February is Black History Month. This month will be celebrated with the media and politicians selecting famous names to highlight the contributions of black people in history. Usually they choose those who made it into the ranks of the wealthy. But they also pay lip service to some black leaders who spent their lives organizing and fighting against racism, brutality, and exploitation. Of course the media and politicians have set aside the shortest month of the year for black history, but black history is more important than this token celebration.
The history of black people in this country isn’t separate from the rest of U.S. history – black history is U.S. history. To ignore the role of black people in the struggle against slavery, in the workers movement, in the civil rights movement, or in the revolt of soldiers in Vietnam – is not history. To ignore the enormous contribution black people have made in defining U.S. culture, whether it’s politics, literature, science, music, sports, art, you name it – is not history. But it is not enough to select a few individuals, and put them on pedestals as if they weren’t people like us. History isn’t changed by superheroes – but by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Black history is not over. When we look at the situation for black people in this country, a lot of the same horrific conditions that gave rise to the social movements in the past are just as bad today. The wealth of the average black household is 20 times less than the average white household. One in four black people is living in poverty. The housing crash and economic crisis in 2007 hit black people the hardest. Black homeowners have suffered twice the number of foreclosures compared to white homeowners. Black people are also twice as likely as white people to be unemployed, and one-third of young black men are out of work and cannot find a job. With such extreme poverty and high levels of unemployment, it’s no mystery that incarceration has increased.
In prisons today, there are more black men held in captivity than were held as slaves during slavery. The prison and jail population is 60 percent black. One in three black men in their twenties can expect to spend time in jail or prison, or be on parole or probation. Once out of prison, it becomes even more difficult to find employment and housing. The rate of released black prisoners returning to prison is about 70 percent. Black men are also disproportionately targeted with violence. In the first months of 2012, a black person was killed every 36 hours by police, private security guards, or vigilantes.
And this poverty, unemployment, and incarceration – all of it is laying waste to black communities that are in some ways just as segregated as in the 1960s. Schools are more segregated by race today than they were in the 1960s. And schools with the most black students still tend to have the highest drop-out rates, the least funding, and the most school closures. At the same time, there have been cuts to vital social services that are the last resort for many. It’s no surprise that as these communities become more desperate, violence remains a part of daily life. Last year there were 513 murders in Chicago, over 200 in Los Angeles, 131 in Oakland, and hundreds more across the country. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, in 2010 56 percent of all firearm murder victims were black. Many black neighborhoods have become like prisons as so many feel like there is no way out.
There have been many improvements since the civil rights movement. Today there are fewer barriers for black people. Today we can point to black doctors, teachers, government officials, CEO’s, and now a two-term president. But these were not the goals of the civil rights movement. What difference do these people make if the basic structure of inequality in our society remain the same? The fact is that the struggles of the past are far from over. The same social system in place 60 years ago is still in place today – a system that keeps workers of all races in conditions of poverty, struggling to make ends meet. Looking back on our history is the only way to understand the present. We should be proud of the victories and celebrate the history of struggle in this country – a history in which black people have played an important role. But without a doubt many problems remain. The question for today is whether we are ready to pick up where these struggles left off and carry them further than they have ever gone in the past.