What Good Is Black History Month?

obama tuskegee airmen

President Obama honoring the Tuskegee Airmen (White House photo: Pete Souza)

I was going to let Black History Month pass without contributing an article this year. Nothing worth writing came to mind, but then I got a call from Sandra Moura, the LGBT Liaison for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Officer Moura was sending a press release for the LAPD’s upcoming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Community Police Academy that starts this April. She wanted to share additional information about the academy and asked that the LA Progressive publicize the event. We also talked a little about the police department being more welcoming to members of the LGBT community and about the announcement that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared June LGBT Heritage Month in the City of Los Angeles.

This got me thinking about Black History Month – a month of remembrance that I experience with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoy all of the PBS specials and other documentaries that get aired during the month. But on the other hand, I have this gnawing sense that with the exception of official national holidays, the only time our nation honors people with a special day or month is when they are members of an exploited group.

I’m sure I’ll get some feedback on this. If so, fine. But Secretaries’ Day comes to mind. I always felt that Hallmark, FTD, and restaurants were the biggest beneficiaries of that day – not secretaries. Every secretary I’ve ever known would prefer to receive financial compensation commensurate with their duties and responsibilities. Instead, they get poor pay, an annual bouquet of flowers, a free lunch, and a card. Not dissimilar to the way America handles Blacks. Instead of addressing the racial disparities in employment, healthcare, housing, prison, etc. Blacks get a month of documentaries on PBS — feels a lot like Secretaries’ Day to me.

I asked Officer Moura what kind of impact she felt the official designation of LGBT Heritage Month might have on the community. She was very optimistic. I didn’t want to dampen her outlook so I changed the subject.

Black History Month, described by Wikipedia as “an annual observance for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora” was established in 1926 by the son of a slave – Carter G. Woodson – who wanted to educate all people about the contributions black men and women have made throughout history. I suppose this is a noble endeavor, but I don’t get the sense that all people are being educated. In my mind, it’s doubtful the country thinks twice about Black History Month except maybe to ask, “who are they to get a month?”

When this time of the year rolls around, besides the PBS specials honoring African-American icons and others who sacrificed for a better future for Blacks, there are a smathering of obligatory programs at educational institutions and even at some workplaces like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where I was employed for more than 20 years. Annually, JPL  put on a big program with guest speakers and entertainment for the employees. All of this would be great if this produced the results Carter G. Woodson spent his life trying to achieve or if it had even a minimal impact on the racial disparities in employment and other major indices that continue to exist in the United States particularly at large institutions like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Carter G. Woodson passed away before the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. He, undoubtedly, would have been thrilled with the outcome of that case, but how would he assess the progress or lack of it since 1954 – the year Brown v. Board was decided? In all major indices used to determine social and economic wellness, Blacks consistently come out on the bottom in the United States. Unemployment, incarceration, healthcare, education, foreclosure rates, infancy mortality, success in business and even in the entertainment industry — we’re always at the bottom. In fact, public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954.

Recently, Freakonomics — an online site that uncovers the hidden side of lots of things –reported on a research project conducted by a pair of economists seeking to determine if race impacts the sale of products online. The economists placed hundreds of ads selling iPods in local online markets. The picture in each ad simply showed someone’s hand holding an iPod. The model’s body was not shown. The researchers randomly altered whether the hand holding the iPod was black, white, or white with a big tattoo. Here is what they found:

Black sellers do worse than white sellers on a variety of market outcome measures: they receive 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers. These effects are strongest in the Northeast, and are similar in magnitude to those associated with the display of a wrist tattoo. Conditional on receiving at least one offer, black sellers also receive 2-4% lower offers, despite the self selected-and presumably less biased-pool of buyers. In addition, buyers corresponding with black sellers exhibit lower trust: they are 17% less likely to include their name in e-mails, 44% less likely to accept delivery by mail, and 56% more likely to express concern about making a long-distance payment. We find evidence that black sellers suffer particularly poor outcomes in thin markets; it appears that discrimination may not “survive” in the presence of significant competition among buyers. Furthermore, black sellers do worst in the most racially isolated markets and markets with high property crime rates, suggesting a role for statistical discrimination in explaining the disparity.

In 2012, Red Tails, a major motion picture about the Tuskegee Airman, was released around Black History Month. In making the film, legendary executive producer George Lucas confronted so much adversity that he eventually had to spend his own money to get the movie made. Speaking frankly about the opposition he confronted, Lucas told Jon Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and others, that he spent $58 million of his own money to fund the project after being denied financial support by major movie studios due to the film’s all-black cast. Speaking of the responses he got from the studios when trying to get the project funded, Lucas said, “There’s no major white roles in it at all…I showed it to all of them and they said ‘No”.

In the 86 years since Carter G. Woodson founded what has come to be known as Black History Month, there have been some gains but not as many one would expect if one were to believe the rhetoric espoused by those who claim we live in a post-racial era.

For those who would ask, “why do they get a month?”, I’d respond that I don’t know that having a month has done much for me (in case you didn’t know it – I’m Black). Of course, I’ll never know but I just wonder, if we’d focus on integrating American History into all school rooms so that all people who made this country great were fully acknowledged for their contributions. Or if we didn’t leave the burden of correcting the wrongs to the people who were wronged.

The injustice of racism didn’t originate with the people who currently live in America and it isn’t just a Black problem or a Latino problem or a people of color problem. It is an American problem that has negative implications for all Americans.  It is part of the legacy we all inherited when we came into this society.

In his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, author and professor Allan G. Johnson asserts that we cannot solve the problem of racism or sexism or any of the other isms unless people who have privilege feel obligated to make the problem of privilege their problem and take steps to do something about it.

sharon kyleSpeaking of racism, Johnson who is white  goes on to say, “It means I have to do something to create the possibility for my African American friend and me to have a conversation about race, gender and us, rather than leave it to her to take all the risks and do all the work. The fact that it’s so easy for me and other people in dominant groups not to do this is the single most powerful barrier to change.”

86 years ago when Carter G. Woodson established Black History month, he was living in the Jim Crow South. Today there is the New Jim Crow and an internet where I’m having a heck of a time selling my iPod. I guess it’s like Malcolm X once said, “Racism is like a Cadillac, they come out with a new model every year”.

So, to Officer Moura, the LAPD LGBT liaison, all I can say is good luck. But — in all sincerity — I hope the establishment of an LGBT Heritage Month results in more benefits than has Black History month.

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, LA Progressive

Published by the LA Progressive on March 1, 2012
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the BlackCommentator.com. Photo courtesy Wadeva Images. www.wadevaimages.com