As the month of February (the shortest month of the year) draws to a close, so does Black History Month. This year, like most years, Black History month has been filled with the media and politicians pointing their fingers at the African Americans they select to highlight from the past. For them, they usually point out those who were able to make it into the elite club of the wealthy. They also cannot ignore paying lip service to some of the important African Americans who spent their lives organizing and fighting against the racism, brutality, and exploitation rampant in this society.
But for regular people, Black History Month is more than that. Black History isn’t some separate history that is different from the rest of US history – Black History is US history. Any history that would leave out the role of African Americans, that would leave out the struggles against slavery, the workers movement, the Civil Rights movement, the revolt of soldiers in Vietnam – is not history. Any history that ignores the enormous contributions African Americans have made in defining every aspect of US culture, whether it be politics, literature, science, sports, the arts, you name it – is not history.
Yes, the history of African Americans in the US cannot be ignored. But it is not enough to cover it in a month, and pretend it were only in the past. It’s not enough to cover one of the most important social movements in the US for a few days out of the year. It’s not enough to select a few individuals, and put them on pedestals as if they weren’t ordinary people like us. History isn’t changed by superheroes – but by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Nor is it good enough to speak of Black History as if it is over, as if the obstacles of the past have been overcome. It’s not enough to look backwards as a way to ignore the present – we should use the past as a guide to a different future. And when we look at the present situation for many African Americans in this country, these same fights from the past are far from over.
In terms of overall poverty and wealth inequality, not much has changed since the 1960s, and in many ways things have gotten worse. According to a 2011 Pew study, the average white household’s wealth was 20 times greater than the average Black household. In 2009, African Americans were 2.3 times more likely to live in inadequate housing than whites. Since 1999, household income fell 5.5 percent for whites but 14.6 percent for African Americans. One out of every four African Americans lives in poverty. In 2009, 39 percent of African American children lived in poverty, the highest rates in the country.
According to the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, our schools are more segregated by race today than they were in the 1960s. And what’s worse, the vast majority of schools with the highest numbers of Black and Latino students receive the lowest levels of funding and have the highest dropout rates. So today, education is still separate and still unequal.
And the racial divisions in society don’t stop at poverty and education. Black males are incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white males. In the US, nearly one out of every three African American men in their twenties is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or otherwise under criminal justice control. While making up only 13 percent of the total US population, African Americans make up more than 40 percent of those incarcerated.
These statistics paint a clear picture that the struggles of the past are not over. And unfortunately this does not come as a surprise. The same system in place 60 years ago is still in place today. This is a system that keeps workers, of all races, in conditions of poverty, struggling to make ends meet. And wherever there is extreme poverty and unemployment, there will be problems of drug addiction, crime and violence in the streets.
Looking back on our history is the only way to understand the present. And there is no question about it – the history of the US is a history of struggle, inseparable from the history of African Americans. But these struggles aren’t stuck in the past – they are in every way here in the present. The question for today is whether we are ready to carry them further than they have gone in the past.