Black History Month is a nearly century-long intervention in the American historical record and myths about how this country evolved. The forerunner to this February’s Black History Month celebration is Negro History Week, which was first celebrated in 1926 under the leadership of Historian Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson sought to use the second week in February to highlight Black American identity and achievements, which enriched their own communities and the broader American public. He selected the second week in February because it coincides with President Abraham Lincoln’s and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s birthdays.
Once the truth of history has set you free, you essentially have two choices…
Today, Nicole Hannah Jones, through her leadership of the “The 1619 Project”, like Woodson, invites America to consider the truth of how integral Black people have been to United States development. The 1619 Project centers, rather than marginalizes, African Americans in the political, economic, and social systems of our country, taking its title from the year the first Africans arrived in the then-British colony in Jamestown, Virginia. While some states and local school districts are incorporating The 1619 Project, others have banned it or are seeking to. What is so threatening about telling the truth about African Americans’ role in this country? Might it be that by acknowledging the undue hardships Black Americans have borne and their contributions, we would have to renegotiate the terms of how material and social resources are distributed? (In my next post, I’ll say more about how Black Americans have shaped this country—from our constitution to our cuisine!).
Woodson, Jones, and critical race theorists share the agenda of setting the record straight. They offer new lenses for our distorted vision of who we are and how we arrived at this moment, hopeful that knowing the underpinnings of our socio-historical context will inspire us to seek a future where our institutions correct harm, counter racial discrimination, and commit to all Americans’ wellbeing.
Once the truth of history has set you free, you essentially have two choices: (1) willful ignorance or (2) active promotion of justice and inclusion. Certainly, there is room for good faith debate about the credibility of sources, how facts relate to each other, and their interpretation. But blanket refusal to pursue truth and have it guide our decisions in the spirit of the many who have rejected The 1619 Project surrenders our responsibility to use information to expand our capacity to heal and flourish.
A similar logic is at work in the backlash against critical race theory, the legal framework established in the 1970s by Black legal theorists, such as Columbia Law Professor Kimberle Crenshaw and Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell. Critical race theory is the culmination of strategies scholars used to solve a peculiar American puzzle: how is it that after Modern Civil Rights era laws (such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in education and employment) were passed, African Americans’ social outcomes still severely lagged those of European Americans, and did not appear to be closing quickly? Essentially, critical race theory crafts analytical tools to reveal policy and social process mechanisms enabling racism to persist, even when race per se is not explicitly in view. The theory also highlights how government policies are cumulative, compounding, and interconnected, militating to exclude Black Americans while extracting value from them—which accrues advantages to Whites, albeit to varying degrees, given their class, gender, and other social statuses (just as all racial groups exhibit internal variation).
The efforts of Woodson, Jones, and critical race theorists are no more radical than a plain and fair reading of the history of this country. For instance, it is a fact that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Underwriters Manual for mortgage lending designated majority-Black communities as inherent investment risks and thus refused to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods, facilitating the market devaluation of Black properties and the deterioration of Blacks’ homes and community infrastructure, while increasing such value in White communities. It is also a fact that White neighborhoods maintained racial homogeneity by, among other things, inserting “racial covenants” in mortgage deeds—language stating that White homeowners could only sell to White people. And the FHA even offered a model covenant for homeowners’ and other interested parties’ convenience! The Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) outlawed racial covenants. But White home sellers’ and buyers’ preferences, as well as real estate, appraiser, and banker practices continue to reflect anti-Black racial logic. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 sought to prohibit racial discrimination in the rental and sale of homes, but the damage done was never remedied and continues through unofficial channels.
According to a 2018 Brookings Institution report, by Andre Perry, Jonathan Rothwell, and David Harshbarger, Black properties are still devalued by about 20 percent, even after controlling for factors like quality of public services. This disparity helps to explain the White-Black wealth gap. The U.S. Federal Reserve pegged it at about 8:1 in 2020. White median household net worth was $188,200, compared to $24,100 for Black families. Furthermore, sociologists Elizabeth Korver-Glenn and Junia Howell find that the appreciation of Whites’ homes is fundamentally tethered to the devaluation of those of Blacks. The White middle class, on average, benefits from policies facilitating their disproportionate share of coveted resources, such as high performing schools in their neighborhoods, which drives up demand for properties in majority-White communities, and consequently their market value. Indeed, race plays a more significant role in home value today than it did in 1980. To learn more about how policies have created Whites’ economic advantages at Blacks’ expense read: Race for Profit, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and When Affirmative Action Was White, by Ira Katznelson.
Woodson, Jones, and critical race theorists share the agenda of setting the record straight. They offer new lenses for our distorted vision of who we are and how we arrived at this moment, hopeful that knowing the underpinnings of our socio-historical context will inspire us to seek a future where our institutions correct harm, counter racial discrimination, and commit to all Americans’ wellbeing. Meanwhile, a hard truth remains: everyone in our country does not share this goal.
I simply ask that we all at least start, by getting our facts straight.