Black History Month is More Than Just About History

MLK Black History month

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by: Jonathan Greenblatt

February 19, 2019

Every year, when the FBI publishes data on hate crimes, the numbers show that more African Americans are targeted than any other group.  When surveys are taken of hate online, African Americans are often among the most common and prominent victims.  Whether the issue is voting rights, criminal justice or housing discrimination – whether the focus is explicit bias or implicit bias – the data doesn’t lie. We have a long way to go to secure justice and fair treatment for African Americans.

Desmond Tutu famously said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”  While Black History Month should be a time to focus more on the achievements of African Americans, the richness of their culture, and their triumphs over adversity, it is imperative that Americans of every faith, creed and color use this occasion to remind ourselves that when we think about the history of African Americans, it is also a history of fighting injustice. That fight is ongoing, implicates all of us, and should be engaged in by all Americans. 

I will not pretend to understand what it means to live as an African American in this country.  I know many feel incalculable pain, traumas passed from generation to generation and a very real fear of physical violence:  a cross burned on an African American family’s lawn, a noose hung on a tree in front of an African American student’s dorm, a photo surfaces of someone in blackface.  I listen when African Americans talk about the risks of simply walking down a residential street or driving on a local highway.  I am horrified when I hear story after story after story about African American students, both male and female, being severely disciplined and even sent to jail for minor disciplinary infractions in schools. And I recognize the need to leverage my own privilege to join in the fight to secure justice, equity and economic parity for our African American brothers and sisters. Every incident, every racist slur and every act of violence against African Americans warrants condemnation and a need to work together to fight for justice, because their mistreatment is an affront to all of our humanity.

In ADL’s education work, we talk about the pyramid of hate.  It starts at the bottom with biased attitudes: stereotyping, insensitive remarks and fear of differences.  If we don’t effectively confront biased attitudes, the next step up the pyramid is acts of bias – bullying, ridicule, name-calling, epithets, social avoidance, dehumanization and even jokes that belittle others or convey bias. In the pyramid of hate, if acts of bias, bullying and discrimination are not addressed, the unfortunate natural progression is to bias-motivated violence.  

In the course of the past five decades, the passage of landmark civil rights legislation has led to significant progress in reducing overt institutional discrimination. Laws against discrimination in employment, in housing, in education and in public accommodations have helped not only to punish those who discriminate, but also to change attitudes.  And yet, systemic and institutional bias lingers; we are plagued by economic disparity, and racial injustice is never far from the surface.  Voter ID laws and restrictions on voting may be politically motivated, but certainly have a disproportionate impact on the African American community.  There have been too many instances of African Americans being unfairly targeted by all levels of law enforcement, including our political and legal system, leading to tragic deaths and mass incarceration. We see in our society today not only more expressions of bias and bullying, but also greater tolerance for expressions of white supremacy, white nationalism and other forms of extremism.  It should surprise no one that, according to the FBI, there was a 17 percent increase in hate crimes in 2017.

The current trend lines are not encouraging, and we should be concerned about a possible new surge in racial violence.  We must redouble our efforts to combat hate crimes, hate online and other forms of injustice.  We must combat them individually and collectively, vigorously and persistently. 

I am not naïve; it will not be easy to overcome increasing hate violence and deep tribalism. But I am convinced that if we have any hope of making progress, we must be able to count on each other more than any time in modern memory. These are not normal times; those of us working on social justice issues cannot afford purity tests that seek to divide us.  Our partnerships are sometimes complicated, but more important than ever.  We will not agree on everything, we know that, but coalitions are how we get things done. Our communities must show up for each other. We must also embrace the fact that our communities are comprised of individuals whose lived-experience gives the lie to defining community in terms of a single, narrowly drawn group identity.

We at ADL will never stop thinking about what we mean when we say we are committed as an organization to securing justice and fair treatment for all.  As we have said on many occasions, we need to think about civil rights not just as a history lesson, but as a current event.  Together with friends and allies, we must roll up our sleeves and keep fighting for the simple desire to be “human together.”