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BY: Victor O. Okafor, Ph.D.
Victor O. Okafor, Ph.D., is the Professor & Head of the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University
What time is it? It’s February, 2018. And, so what? What’s important or special about it? Well, it’s time again for an annual national month-long observation in the United States popularly known as the Black History Month. This tradition dates back to the year 1926 when Dr. Carter G. Woodson, author of a classic monograph in African American historiography known as the Miseducation of the Negro (1933), initiated what he launched at the time as “the Negro History Week,” a week that subsequently evolved to become what we now annually observe as the Black History Month. Dr. Woodson initiated this project as a means of evoking national awareness of or calling national attention to a dimension of its socio-cultural evolution that either tended not to be deemed sufficiently worthy of intellectualization (particularly during the generation of the Woodsons of America) or one that certain segments of contemporary society would rather not want to study or remember. But the African American experience does represent a picture of American history itself—that is, American history viewed through the experiences and lenses of African descendants because those experiences affected and permeated the promulgation, implementation, evolution and modifications of constitutional enactments, legislative enactments, judicial interpretations of what the law is or is not, social mores, customs and traditions that run through the entire gamut of the nation state known as the United States.
Though all histories, across the globe, are reflections of both human triumphs and human tribulations, in the context of the United States, African American history is distinctive in terms of the length, depth and breadth of the tribulations and triumphs that characterize it, including 246 years of African enslavement in the United States and roughly 87 years of national, state and local-levels of institutionalized racial discrimination popularly known as the Jim Crow era—that began with the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 and continued well into the 20th century until a mass protest-induced enactment of a substantially effective modern Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stipulates against discrimination in education, housing, employment and voting. Of course, the principal Voting Rights Act of that era was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Note-worthy, of course, is that the end of the Civil War of 1861 to 1865, which terminated chattel slavery in the United States, was followed by a short, 12-year period of progress in race relations, which some historians tend to recall as the Great Reconstruction, 1865 to 1877—a period that witnessed such pillars of African American citizenship as the 13th Amendment of 1865, the 14th Amendment of 1868, and the 15th Amendment of 1870, along with a set of Civil Rights Acts though those Acts were to be subsequently nullified by a spate of racially regressive Supreme Court rulings. A high point of such regressive rulings was the Plessy V. Ferguson decision of 1896, by which the Supreme Court affirmed Jim Crow’s “Separate but Equal” social order. It took 58 years, 1896 to 1954, for the nation’s highest court to reverse its stand on Jim Crow—a social order that negatively impacted the lives and fortunes of millions of Americans of color—through its subsequent Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling of 1954 in which the apex court now came to a different interpretation of the same Constitution, this time that racial segregation in public education violated the 14th Amendment.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, by which principally the African American community, with the support of sympathetic whites and other American progressives, sought to push back on Jim Crow, was transformative, for, it produced significant and ameliorative legislative reforms, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act that, collectively, have positively transformed and uplifted black life to a measurable degree. Of course, there are continuing challenges, some of which are vestiges from the past and some of which are brand new, including a current disproportionate rate of black incarceration that is unprecedented in all of American history even though African Americans constitute only 13.6% or 42.1 million of the US national population of 308.8 million (United States Census Bureau, 2011). This disproportionate trend in black incarceration rates, as well as recurrent extra-judicial killings of unarmed black folk, have prompted nascent social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and protest-oriented kneeling postures of the Colin Kaepernicks of America during national anthems at N.F.L games.
One can’t escape a huge irony that lies in the fact that such negative social trends as the black disproportionality in the US prison populations and instances of extra-judicial killings of African American men, have occurred against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s emergence in 2008 as the first black president of the United States and his re-election victory in 2012.
In his book, Black Politics in Conservative America (2008), Professor Marcus Pohlmann aptly sums up landmark transformations and attendant contradictions in African American life to the present-day:
After more than two centuries, the institution of slavery was finally abolished by a civil war. Nonetheless, the legacies of slavery endured. Integration and equal justice met opposition at every turn, and it was nearly another century before even the legal foundations of this discrimination began to be dismantled . . . Decades of struggle for civil rights did, however, finally begin to succeed following World War II. This right to register and vote came to be enforced directly by the U.S. Department of Justice. Schools were forcibly desegregated. Housing discrimination was outlawed. And not only were employers barred from discrimination openly, but many were compelled to search for qualified black applicants when positions were available. Yet such legal gains have scarcely begun to eradicate centuries of racism and subsequent racial inequities. (p. 46).
Although racism and significant socioeconomic disparities endure between Blacks and Whites, as the preceding passage reflects rather succinctly, there are some bright spots and glimmers of hope, and, as mirrored in Pohlmann’s observations, the Civil Rights Movement’s reforms resulted in improved life chances for the generality of African Americans.
A key measure of wellbeing in any society is life expectancy at birth. Black life expectancy increased by 12.8% from 64.1 in 1970 to 75.1 years in 2010; the corresponding figures for Whites for the same period are 70.8 and 78.9 years. By 2015, white life expectancy was 79.0, contrasted with black life expectancy of 75.5 (National Center for Health Statistics, 2017, p. 44). Broken down by gender, noticeable gaps emerge in US life expectancy figures. Thus, by 2015, the black man in America still maintained the lowest life expectancy at birth of 72.2 years, followed by the white man (76.6 years), the black woman (78.5 years) and the white woman (81.3years) (National Center for Health Statistics, 2017, p. 44).
Another important measure of well-being is per capita income. Black per capita income showed a substantially significant increase of 154.2% from $7,221 in 1970 to $18,357 in 2011; the corresponding figures for Whites are $12,959 and $29,401 (United States Census Bureau, 2012).By 2016, the overall US per capita income was $31,128; for Whites, the per capita income was $34,154; and for African Americans, the figure was $21,452 (United States Census Bureau, 2016).
Poverty rate is another key social index. In 2016, the overall US poverty rate was 12.7%; for Whites, the poverty rate was 11.0%; and for African Americans, the poverty rate was 22.0% (DeNavas-Walt and Proctor, 2016, p. 13).
In the political arena, between 1970 and 2011, the combined number of black elected officials at the local, state, and national levels in the United States climbed sharply from 1,469 to 10,500—a positive change of more than six hundred and fourteen percent (National Roster, 2011), including the high point of it all: for the first time, the United States elected a black president (Barack Obama) in 2008 and re-elected him for a second term in 2012.
So, where do we go from here? Well, by this time next year, we shall embrace the 2019 edition of the Black History Month by taking a look back, and scanning the socio-economic and political environments in order to see what answers we may find to that question.