Why Black History Month Is More Important Than Ever

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While it's important to celebrate Black culture and contributions, it's equally important to acknowledge how society still oppresses and discriminates against Black people.

To recognize and celebrate Black History Month is to feel the headiness of progress made and the somberness of oppression felt. After the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd ignited a global outcry against police-involved murders of Black people, America elected the first Black female vice president, Kamala Harris, and witnessed the swearing-in of the most ethnically diverse Congress to date. The Black Lives Matter movement was both slammed as an extremist sect and hailed as a catalyst for change, recently earning a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. As the pendulum swung between race wars and policy change, the pandemic painted yet another picture of racial disparity in the disproportionate number of Black fatalities.

“The past year has brought to light so many social, economic, and racial issues that have plagued society for far too long,” the NAACP wrote in a statement to Reader’s Digest. “Black History Month is a critical inflection point for us to call to remembrance our collective history and inform our present and future.” Social activist Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., agrees that this month marks a crucial crossroads. “I think we’re not in a moment,” she told Good Morning America on February 1. “We’re in a revolution, where we’re going to see massive change and transformation in our society.”

Past and present. Progression and regression. Black History Month is a hotbed of dualities. So, while February should be a time to salute Black excellence, it should also be a time to recognize the discrimination Black people continue to face and the work that needs to be done in order to achieve true equality. In fact, Black History Month should really last all year.

The racial wealth gap keeps growing

Whether in a good, pre-pandemic economy, or now, during the worst recession since the Great Depression, the racial wealth gap persists and is mostly fueled by the racial income gap, upon which the pandemic has poured gasoline. A Harvard University analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Pulse Study found that 53 percent of Black households suffered an income loss early on in the pandemic. And those who kept their jobs through the pandemic weren’t without strife. The Economic Policy Institute reported in 2018 that Black men were paid 69.70 cents on the White male dollar and Black women earned only 60.80 cents on the White male dollar.

To make matters even worse, the Institute’s 2018 State of Working America Wages report revealed that the wages of White workers have been growing at a much faster rate than those of Black workers since 2000. As a result, White households have, on average, nearly 6.5 times the wealth of Black households. Although slavery and redlining (“a practice that denies services to whole neighborhoods on the basis of race or ethnicity,” per Investopedia) can be labeled as the initial conditions that created wealth disparity, research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland asserts that income inequality is what continues to drive the racial wealth gap. Here are more statistics that show the undeniable reality of structural racism in America.

Racial inequality makes it hard for Black people to escape poverty

Black people face a poverty rate of 21.2 percent—more than twice the rate of White people—with 9 million Black people living in poverty in 2017. Neither the poverty rate nor the number of Black people living in poverty was different from the year prior. The Brookings Institute cites inequalities in education, workplace discrimination, and high incarceration rates as some of the reasons for Black poverty. When there are still policies that implicitly and explicitly discriminate against Black people, climbing the economic ladder is a tremendous feat.

portrait of a woman. black history month.FG Trade/Getty Images

Environmental racism and neglect endanger predominantly Black communities

It’s been almost seven years since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began. In 2014, the city’s water source was switched to the untreated Flint River, exposing Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead and Legionnaires’ disease, and locals are still suffering. While recent test results have shown lead levels in Flint’s water (4 parts per billion) are below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, it’s still recommended that residents use filters as pipes continue to be replaced. The Flint water crisis has left children with cognitive and behavioral development issues as a result of lead poisoning, and residents remain skeptical of government officials who previously manipulated test results.

Finally, there has been a reckoning. In August, residents won a $600 million class-action lawsuit, and in January, nine former Michigan officials, including former governor Rick Snyder, were slapped with criminal charges. But the fact that the crisis happened in a mostly Black city with about 40 percent living below the poverty line is a result of neglect and environmental racism.

Police brutality disproportionately affects Black Americans

A 2019 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that about 1 in 1,000 Black men and boys can expect to be killed as a result of police violence. That risk is about 2.5 times higher than for their White peers, while Black women are 1.4 times as likely to die at the hands of police as White women. While making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killings in 2012, and 39 percent of them were killed by police while not attacking.

When considering the American criminal justice system as a whole, the disparities in police enforcement become even starker: Black people are more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they’re not more likely to use or sell them. Plus, Black people make up 37.5 percent of the prison population—again, despite only making up around 13 percent of the nation’s population. Here’s more on what systemic racism actually means.

Pregnancy-related deaths keep rising for Black women

Maternal deaths have been on the rise in the United States since 1990, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently estimates that anywhere between 700 and 900 new and expectant mothers will die each year. Most of these deaths and near-death incidents are from preventable causes, and Black women are three to four times more likely than White women to die before, during, or after childbirth. The racial biases Black women experience while receiving care, as well as physicians not recognizing risk factors such as high blood pressure, are major contributors. Another common theme in many pregnancy-related deaths is that Black women are often ignored when expressing concerns to clinicians, who are more delayed in their responses and less likely to believe them than White women.

Black people are the most frequent victims of hate crimes

According to hate crime numbers released by the FBI in 2018, there were more than 4,000 race- or ethnicity-based hate crimes nationally in 2017. Of those reported cases, Black people were the victims in 49 percent of race-based hate crimes. It’s important to keep in mind that these statistics may not even account for all the hate crimes committed against Black people, considering an investigation by ProPublica reports that many police officers aren’t trained in recording hate crime information for the federal government and often don’t label hate crimes as such.

The recent surge in America’s hate crimes can be traced back to 2015, the same year Donald J. Trump announced he would be running for president. In fact, a 2019 Pew Research study found that 65 percent of Americans say it has “become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president.” People of color know this all too well—these are 20 everyday acts of racism that don’t get talked about enough.

portrait of a man. black history month.FG Trade/Getty Images

Hair discrimination is common in the workplace and higher education

Deandre Arnold, a Black student from Mont Belvieu, Texas, was suspended from Barbers Hill ISD for not cutting his dreadlocks, and the school board threatened to prevent him from walking in his school’s graduation ceremony. The district’s superintendent, Greg Poole, said that Arnold’s hair length violated the school’s dress code and that his decision had nothing to do with race. However, Black protective hairstyles (or hairstyles like locs and braids that maintain moisture and ward off damage from the elements) are directly tied to race, and there is both cultural and religious significance for not cutting dreadlocks.

This is just one of many instances that further prove the disproportionate impact that workplace and higher education grooming policies have on Black people. As a response, three states—California, New York, and New Jersey—have passed versions of “The Crown Act,” which make it illegal to discriminate against individuals who wear their hair in its natural form or in protective hairstyles. In case you were wondering, this is the root of society’s obsession with controlling Black hair.

The U.S. educational system is failing Black children

How can children be the future if the United States doesn’t provide equal opportunities for young Black people to succeed? While 87 percent of White students graduate from high school on time, just 73 percent of Black students do, and they’re less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. This points to a larger conversation around the quality of K–12 education Black students receive, along with its links to the lack of economic opportunity they face as adults. When only 6.8 percent of the poorest districts in the country have mean scores at or above the national average, clearly there is a problem.

What can you do?

Fighting racism and dismantling prejudices can be as simple as changing one’s mindset and daily habits. Here are a few ideas:

  • Recognize how you may benefit from racial privilege, and then use your privilege to help dismantle systemic racism.
  • Recognize the experiences of Black people by listening to us and engaging in conversations about race, reading literature that focuses on Black narratives, such a W.E.B. DuBois’ Striving of the Negro People, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Here are another 15 books that will help you better understand race relations in America.
  • Instead of thinking about Black people as one homogeneous group, think of us as individuals—which we are.
  • Call out racist “jokes” and statements, and challenge other people in your life to think critically about racism. Also, remove words like colorblind and post-racial from your vocabulary because these words actually perpetuate racism.
  • Expose yourself to different spaces in which you have the opportunity to interact with people of different races, whether that’s attending multicultural events at local colleges or going out to a Black-owned bar in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
  • Learn more about the rich history of Black culture.

In short, there’s a lot you can do—and there’s no time like the present to get started. Don’t miss these other small ways you can fight racism every day.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Trusted Media Brands. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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Amari D. Pollard
Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and previously worked as the Head of Audience Development at The Week. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health. In addition to Reader’s Digest she has been published at The Week, Bustle, PopSugar, Inside Lacrosse, and more. She has a B.A. in Communications from Le Moyne College.
Sheena Foster
Sheena Foster is an award-winning journalist who has written and reported for ABC and NBC News affiliates, The Tampa Tribune, The Island Packet, Essence, and, most recently, theGrio, where she covered the racial disparity in Silicon Valley. She's also a proud NYC native, foodie, and avid runner.