Forum: Remaking the Past
Black History Month still matters.
Thursday, February 9, 2006
While reading an interesting story in the New York Observer about the overwhelming whiteness of the magazine industry, I noticed the prevalence of the phrase “people of color.” This term has become ubiquitous among progressives as an inclusive nomenclature for non-white people. Ironically, it’s a variation of the now discredited term “colored people,” once used to identify African-Americans.
These days, of course, a person of color could be anyone of non-European stock. Were magazines to take affirmative action and employ more people of color, they could end up with zero African Americans.
On one level, this blurring of affirmative action categories may seem to be a good thing—a merging of difference. But in real world America, this practice has allowed us to postpone addressing the lengthening legacy of our racist past and provides another example of why Black History Month still matters.
African-Americans, as a distinct ethnic variation in the African diaspora, were created by slavery. For nearly 250 years, American culture dehumanized those it enslaved and, more insidiously, socialized generations of African-Americans for enslavement.
A thorough examination of this history would help clarify how the past influences our present of African-American disparity. Affirmative action is a compensatory program designed to begin that process. By blurring people of color into one mass, those complicated historical distinctions get lost.
President Lyndon Johnson zeroed in on the program’s focus in a famous 1965 speech at Howard University. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
But since many Americans lacked a perspective informed by blacks’ peculiar history, other groups had to be included to gain political support for affirmative action. Instead of a program focused on the descendants of enslaved Africans, as originally designed, affirmative action became a comprehensive attempt to offset discrimination against all “minorities”—a term so fuzzy, it includes even white women.
Any program seeking broad remedies for unfair biases is worthy, but the original rationale for affirmative action was much narrower and justified by African-Americans’ unique history. Black History Month is an outgrowth of Negro History Week, established by black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. He designated the second week in February to mark the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The week was expanded to a month in 1976, as part of the nation’s Bicentennial Commemoration. The intent was to feature the racial aspects of our common history.
Some critics contend Black History Month is irrelevant because it has degenerated into a shallow ritual. But that problem is one of execution, not design. If treated seriously, the monthly observation could conceivably trigger more concern for the accuracy of traditional school curricula.
In fact, that already has happened in Philadelphia where, starting this September, public school students will be required to pass a course in African-American history before they can graduate. Knowledge of that formative history is so essential to understanding the nation’s character, we should utilize all public institutions to ensure all Americans know.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, and an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.