It seems that every Black History Month the only debate in the media and in popular culture is over whether we still “need” Black History Month. That is, rather than a discussion of how we can better incorporate the contributions of Black Americans into our national history, we are greeted only with denunciations of Black History Month.
Indeed, we are greeted with open celebrations of bigotry, as with the recent “Compton Cookout” at UCSD and the countless “Pimps and Hos” parties here at UCI each year, hiding behind the same Constitution that declared blacks three-fifths of a person and mandated the hunting of escaped slaves. On our own campus an article by Hanna Guthrie (“Black History Month?” Feb. 22, 2010) was published that went beyond questioning the efficacy of Black History Month and denied the reality of institutional racism in America.
It isn’t hard to misunderstand or fail to recognize the persistence of racism in the United States. The images constructed of blacks in American culture beget the policy decisions that, in turn, reinforce those constructed images. For instance, the stereotype of the black welfare queen who exploits state aid was used to validate slashing welfare programs nationwide during the 1990s. In turn, there is today the image of that same welfare queen, crying “eternal victimhood” and “blaming the white man.” And the racist images and policies that created the issue fall by the wayside.
The problem, then, is a profound and cultivated ignorance of Black History, because non-black Americans cannot only afford to ignore racism, but continue to benefit from it. With this in mind, let us consider a brief overview of racism in contemporary America.
Princeton’s Douglas Massey finds that the United States is more segregated at the beginning of the 21st century than it was at the beginning of the 20th century. In our “post-racial” era, blacks are kept from white neighborhoods with more efficacy than during the height of Jim Crow.
Saidiya Hartman, from Columbia University, writes that “Nearly half of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are in jail, on probation, or on parole, and are four times more likely to be sentenced to death than whites; and black women are eight times more likely to be imprisoned than white women.” And the disparities extend far beyond imprisonment.
“Forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act,” Hartman writes, “black households possess one-tenth of the wealth of white families; blacks own seven cents for every dollar owned by whites.”
Perhaps the most telling disparity is in public health, though. The national grassroots campaign Health Care for America Now! found in 2009 that “the infant mortality rate for African-Americans in California is two and a half times that of whites” and “the mortality rate … is more than 30 percent higher than for whites.”
According to former Surgeon General, David Satcher, “there would have been 83,500 fewer black deaths overall in the year 2000 alone” if these and other gross health disparities didn’t exist. Some 83,500 missing African-Americans each year amounts to a new Hurricane Katrina almost every week.
The notion that personal responsibility, or “a lack thereof,” accounts for these gross disparities between blacks and whites directly implies that blacks are defective, pathological and have chosen a subjugated position within society. Oftentimes this colorblind racist talking point is accompanied by a reference to an image of black success, to deter one from drawing the logical conclusion that they are reading or hearing something racist. These isolated cases of a Black American becoming wealthy or influential are used not only to deny the existence of ongoing institutional racism, but to blame blacks for the effects of institutional racism. They become the rule rather than the exception to the rule of the “white, wealthy, Christian, heterosexual male” norm.
The piece’s author is obviously an unethical political opportunist of the lowest order, who thinks nothing of exploiting the ongoing suffering of people of African descent in this country, throughout the world and here at UCI to advance her political agenda; a shill for the potently racist stream of conservative “thought” that has profited from white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement for the past several decades. However, the scatterbrained illogic of her article paints the not uncommon portrait of someone suffering the willful ignorance that makes Black History Month as important today as it was during the half-century of official Jim Crow.
Black History Month is essential, not as a final resolution or ending of racism in America, but as a point of departure for confronting racism in our official histories and in our everyday lives. It is month to focus, in a sincere way and with all our intellectual rigor, on the continuing and worsening problem of anti-black racism in the United States; it is both a reckoning with the position of blacks in American society and a celebration of their continued survival.
James Bliss is a fourth-year political science major. Asia Hodges is a fourth-year social science major. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.