As we begin Black History month, it is increasingly clear that teaching about America’s longstanding mistreatment of blacks has not fostered majority political support for racial justice. The long history of America’s denial of voting rights to blacks did not stop the overt suppression of black voting rights in Florida in 2000, or in Ohio in 2004. Nor did our nation’s 200 year denial of any legal rights to Southern Blacks improve the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The sad truth is that most white voters are unswayed by the facts of Black History, and since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act have repeatedly elected governments firmly controlled by those whose political predecessors unleashed attack dogs against Martin Luther King, Jr. While Black History has inspired many people of all races to battle racial injustice, America’s white majority remains unswayed.
February is Black History Month, whose onset has again provoked debate over whether black history should be singled-out for study only one month a year. But the real problem with Black History Month is that it mistakenly assumes that its teaching will boost support for racial justice; unfortunately, the reverse may be true.
For example, yesterday on the floor of the United States Senate we heard a succession of Southerners denounce the attempted filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Alioto as “undemocratic.” These comments were made despite the Senators knowing full well of the filibuster’s historic role of preventing any civil rights legislation from reaching the Senate floor for decades.
The lack of democracy has never been a problem when applied to deny rights to African-Americans.
Our history books tell us that the chief strategist behind the anti-civil rights filibusters was Georgia Senator Richard Russell. Russell’s lifetime war to preserve colored drinking fountains, deny voting to blacks, and to subject millions of African-Americans to rule by violence and intimidation, is a matter of historical record—-and this record led him to be rewarded with the naming of a Senate Office Building after him.
If teaching Black History impacted whites, Russell would never have even been considered for such an honor.
In California, the State Legislature passed historic legislation in 1963 that prevented owners of housing from discriminating against blacks in the sale or renting of property. Real estate groups put the legislation up for a referendum on the November 1964 ballot.
Although this election occurred after millions of Californians saw civil rights activists under attack in Mississippi, and after popular President Lyndon Johnson spoke powerfully of the importance of the 1964 civil rights law, the anti-fair housing referendum—Prop 14—passed with 65% of the vote.
In other words, at a time when the constitutional violations against African-Americans were being publicized daily on television and in newspapers, California’s electorate was so little impacted that they voted overwhelmingly for the right to practice housing discrimination (the referendum was ruled unconstitutional in the pre-Burger and Rehnquist Supreme Court).
Also in 1964, the Democratic presidential primary in Maryland saw Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace get 40% of the vote against a popular sitting President. This was a Democratic primary in a non-southern state, clearly showing that the white “backlash” against blacks gaining legal rights preceded the riots and tumult that followed in succeeding years.
For most white Americans, Black History is found in the recently released film, Glory Road. The movie tells the story of a white coach who started five blacks at Texas Western in winning the college basketball championship game against Kentucky in 1966.
Left unspoken in this film, and other sports movies like Remember the Titans where racial integration and tolerance are glorified, is how few blacks that are non-athletes attend the schools whose sports teams are dominated by African-Americans. While Black History teaches whites that black football coaches are acceptable, there are currently only four black head coaches for the 400 NCAA Division 1 major college football programs.
William Rhenquist became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court after being hired by Republicans to intimidate minority voters by asking for their identification at the polls. His racist history boosted, rather than hurt, his career.
If whites were impacted by what they learned about Black History, then the whites that rallied for segregation, and violently attacked Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King, Jr., would not firmly control the federal government. And America would never haveelected as President a candidate (Ronald Reagan) who kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three student civil rights activists were murdered on the first day of Freedom Summer in 1964.
Reagan was not trying to hide white people’s pride in the celebrated murder of these activists—he was mobilizing his base by extolling it.
It may be that teaching Black History incites some whites today to feel the need to stand up for their overtly racist predecessors. How else to explain the massive voter turnout in Georgia in 2002 to save the state’s Confederate flag, and that state’s recent enactment of a poll tax to continue the state’s sordid history of denying blacks’ voting rights.
Black History did not cause Florida Republicans to hesitate throwing out hundreds of thousands of black votes in the 2000 election. State officials denied voting rights to black Floridians at gunpoint in 1920, so the “history” learned was how to fulfill this agenda more subtly in the modern era.
Black History has taught that whites in Louisiana regained unlimited power over blacks following the 1876 election, and that racism was pervasive in the state for much of the next century. Yet the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina is widely seen as a continuation, rather than a reversal, of this racist legacy.
Federal prison sentences for crack cocaine are ten times longer than those for regular cocaine. This is a great fact for Black History month, as it shows the continuity in American history toward figuring out new strategies for imprisoning African-Americans. President Bill Clinton knew this history, and still refused to alter the sentencing law.
This list could go on and on.
Black History month helps African-Americans and other racial minorities understand what “freedom and opportunity” really means in America, but despite years of teaching Black History most whites still support the candidates least committed to helping African-Americans.
For most whites, the success of Michael Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama shows that racism only exists in Black History courses. We can develop all the lesson plans we want for Black History, but when it comes to addressing racial injustice, voting results show that most whites are not interested.
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