Race matters: Black History Month is needed

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Frank Lipscomb

While driving my brother Wendell back and forth to the hospital at least three times weekly for nearly eight weeks, I observed "people of color" working on construction sites, but none were African Americans. In today's world, a person of color could be anyone of non-European stock. Chicago City Hall keeps saying to the black communities that at least 30-40 percent of city-contracted construction workers are minorities.

Using the present terms "people of color" and "minority," not a single African American could end up working on projects around Chicago. This blurring of affirmative action may seem to be a good thing to meet legal guidelines of minority hiring, but in reality in Chicago and nationwide, this practice has allowed us to postpone addressing the legacy of our country's racist past and provides another example of why Black History Month is needed. Race matters. Every race should know its history.

African Americans, as a distinct ethnic variation in the African diaspora, were created by slavery. Millions of Africans wound up in America only because they were kidnapped to fill the needs of a slave economy. Around 80 percent of kidnapped Africans were abducted by Europeans and around 20 percent were sold into slavery by some African chiefs.

This process forged a new "people of color," who became American by necessity, and included 12 generations of chattel slavery. For over 250 years, American culture dehumanized those it enslaved and, more inconspicuously, socialized generations of African Americans for enslavement. America's economic reliance on slavery mandated a rigid and pitiless racial hierarchy.

A century of legal segregation and Jim Crow tactics that followed slavery's abolition (1865 with the 13th amendment) did little to end African Americans' social isolation or alter present cultured biases. A thorough examination of slavery history would help clarify how the past influences our present of African-American dissimilitude. 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.

A year after the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson zeroed in on affirmative action focus when he delivered his famous commencement speech at historically black Howard University that laid the foundation for a more pro-active approach to equalizing opportunities for African Americans. He said, "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, then say, you are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."

From 1965-1972, after years of blatant policies of discrimination, judges and agencies realized that the only way to effectively provide equal opportunity for blacks was to consider race when necessary to eliminate segregation and exclusion. In 1972 under President Nixon, affirmative action was amended. Since many Americans lacked a perspective informed by blacks' peculiar history, other groups had to be included to gain political support for the affirmative action law. Instead of a program that focused on the descendants of enslaved Africans, as originally designed, (it was not a program or policy geared towards discriminatory practice against whites) affirmative action now became a comprehensive attempt to offset discrimination against all "minorities," a term so misleading it includes even white women.

The original rationale for affirmative action, as stated earlier, was much narrower, and it was justified by African Americans' unique peculiar institution of slavery history.

Black History Month is an outgrowth of Negro History Week, established by Black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. At first he chose January because the 13th Amendment, freeing the African slaves, had been signed in January 1865. Woodson finally designed 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. It was part of the nation's bicentennial commemoration. The historical intent was to feature the racial aspects of American common history. Some blacks and mainly white critics argue that sanctioning a racially distinct observation moves Americans away from a common history. But common history has always excluded black Americans' true history. Most black Americans I have been around over the last 60 years feel the monthly observation has symbolic importance, even if it has little practical application. Other 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 trigger more concern for the accuracy of our traditional public school curricula. Knowledge of black history is essential to understanding our country's true character.

In fact, that 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. The State of New Jersey has also made the teaching of black history mandatory in all public schools.

All Americans should know from whence they came. I learned European history in high school whether I wanted to or not. Pass or fail the course.

Every race should know their history. Race matters.

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