over whites.
The reality is otherwise. In fact, discrimination and inequality still define American life. Most American cities, for example, remain racially divided, with blacks living in the poorest neighborhoods. These areas oftentimes have substandard schools and inadequate health care facilities. Overall, Black Americans are disproportionately poor and black unemployment is double that of whites. As a result of this endemic poverty and lack of opportunity more than one-third of all African American males under the age of 39 are in the US prison system (either awaiting trial, serving time, or on parole).
And so even with the progress that has been made, real work remains to make the promise of America real for all its citizens. Those who charge that Black History Month makes us “color conscious” or who decry civil rights legislation alleging that it favors one group over another – miss the point. The goals of both are to erase the color lines that have distorted our history and our present day reality, in order to make us “a more perfect union” that provides equal opportunity for all.