Share this article

print logo

Black history needs more than 1 month

After eight decades celebrating black history, we've gotten about as much mileage as we can out of George Washington Carver and the peanut.

Applauding the accomplishments of individual blacks every February was a necessary antidote to the virus of racist stereotypes. But it also has become a comforting diversion from the more challenging issue: systemic advantage and disadvantage today.

When historian Carter G. Woodson, creator of what would become Black History Month, wrote his classic "The Miseducation of the Negro" in 1933, he told only half the story. The other half is the miseducation of most Americans about structural inequality.

That's why affirmative action's critics can object that present-day whites had nothing to do with slavery, which is true enough. But it's as if they contracted the form of amnesia in which we remember the distant past -- and discount it because it's so distant -- yet blank out on more recent events.

If we want to understand, for instance, why blacks in Buffalo face double the poverty rate, a 60 percent higher unemployment rate and 31 percent less household income than whites, we don't have to look back 150 years. We just have to look at the recent history of blacks and whites, realize they are two sides of the same coin, and augment the usual Black History Month reading list with two additions.

The first would be "When Affirmative Action Was White." The 2005 book by Ira Katznelson, Columbia University history and political science professor, is chock-full of examples of how whites in the New Deal generation -- many of today's elderly -- were given a leg up.

Katznelson notes, for instance, that Social Security originally excluded domestic and farm workers -- thereby barring two-thirds of black workers. Labor laws did the same.

And the post-war GI Bill -- which created the middle class by making home ownership, college and business start-ups available to millions -- was aimed "almost exclusively" at whites because, Katznelson points out, it allowed localities to "accommodate Jim Crow."

"With these policies, the Gordian knot binding race to class tightened," he wrote.

One visible result is the post-war accumulation of home equity and wealth among whites, while blacks pay what former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk calls the "segregation tax." His 2001 Brookings Institution study found that, after equalizing for income, Buffalo's black homeowners receive 24 percent less value for their homes than whites, making this among the worst of 100 areas studied.

Against such a backdrop, it's no wonder Brandeis University's Thomas Shapiro called his 2004 book "The Hidden Cost of Being African American." Though written before Katznelson's, it's the perfect follow-up because his in-depth interviews with nearly 200 families illustrate the dynamics of racial advantage over time.

Shapiro's white families typically described themselves as "self-made." Only when he probed deeper would the whole story come out: Junior's private school tuition was a gift from Aunt Tillie. Money to start the business came from Gramma. And the down payment for the suburban home was courtesy of Uncle Fred's will.

When pressed, one family totaled nearly $60,000 worth of such help -- help young black families at the same income level never got.

Why not? Because policies like those described by Katznelson prevented today's black grandparents, aunts and uncles from accumulating that kind of wealth to pass down.

If we want a month to celebrate black achievement in the face of all those odds, I suppose February will do. But we also need a period to discuss the more fundamental issue raised by Katznelson and Shapiro: how we got to today's two-tiered society.

The other 11 months would be nice.


There are no comments - be the first to comment