I am skipping celebrating Black History Month this year. It is not out of disrespect for what the month stands for. It is not because the people who have sacrificed so much — from the arrival of the first ships from Africa in 1619 to those marching for Black Lives Matter — do not deserve honor and respect.
I am skipping celebrating Black History Month because I do not feel celebratory as too many African Americans are not truly free and the crisis seems to remain unnoticed. That is, until a police officer kills another unarmed African American, which provides a fleeting discussion around solutions.
Is this any reason to celebrate? According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
Five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months). But the dire statistics are not limited to mass incarceration. Per a 2015 study highlighted by Forbes, the average African American household has just 6 percent of the wealth of a white household. The median African American household wealth, minus cars and other depreciating assets, is worth just $1,700.
Yawn, yawn, blah, blah. There is nothing new in these statistics. They should provide a shock strong enough to create a sustained national dialogue around how so many Americans can live as second-class citizens.
But that does not happen.
Instead, our children will recite MLK speeches, give recounts of Rosa Parks’ bravery and be told stories of Jackie Robinson’s heroism; however, they will not be reminded of the most dangerous societal factors that led to the need for their sacrifice in the first place. Apathy and indifference among the masses was far more dangerous than the hatred and intolerance of a few.
Meanwhile, we as adults will be bombarded with the public relations messages from an entertainment industry that feeds off of negative stereotypes of African Americans (just check out Empire or a majority of rap music videos); from the professional sports leagues that fail to have proportionate minority representation in coaching and front offices; and from corporate America that is hopelessly derelict in finding African-American executives and CEOs.
We teach history to ensure it does not repeat itself. Perhaps we need to go deeper than the token public service announcements and celebrity testimonials that the public does not get. Too many African-American communities are in crisis.
We know the so-called “War on Drugs” by Richard Nixon was part of a systematic plan to harm African American communities. The systematic perpetuation of African Americans as criminals or animals is a pattern in American politics and society. Consider efforts like the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 election and the mass incarceration policies under President Clinton in the ’90s. Even with all of this knowledge, we elected a President who touted “law and order” as the way to solve inner-city crime and violence, as if unleashing the National Guard on American citizens is an innovative solution to an incredibly complex problem rooted in the legacy of systematic racism.
Note that this is not Democrat or Republican, South or North problem. For every Richard Nixon, there is a Bill Clinton. In fact, the first African-American president chose a Chief of Staff who would later attempt to cover up the police shooting of Laquan MacDonald. That same President shied away from publicly admonishing his former political ally, probably in the name of party allegiance.
All of these things happened with limited outrage in mainstream America — save a few shots of Black Lives Matter protests that faded in the wind of “more important news.”
The fact that so many Americans know so little (or care so little) that they believe more policing and more force is evidence that the public just is not engaged. Unfortunately, ignorance and apathy continue to repeat themselves.
Maybe the customary television ads, professional athlete testimonials and MLK dinners are not enough. Maybe we need to get away from the things that make us feel good — the things that numb us into inaction — and rethink the celebrations so we can have a real and effective national dialogue.