By Jonathan Parent
As most of us know, February is Black History Month, a time when the country reflects on the achievements of African Americans and celebrates their contributions to our society. We often focus on the most famous civil rights leaders from the antebellum era to the struggles of the 1960s.
People like Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. are recognized for the progress they helped bring about and the sacrifices they made for racial equality. And rightfully so.
What is less often discussed, however, are the very real problems that continue to plague millions of our most vulnerable citizens and which are inextricably linked to the racial history of our past.
I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by a student group at the university at which I taught last semester to listen to and ask questions of two of the country’s leading race theorists. The topic was African American identity in the age of Obama and I certainly came away with some interesting insight and many more questions than when I had arrived.
Now, with the White House having been occupied by an African American for three years, and another election looming in November, we may have something approaching a true opportunity to assess what this historic event means for the country.
After the 2008 election I, like many Americans, felt as though something extremely profound had happened. The first African American president had been elected, something millions of people for centuries had been convinced would never occur.
Surely this was the dawn of a new, color-blind era where access to the most powerful position in the world was truly open to anyone. Finally, the color line, the “problem of the twentieth century,” as W.E.B. DuBois had put it, had been overcome.
And we were certainly quick to congratulate ourselves on this achievement. America could no longer be considered a racist country, the home of slavery, Jim Crow, and race riots.
If a black man could become president, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the country’s top representative abroad, then how could anyone possibly claim that the shames of the past, reprehensible as they may have been, were not just that, a thing of the past? The question of the night at the aforementioned discussion, though, was what Obama’s election really meant for African Americans specifically, and race relations generally. The answer, it would seem, is not nearly as simple as those who would like to forget the less-than-noble aspects of American history would have us believe.
Yes, every black mother and father can now tell their children that they can achieve anything they set their mind to and point to the president.
But anecdotal evidence rarely stands up to the often much colder reality of numbers and statistics. As of 2008, the year Obama won the election, 40.2 percent of inmates in federal and state prisons were black, while African Americans make up only 13 percent of the total population. That’s 846,000 men, more than were slaves in 1850. Perhaps worse than this, in that same year, only 61 percent of black high school students were graduating, compared to over 80 percent of whites.
So was Obama’s election a victory for the state of race relations in America? It would seem that the jury is still out. While a case can be made that the first black president is at least a step in the right direction since some real power is finally in the hands of someone other than a white male.
But the other side of this coin is that having an African American in the White House makes it that much easier to ignore the staggering inequalities that persist and which can be directly traced to the way in which America was built in the first place.
Rather than patting ourselves on the back for finally solving DuBois’s race problem, perhaps we ought to take the opportunity Obama’s election provided us to have a meaningful and adult conversation about race in America; a topic far too rarely addressed in the national discourse. And what better time than now, during the month we set aside to celebrate Black history?