I often say to people who come to the Schomburg that the crisis of today is a consequence of not one, but two generations born after the Civil Rights Movement who have been deliberately kept from their history.
-- Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, June 2012
When Dr. Khalil Muhammad speaks, people listen. He is a scholar, historian and the director of the New York Public Library’s renowned Schomburg Center for Research in black Culture. Dr. Muhammad knows a lot about the importance of being mindful of learning from history. When he spoke about equality of opportunity to 1,800 young leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm leadership training session in June, he explained that our nation is testing the old saying “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Because of individual black achievement, some today believe that we have finally reached the promised land of a colorblind equal opportunity America, and yet -- and here’s the history lesson -- this is the not the first time we’ve been to the mountaintop. Five generations ago, many Americans believed that the heavy lifting of building racial democracy had been completed. What better proof, they claimed, than the election of more than a dozen African Americans to the United States Congress? From the 1870s through the turn of the 20th century, 14 black men served in the U.S. House of Representatives and two black men served in the U.S. Senate. Undeniably these were historic times, watershed events and moments for great optimism.
As it turned out, the golden Reconstruction era just after the Civil War was just the beginning in a long string of false hopes that eventually became unfulfilled expectations. Dr. Muhammad noted that observers have continued to make the same mistake of unfounded optimism about racial equality over and over in the decades since then. Meanwhile, children are not being taught about past battles in the struggle for equality, even relatively recent ones -- as shown by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only two percent of the nation’s high school seniors demonstrated basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement, including Brown v. Board of Education. Many students don’t learn about other pieces of the black experience like the full horror of slavery at all, and “by the time they enter college they don't recall much black history that wasn’t about Rosa Parks' tired feet or King’s dream.” History is being re-written and kept from our children, replaced by a hazy and sanitized version of events that can make it sound as if the fight for racial equality is already over, with a happy ending, rather than a continuing struggle demanding continuing vigilance.
Dr. Muhammad warned that we gloss over the truth about our history at our peril. Slavery, for example, “cannot slip into the dark recesses of our collective memories because it’s too painful or we worry our kids will lose hope for the future... Every generation should know what we are capable of doing to one another.” He insisted:
Too often in this country change and progress have been short-lived and history has been forgotten... We must have a firm commitment to teaching young people the history of racism -- not as a static, unchanging evil, but as a constantly evolving system of beliefs, practices and policies that are capable of adapting to new circumstances, including a black president. Each generation must relearn the past in light of the present, and each generation must discern for itself the relative challenges that discrimination and inequality present for its survival... This rise and fall, this two steps forward for three steps backward, is not inevitable unless we choose to forget the lessons we've learned from the past.
So many of the formidable threats millions of poor children of all races, but especially black children, face today are actually dangerous steps backwards. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ which places one in three black boys (and one in six Latino boys) born in 2001 at risk of imprisonment. Mass incarceration of people of color -- especially black males. “Stop and frisk” racial profiling in policing. Huge racial disparities in often harsh, arbitrary, zero-tolerance school discipline policies that deny countless children of essential education and push them into the criminal justice system. Massive attacks on voting rights with new identification -- “show your papers” or get new papers policies -- and cost burden (“poll tax”) requirements which especially impact the poor, minority groups, the elderly, the disabled, and the young. Resegregating and substandard schools denying millions of poor black and Latino children skills they will need to work in our increasingly competitive globalized economy. Each and all of these are siren calls for attentive action.
We are once again at a critical turning point for our children and nation. Despite all the harsh lessons of the past and all the lofty rhetoric about who we want and need to be as a 21st century multicultural nation in a multiracial and multicultural world, we’re heading in the wrong direction -- backwards into a second Post-Reconstruction Era. We need to correct course and challenge the huge and interlocking economic and racial inequality that threaten the very idea of America.
Dr. Muhammad said, “We've heard so much from people over these last couple of years wanting to ‘take the country back’ -- prompting many of us, of course, to think ‘back to what?’... If you hadn't heard, black and brown babies are being born for the first time in American history at faster rates than white babies. The challenge here is to make sure that we don't move towards apartheid, with a white minority running a majority black and brown country.” Are we up to that challenge? When it comes to racial inequality will we keep taking two steps forward and three back? Or will America continue to move forward to ensure a level playing field for every child of every color and every income regardless of the lottery of birth?