Black History Month still relevant

Matthew Holliday

Just as much as February 1 marked the beginning of Black History Month, it marked the beginning of the annual debate over whether Black History Month is still relevant in today’s America.

Matthew Holiday
Matthew Holiday

This debate manifests itself as everything from op-eds in prominent newspapers and magazines to the small conversations we have among friends, family and fellow students.

Objections to Black History Month are generally some permutation of the argument that racism is so greatly diminished a force in American life that we no longer need a special month to “compensate” for it.

These objections not only underestimate the severity of the damage caused by the unique ways in which the black community was historically oppressed in the United States, but more importantly they ignore the practical potential Black History Month has for enhancing political discourse and for lifting the burden of persistent stereotypes off the backs of America’s black youth.

These two pragmatic considerations, improving sociopolitical discourse and eliminating stereotypes, should form the basis of an improved Black History Month tradition.

In order to see how a critical examination of black history can be of immediate benefit to the country, it is worth considering the effects of segregation.

Segregation is hardly a phenomenon consigned to a bygone era or a single region. Nor are the causes of segregation limited to the long-discarded mandates of Jim Crow; it is also a product of economic forces.

I regularly find that my peers are surprised to discover that the most segregated cities in modern America are those of the industrial northern Midwest. A recent study published by Brown University and Florida State sociologists found that Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland are, respectively, America’s first, third, fourth and fifth most segregated cities.

The state funding decreases that have affected every university and local government (whose funding is tied to state outlays by the Headlee Amendment) in Michigan are closely related to the economic misfortunes of Metro Detroit.

A legacy of racially-tinged politics resulting from segregation, as exemplified by Detroit’s current wrangling over the sale of Belle Isle, has precluded the type of inter-governmental cooperation that might have mitigated the economic effects of the auto industry’s decline.

Black History Month affords us an opportunity to reflect on these historical consequences so  we can take steps toward resolving current problems.

The second practical reason to preserve Black History Month relates to what psychologists call “stereotype threat”; the negative impact that perceived inferiority can have on real performance. This effect has been documented in a number studies that have seen stereotype-driven performance drops in everything from mathematics tests to athletics. Stereotypes are part of an ensemble of complex of causes that have lowered black participation in many rewarding and lucrative fields. Even in the age of Obama, blacks represent a paltry 1.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, six percent of physicians and two percent of all science, technology, engineering and mathematics Ph.Ds.

Black History Month should be a time to introduce more black role models who have broken out of the self-reinforcing stereotype trap. For instance, I suspect there would be more black students in my computer science and mathematics courses if I lived in a world in which black engineer Jerry Lawson’s invention of the video game cartridge was as much a part of America’s techlore as Steve Wozniak’s development of Apple I.

Black History Month’s reputation as a redundant ritual is not entirely due to misperceptions on the part of its detractors; educators and other sponsoring organizations share much of the blame.

It’s far too common for Black History Month related activities to end with only a cursory analysis of black history, often focusing entirely on already familiar events and characters (slavery, the civil rights movement and the obligatory, yawn-inducing reminder of George Washington Carver’s peanut butter).

Other important contemporary topics like the recent black diaspora to the U.S. from Africa and the Caribbean tend to be neglected. Inspiring figures like mathematician David Blackwell are left out of the discussion.

Despite shortcomings in educators’ current efforts, Black History Month’s potential to improve public discourse and extirpate destructive stereotypes is significant and worth fulfilling. Americans of all ethnicities stand to be enriched by a Black History Month tradition as diverse, vibrant and dynamic as the black community itself.