Should We ‘Scrap’ Black History Month? Part 2: A Perspective Offered by Jason L. Riley, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow
Jason L. Riley is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Wall Street Journal contributor, and the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed” and “False Black Power.”
In an opinion article for the Wall Street Journal, Riley wrote that because we had a Black President, and because most states celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and Harriet Tubman may appear on a $20 bill coming to you soon, there is very little need to continue to celebrate Black History Month. Riley further asserts that Jim Crow did less damage to the black family than President Johnson’s Great Society Programs. He said that the Great Society Programs discouraged work and marriage and promised a bigger government check for having more children.
In his article, Riley seems to disavow that slavery had any sort of lasting negative effect on African Americans today. He cannot connect the dots between enslavement, reconstruction, and present day conditions of African Americans. Riley singled out the NAACP, Rev Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson as becoming more irrelevant to African Americans, and he says that the sunset on Black History Month is long overdue, but that Black History Month has become too politicized for it to happen any time soon.
Jason L. Riley said that we need an alternative to Black History Month, but he failed to suggest one.
Riley suggested that the major barrier to black progress is not racial discrimination, and that it hasn’t been for decades. He said that the challenge for African Americans is to position themselves to take advantage of existing opportunities, and to address the anti-social, self-defeating behaviors and habits endemic to the black lower class. To support his arguments, Riley uses statistics that he says proves just how well black people were doing before the 1960’s Civil Rights Legislation. Black poverty fell to 47% from 87% between 1940-1960. Earnings of black workers tripled between 1940-1950, and there was a significant increase in the number of black doctors, lawyers and teachers. He didn’t leave out the well worn republican meme about the intact families of the 1940s and 50s versus the fatherless homes created after President Johnson’s Great Society Programs.
As we researched this claim, we found that there was no Federal data on black children born without a father in the home prior to 1960. The statistics that Jason Riley used are probably accurate, but he compared white and non-white study participants. The non-white group included Asians, Hispanics, as well as African Americans, which makes the statistical evidence quoted flawed. Even if we accepted without question that fatherless homes were a result of Great Society Programs, many other factors were at play, like liberalization of societal attitudes, relaxed divorce laws, more permissive sexual mores, greater financial independence as well as the creation of the ‘pill’ for women and the ‘little blue pill’ for men. Correlation does not equal causation. The most applicable statistic shows an increase in single parenthood for both black and white families.
Ninety-one years ago, when Carter G. Woodson created Black History Month, his goals were to encourage Black Americans to become more interested in their own history and heritage. Woodson worried that children were not being taught about their ancestor’s achievements. He felt that African history was central to US history and world history. He, like other educators of the time, Du Bois, and Bethune, believed that white people were essentially racist because they were ignorant about black people, and had illusions of superiority. He wanted to critique and correct white racist consciousness and the self-congratulatory conceptions of history. His plan was to integrate Black History into educational systems, and to expound the values of freedom and democracy.
Today we might view Woodson’s belief that white people could learn their way out of racism as rather naive, but Woodson felt that if a race had no history or traditions, it would become a negligible factor in the thought of the world and would eventually be exterminated. If we remember that the abundance of systemic racism had not been investigated in the 1920s, Woodson’s views are more understandable. Obviously, Carter Woodson’s goals for Black History Month have not been fulfilled.
In order to discuss the effects of the Great Society on the African American community, we must examine its major goals, which were to combat poverty, strengthen Civil Rights, improve public education, revamp urban communities and protect the country’s natural resources. Some of the ideas came from Johnson’s predecessor, President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, Johnson began with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, which authorized Head Start, College work-study programs, and several adult training programs. While it is true that the Great Society did not solve the issue of poverty, it was a large success by other measures. By the end of the 1960s, black poverty dropped from 20% to 12%, and black unemployment went up 34%. As a result, black incomes rose 53%. In 1960 only 20% of black students finished high school, and only 3% finished college. In 1997, 75% completed high school, and 13% earned a college degree.
The jewel of the Great Society programs was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which increased black participation in government. The theory that the programs of the Great Society harmed black people and made them dependent on welfare is another popular Republican meme. While it is true that it was a very expensive program, and there was some abuse, President Johnson’s Great Society programs made a genuine difference in the lives of millions of Americans. Never had there been such comprehensive programs that attempted to tackle poverty at its roots, and offer opportunities to make black people more self-supporting.
Contrary to Jason Riley’s point of view, it is difficult to believe that the ‘good old days’ were in the ‘Make Room for Daddy,’ ‘Father Knows Best,’ 1950s, era. Despite our political divide, we must believe that things will get better. As a people, our history proves that. The study of Black History opens a variety of educational, vocational, and professional real life examples based upon evidence and facts that the learner can either accept or reject. How is that group think? Woodson did not expect us to blindly take his word without adequate documentation.
Carter G. Woodson challenged us to dare greatness, emulate the deeds of our ancestors, and build on the foundation they laid.
To study Black History, is to learn about yourself, and your roots; which increases self-confidence, awareness and passion. We can motivate and inspire others as we celebrate our 92nd Black History Month in 2018.
SUBMITTED BY: Sharon Smith-Knight
Jackson, Rami. “The Great Society Helped Black Americans.” Available at https://www.tremr.com/starscream/the-great-society-helped-black-americans, no date. Accessed 24 Jul. 2017.
Jacobson, Louis. “Facebook meme blames Great Society for large rise in African-American fatherlessness.” Politifact.com, 25 Mar. 2014. Web. Accessed 31 Jul. 2017.
Jones, Jo, and William D. Mosher. “Fathers’ involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006-2010.” National Health Statistics Reports, no. 71 (2013): 1-22. Centers for Disease Control. Web. Accessed 31 Jul. 2017.
Karenga, Maulana. “Dr. Maulana Karenga Writes on the Legacy of Carter G. Woodson.” Yourblackworld.net, no date. Web. Retrieved 24 Jul. 2017.
Riley, Jason L. “An Alternative Black History Month.” Wall Street Journal, 9 Feb. 2016.
United States Census Bureau. “Table CH2. Living Arrangements of White Children Under 18 Years Old: 1960 to Present.” Available at https://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/ch2.pdf. Accessed 31 Jul. 2017.
SUBJECTS: Black History Month; Black History Week; Woodson, Carter Godwin, 1875-1950.
*Photograph of Carter G. Woodson. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/carter-g-woodson-9536515, 20 August 2017.