Black History Month is a time to commemorate the achievements of Black Americans throughout history, such as the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. These influential people changed the course of history in America and often faced harsh backlash during their fight for justice, equality and freedom.
As Americans, we enjoy celebrating their tremendous achievements and sacrifices toward the betterment of society. It is easy to feel affirmed that we have “come so far”— that the issues and oppression these historical figures faced is long behind us.
In my experience, this has led to an increasingly backward-looking Black History Month full of platitudes and placation, removed from today’s issues. What many of these historical figures that we celebrate today would’ve wanted is in fact the opposite.
These people would not have wanted their legacy to be remembered as a way for people to check off a box. Rather, they would want continued progress toward justice and equality for all people. By sitting back and complacently watching injustices take place, without taking action, people are dishonoring the work and legacy of the Black Americans they celebrate. To truly observe Black History Month, we need to not only honor those who have come before us, but also consciously strive to continue their work.
Some may claim that we are past the inequality and injustice that was ever-present in previous centuries, but there is still much progress to be made. There are many examples of structural racism in the United States, embedded in our very institutions and causing Black people to suffer disproportionate harm or be held back from realizing their fullest potential.
One example of a broken system that needs to be fixed is law enforcement. According to the NAACP, “while white people make up a little over 60% of the population, they only make up about 41% of fatal police shootings. Black people make up 13.4% of the population, but make up 22% of fatal police shootings.”
The disproportionate number of Black Americans who are affected by police brutality cannot continue. In recent years, with the introduction of police body cameras and the increased documentation of police brutality through cell phone videos, there is greater awareness of the issue, but significant progress has yet to be made.
This systemic racism pervades more than just policing, as evidenced by the criminal justice and prison systems. After being arrested and tried, “African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites,” according to the NAACP. Black children are “18 times more likely than white children to be sentenced as adults” and “represent 58% of children sentenced to adult facilities,” according to a study done by the American Psychological Association.
Black Americans also face significant wealth inequality in America. According to Inequality.org, “the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family” and Black families are twice as likely to have “zero or even ‘negative’ wealth (meaning the value of their debts exceeds the value of their assets).” In general, white families hold 90% of the national wealth, according to The American Prospect.
This incredible wealth disparity can, in part, be explained by the generational wealth that white families often have more access to than Black families. Over the course of American history, Black Americans have been robbed time and again of their wealth, so their efforts to accumulate assets have often proved futile. For example, following the Civil War, the Freedman’s Savings Bank was created to “show [former slaves] how to rise in the world,” according to Frederick Douglass.
Former slaves began depositing money and attempting to amass wealth until the Panic of 1873 hit and the bank was shut down in 1874 due to mismanagement by Congress. According to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, 61,144 depositors were left with losses of nearly $3 million. Later in 1921, successful Black Americans were targeted once again during the Tulsa Race Massacre when a white mob destroyed one of the “most affluent African American communities in the United States,” according to History.com.
Beyond the generational wealth that often gives white families a head start, Black people are still limited in employment opportunities today. According to the Pew Research Center, the “Black unemployment rate is consistently twice that of whites” over the course of the past 60 years. Even when isolated solely to college graduates, the same trend remains: the unemployment rate of Black college graduates is more than twice the unemployment rate of all college graduates, according to the Atlantic.
This structural racism can also be seen in healthcare and specifically how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black people. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “in Chicago, Illinois, African American people account for more than half of those who have tested positive for coronavirus and 72% of virus-related fatalities, even though they make up a little less than a third of the population.” Similar trends can be seen around the country.
Black History Month should by all means involve celebrating the achievements and leaders of the past, but we should not ignore the fact that there is still progress to be made. All of us can play a role in ensuring that progress is achieved. Individuals can help in a multitude of ways, such as by volunteering, donating, protesting, calling and emailing elected leaders and signing petitions. Connecting with other activists and organizing can often make the work less intimidating.
Some groups to consider connecting with are the Black Youth Project, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. It is also important for white people to speak out when they are witnesses to racist talk or actions. Minister and civil rights leader Benjamin Mays once said, “the tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little.” It is incumbent upon all of us – not just Black people – to work toward achieving true racial justice and equality in our society.