While reading an interesting story in the New York Observer about the overwhelming whiteness of the magazine industry, I noticed the prevalence of the phrase “people of color.” This term has become ubiquitous among progressives as an inclusive nomenclature for non-white people. Ironically, it’s a variation of the now discredited term “colored people,” once used to identify African Americans.
These days, of course, a person of color could be anyone of non-European stock. Were magazines inspired to take affirmative action and employ more people of color, they could end up with not a single African American on staff.
On one level, this blurring of affirmative action categories may seem to be a good thing – a merging of difference. But in real world America, this practice has allowed us to postpone addressing the lengthening legacy of our racist past and provides another example of why Black History Month still matters.
African Americans, as a distinct ethnic variation in the African diaspora, were created by slavery. Millions of Africans wound up in America only because they were kidnapped to fill the needs of a slave economy. This process forged a new people, who became American by necessity, and included 12 generations of chattel slavery. For nearly 250 years, American culture dehumanized those it enslaved and, more insidiously, socialized generations of African Americans for enslavement. The nation’s economic reliance on slavery mandated a rigid and pitiless racial hierarchy.
The century of official Jim Crow segregation that followed slavery’s abolition did little to end African Americans’ social isolation or alter reigning cultural biases. Because of this unrelenting social hostility, the hyphen that connects African to American connotes dueling as well as dual identities. Slavery’s damaging legacy includes the social implications of that internal duel.
A thorough examination of this history would help clarify how the past influences our present of African-American disparity. Affirmative action is a compensatory program designed to begin that process. By blurring people of color into one mass, those complicated historical distinctions get lost.
President Lyndon Johnson zeroed in on the program’s focus in a famous 1965 speech at Howard University. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” Johnson made this speech urging affirmative action a year after passage of the Civil Rights Bill had done little to weaken resistance to equal employment.
But since many Americans lacked a perspective informed by blacks’ peculiar history, other groups had to be included to gain political support for affirmative action. Instead of a program focused on the descendants of enslaved Africans, as originally designed, affirmative action became a comprehensive attempt to offset discrimination against all “minorities” – a term so fuzzy, it includes even white women.
Any program seeking broad remedies for unfair biases is worthy, but the original rationale for affirmative action was much narrower and justified by African Americans’ unique history. Black History Month is an outgrowth of Negro History Week, established by black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. He designated the second week in February to mark the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The week was expanded to a month in 1976, as part of the nation’s Bicentennial commemoration. The intent was to feature the racial aspects of our common history.
Some critics argue that sanctioning a racially distinct observation moves Americans away from a common history. African-American actor Morgan Freeman expressed this sentiment in a recent interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” when he said it was “ridiculous” to have a month dedicated to black history. “I don’t want a black history month,” he said. Freeman’s objection is common, although not often expressed by African Americans – at least not publicly. I have no hard poll numbers, but I suspect most black Americans feel the monthly observation has symbolic importance, even if it has little practical application.
Some critics contend Black History Month is irrelevant because it has degenerated into a shallow ritual. But that problem is one of execution not design. If treated seriously, the monthly observation could conceivably trigger more concern for the accuracy of traditional school curricula.
In fact, that already has happened in Philadelphia where, starting this September, public school students will be required to pass a course in African-American history before they can graduate. Knowledge of that formative history is so essential to understanding the nation’s character, we should utilize all public institutions to ensure all Americans know from whence they came.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.