02/17/2017 12:48 pm ET

Hating on Hidden Figures Hides Historical Shame


Virginia Postrel's recent piece in the New York Post attempts to argue that the true-life story of three black women who worked for NASA in 1960's - as depicted in the film Hidden Figures - is a rousing testament to our country's values. She couldn't have been further from the truth.

Hidden Figures is an important film that shows the immense contribution of four engineers to the space race. It also shows the racism and discrimination that these engineers experienced because they were black women. The conditions of their employment were welcoming and they were treated equal - except when it came time to eat lunch or drink from a water fountain. The attempt to reframe the ugliness of segregation as a mere blooper rather than the sin it is... is as foolish as the idea that Nazis weren't that bad to Jewish people and we should all just move on. This is fundamentally false and merits an apology by the writer.

As scholar George Lipsitz teaches, whitewashing the past gives people the permission to ignore the responsibility of reconciliation. The pattern of rejection, refusal, and reneging on the idea that black women were mistreated is woefully misguided and simply wrong. These black, female engineers were never mentioned nor referenced in the annals of NASA's history until black filmmakers decided to tell their story. They were hidden figures in every meaning of the word.

The story of Hidden Figures is a story of legend. It's a story of the bravery and courage of four black women that stood up to white men and white women, at a time when riding the bus was virtually illegal, sharing a water fountain was offensive, and lynchings of black people was still probable. History is the story of what actually happened. It is not a "tale", as Postrel writes. In many respects people of color still feel that inequality occurs today although it may take different forms.

From economic inequalities to character assassinations, we are still struggling to make progress. The New York Times reported that 1.5 million black men are missing in America. They are incarcerated - hidden figures to the millions of women and children who are without a positive black male role model in their life. For them, a normal family structure is not attainable. The impact of this on the black family is psychologically huge and will reverberate for generations. The fact is, Willy Lynch was right, the tactics of dividing and destroying black people worked for over 400 years. In this context, the lack of policies to stem the flow of the school to prison pipeline is a clear indication that black lives don't matter to those in power and they'd prefer to hide us all.

Some of you reading this are probably saying, "Get over it." Or, "Nah... this is not true and I just lost respect for this guy." But perhaps it is the privileged people that are not over it? President Donald Trump's dogmatism and dog whistles are bringing back the limits of racism to a level where the racists are comfortable. We are witnessing warped, discriminatory federal policy views become new standards by which we all must live. We are witnessing the voice of Coretta Scott King silenced in Congress so as not to offend Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions by bringing up his past racist acts. The intellectually lazy article by Postrel is in lockstep with the extreme right policies and behaviors that Lipsitz warns about - rejection, refusal, reneging on concepts that threaten to compete with the greatness of whiteness.

We cannot move forward as a country unless we fully appreciate and confront the past sins of this nation. The first step is to acknowledge it is real. The second is to be willing to go beyond one's comfort zone and confront the truth, racism and biases are taught, especially to our children. In recognizing the pattern, we must consciously work to create more fair, more just, more equal policies that will give rise to more opportunities for all people. If we follow the example of sports, where teams play on a level playing field, we can inch toward progress. The decision we must make is to not give up, not live in the past but not run from it either, but focus on making a much brighter, equal, and colorful future. Unless they are willing to do that, Postrel and her ilk would be better off in another movie. I'd suggest"La La Land".

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Note: The above photo is of staff members in my administration. They agreed to be photographed for this post as we could not find a suitable picture of successful black women while searching for images to accompany this post. All rights reserved. From Left to Right: Briana Fisher - executive assistant to the Mayor; E'Shondra McLendon-Smith, Esq. - 4th Corporation Counsel; and Milissa Ralph - Commissioner of Human Resources for the City of Mount Vernon, NY.