Last week marked the beginning of Black History Month. This year, we have twenty-nine days during which we will celebrate the many contributions of African-Americans to our nation’s history. This is a month when we make heroes of people who overcame real, systemic and often legal oppression. We lift up, in President Obama’s official proclamation, “a story of resilience and perseverance” to inspire and educate the public about a part of this nation’s history that wasn’t told a generation ago.
But in all of the celebration of a selective highlight reel of history, too often we overlook the reality of our present and how far we have yet to go to realize a better future where we all have enough to thrive—not just survive.
In his last book, Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him.” I don’t think Black History Month is what he had in mind.
He was probably taking a cold, hard look at our nation’s history and thinking of the terrible oppression and injustice that black people endured—first under slavery, and then under legally sanctioned segregation in the South and informal segregation everywhere else. The sad fact is that the vast majority of our nation’s history (from the Declaration of Independence right up until the legislative victories of the civil rights movement) constitutes that “something special against the Negro” that King mentioned. That long history of discrimination has a direct impact on the black community today.
The recent, smaller share of our history, that’s about breaking down legal barriers to opportunity and extending civil rights, starts with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. And the progress made in the last four decades has been limited by the fact that over the same period of time major economic changes have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and out of reach of most black people.
According to the State of Working America, in the forty-year period that preceded the civil rights reforms of the mid-1960s, the bottom 90 percent of Americans shared 73 percent of the income growth in the United States. Black Americans, who were suffering severe legal discrimination and a marginal economic existence, shared in barely any of these gains. But for the generation that came after the reforms of the sixties—once blacks at least had legal protections—the economic situation was the reverse, with the top 10 percent of Americans getting 76 percent of the income growth.
In short, timing matters. It’s an unlucky accident for African-Americans that the range of government policies and programs that created the middle class largely excluded them. For instance, the GI Bill that provided returning World War II veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages didn’t work for the many black veterans who were discriminated against by colleges and banks. The rungs on the ladder that are supposed to lift people out of poverty were broken for blacks in the first half of the 1900s. Then, after the reforms of the 1960s, once the beneficiaries of economic development and anti-poverty efforts were known to be black, support—both in terms of public opinion and government funding—for those programs declined.
This economic history deserves much more focus during Black History Month, especially given how dire the present situation is for the black community: More than a quarter of blacks are living under the poverty line, and the bursting of the housing bubble has decimated what little wealth blacks had gained. Given the economic realities and the corrosive racism of today’s politics—as when Newt Gingrich referred to the first black president as the “food stamp president”—it’s not enough to just lift up a handful of black celebrities and movement heroes whose activism and radical imaginations have been watered down anyway. Instead, Black History Month should be a time when we recommit to advancing real solutions to black poverty and speaking truthfully about the economic history that led to the racial inequality we see today.