Editorials

There’s one problem with Black History Month

A tender moment from Tacoma’s black history: After the crowds thinned following her first State of the City address last year, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards was greeted by Harold Moss, her longtime friend, mentor and father figure. Moss was the city’s first black mayor and City Council member.
A tender moment from Tacoma’s black history: After the crowds thinned following her first State of the City address last year, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards was greeted by Harold Moss, her longtime friend, mentor and father figure. Moss was the city’s first black mayor and City Council member. News Tribune file photo, 2018

You may never have heard of Carter G. Woodson, and that’s a shame. Woodson, born to former slaves in 1875, is known as the “Father of Black History.”

In 1926, the Harvard-educated historian proposed “Negro History Week,” because, as he wrote: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”

Thanks to Woodson, African-American leaders and contributors are now more widely regarded as people to celebrate, and black history became a legitimate area of scholarship.

But we have a problem with Black History Month. It’s not long enough. Not even during a leap year (which this year is not). Until racial inequity is no longer an issue, every month should be Black History Month.

Here in the South Sound, signs of racialized inequities are found in income and wealth, education, home ownership, employment and wages.

Closing the wealth divide is why the Tacoma Urban League, together with the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, NAACP, United Way of Pierce County, Hilltop Gardens and Sound Outreach, recently opened the Black Empowerment Center.

While not a physical space, the community-led center will begin rolling out the first of three phases in March. Stabilization, cultural reinforcement and asset development are the end goals of the African American Financial Capability (AAFC) Initiative. And they’re needed.

Because of redlining maps, a discriminatory practice commissioned by the federal government, generations of Pierce County families have been deprived the legacy of home ownership. According to the Economic Policy Institute, only 40 percent of black families own their home, a number unchanged since the 1960s.

Home equity, or lack thereof, is why the wealth of the median black family hovers at $17,000, while that of the median white family is $171,000 in current dollars.

Yes, strides have been made and gaps have closed; if you watched the Oscars Sunday night, or you’ve peeked inside the Tacoma Mayor’s office anytime in the last nine years, then you’ve caught glimpses of this. But there are miles to go before we can call ourselves a post-racial society. Until then, we have to keep talking about the consequences of systemic discrimination and oppression.

If talking about race makes you uncomfortable, Ijeoma Oluo, the Seattle-based writer, would probably say, “Good.” Oluo is the author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” a primer on how conversations can lead to positive actions and lasting policy changes.

As a capstone to Black History Month, the City of Tacoma and the University of Puget Sound have invited Oluo to speak Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. The free event takes place in the UPS Rotunda and is open to the community.

Oluo once wrote, “Every single aspect of our culture is filled with racial bias. Our books, our movies, our music, our schools, our government. There is no way anybody gets to be an adult without absorbing a healthy dose of that, no matter our intentions.”

Unfortunately, the numbers back her up. A 2018 Associated Press analysis of government data found black workers are chronically underrepresented in high-salary jobs in technology, business, life sciences, architecture and engineering. Stark contrasts also exist in health care, life expectancy, infant mortality and incarceration.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education reported “chronic and racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extra-curricular activities.” The percentage of black students in both the Ivy League and public colleges, including the University of Washington, is stuck in the single digits.

Four hundred years ago, Africans were kidnapped, chained, raped, murdered and enslaved, and all those crimes were sanctioned by the U.S. government. We study this genesis not because we want to marinate in guilt or shame but because echoes of discrimination continue to this day.

Black History Month may be over soon, but racism is not.

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