Black History Month: Do We Still Need It?

There's still a need for education about people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

It seems that when we enter the beginning of February of every year, the subject of Black History Month comes up and whether it has outlived its usefulness. And I’m sure the majority of you are assuming that it’s exclusively whites who ask that question. But it’s actually mixed between whites and blacks. It would appear that the generational divide between boomers and millennials has caused this to be an active discussion.

Questions come up: What’s the purpose of Black History Month? Are we just complying as a result of a law that was passed simply because it’s there without consideration to whether it’s needed today?

This issue came to life for me personally when my wife and I had a surprising conversation with a young black college student who recently attended the movie “Selma” with us. After the movie had ended, he shared that despite the American history he learned during middle school and high school, it merely skimmed the surface when it came to what actually took place in Selma during the 1960s.

He wasn’t aware of the extent of what it took to plan the events that led up to it, the team work Dr. King relied on, and more importantly how many people, both black and white, died supporting the Voting Rights cause on that bridge. We were fascinated that this 19-year-old student said his world had been expanded of this understanding and fascination with our history. Having access to this sort of detail helped him fully appreciate not only the struggle but also how it was an American challenge not just a black one.

Which brings me back to looking at the pros and cons of whether the Black History Month celebration is worth continuing. To help answer this, it’s important to at least begin with an explanation on how and why it started in the first place.

Carter G. Woodson — a prominent black historian, scholar and author of books such as “The Negro in Our History”— created Negro History Week in 1926. A staunch Republican, Woodson chose the second week of February to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He created that week because black American’s accomplishments were largely being left out of the educational curriculum during that time. Woodson never intended for black history to be about blacks only. He intended for this observance as a means to get around the institutional hatred of the era, and have the new information included in the teaching of American History. It was to be a tool to develop and cultivate new awareness.

In 1976, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Negro History Week and the bicentennial of the United States’ independence, Negro History Week was expanded to Black History Month and has been celebrated ever since.

So given this history, is Black History Month still necessary?

We’re in an interesting time where the information age and the generational divide has created a significant new and updated way people in general even define race. There are a fair number of young people who don’t self-identify (their primary way of defining themselves) as black, Hispanic or Asian, even if their country or racial/ethnic origin is just that.

So it complicates the picture when it’s time to discuss whether a specific month should be set aside to celebrate a specific group. There is a perception among many that we’ve arrived as a country, that history is balanced in our schools now, etc.

But have we? Let’s look at the facts.

When blacks and whites are compared, there continue to be some statistics that highlight significant inequality. The following is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Income Poverty and Health Insurance in the U.S. Report:

  • Typical black households accumulate less than one-tenth of the wealth of a typical white household.
  • Over the past 25 years, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has tripled.
  • The median income for black households is less than 60 percent than that of whites.
  • The jobless rate for blacks is twice the rate as the jobless rates for whites.
  • More than 1 in 4 blacks live in poverty, while fewer than 1 in 10 whites do.
  • Blacks are underrepresented in high-income fields (business, law, medicine) and over represented in lower income jobs. As a result, the overall income gap between blacks and whites has grown with whites’ median weekly pay at 22 percent higher than blacks.

The statistics would suggest that we’re far from parity between blacks and whites. With this being the case, some emphasis on what we can all do to address these disparities is vital. We are not there yet. There are many reasons why the plight of blacks has been swept under the rug. One reason I have witnessed is that, ironically, with the increase in the Hispanic and Asian populations, even within corporations, the plight of blacks specifically is becoming less and less of a concern because the representation numbers are being covered by other groups.

Celebrating and acknowledging the achievement of blacks and others that advance our country’s ability to build a just society is still needed. It’s important that we look at this as an American opportunity for us all to be active in the development of black talent. Positioning and building talent within the black community will be good not only for blacks, but also serve to strengthen our respective businesses and be good for the world.

So given this, happy Black History Month. Let it be a time of reflection and celebration.