01/31/2014 01:49 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2014

With Racial Disparities Aplenty, We Still Need Black History Month

Some say that observances such as Black History Month, which begins Saturday, are no longer necessary because the United States is in a "post-racial era," where racial discrimination and prejudice no longer pose barriers to upward mobility.

But listen to author and researcher Dr. Michael Holzman (The Black Poverty Cycle and How to End It), who we recently interviewed on NCEBC Talk Radio , and you'll get an ear-splitting wake-up call on our country's incarceration/income/education gap - one that perpetuates long-running disparities. Among the facts Holzman cites:

• Blacks are incarcerated nearly 6 times more often than whites

• Most black families rank in the bottom fifth of income distribution and very few have higher incomes than their parents

• 16 percent of black eighth-graders are at or above grade level in reading as compared to 44 percent of white eighth-graders (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)

• Just 12 percent of black men have bachelor's degrees and 5 percent have graduate degrees

Why is this happening?

Stereotypes emerge from the media, personal experience, lack of exposure and the passages of time. Beliefs that blacks are shiftless, lazy and lacking of intelligence can be traced to the first slaves in this country, and have been used to rationalize past abuses of these involuntary immigrants.

The Academy Award-nominated 12 Years a Slave is a poignant film representation of the negative stereotypes that have been so intractably woven into the fabric of beliefs in our nation. The film reignites outrage over how human beings were treated as property and how, to survive, many slaves were compelled to internalize the stereotypes projected onto them.

The consequences of racism are substantial, depressing equity and opportunity. As just one example of many studies, Dr. Robert Carter, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, " ... has found evidence that racism can cause effects similar to trauma responses," as cited in the Teachers College Columbia University 2013 report.

We've made progress, to be sure. Americans have elected an African-American president not once, but twice. Yet stereotypes remain and we have cold, hard data -- on incarceration, poverty and educational attainment, among so many other things -- that prove the point. We must confront these damaging generalizations.

What is to be done?

Nonprofits, institutions of higher education, foundations, faith-based institutions, corporations and governments at all levels in this country are focused relentlessly on answering this question.

But until we stop policies that cause unequal incarceration, such as "stop-and-frisk" laws scrutinized in New York City and elsewhere, racial profiling will continue and black Americans will continue to be disproportionately represented in our prisons.

And unless we change how districts and schools are funded, so that all have sufficient funding based on their needs, the leveling of the academic playing field will remain quixotic at best. The landmark Abbott v. Burke school funding case - in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that children in the highest-poverty school districts must receive high-quality preschool educations as well as various supplemental programs and school facilities improvements -- is an extraordinary and encouraging step in the right direction. The boost in student achievement that resulted from the increased funding stands as a legacy for what can be accomplished with targeted needs-based funding.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that teachers are our best hope for changing the trajectory of children of color and those challenged by poverty. Policies that seek to hit the target through improving standards and assessments or looking to charter schools and other structural changes may miss the proverbial bull's eye of education reform: the professional support of teachers.

When we invest in sustained, effective professional development that models and demonstrates applications of research emerging from neuroscience, social science and cognitive and cultural psychology, our teachers and children win.

Time and again, work done by my colleagues at the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) helps to produce student data that suggests the importance of deepening teacher quality. In urban schools across this country, students of color and those challenged by poverty have made six times the gains of what is considered adequate yearly progress.

So yes, we must continue to draw upon observances like Black History Month as tangible opportunities to address the disproportionality in this country.

The data on incarceration rates, income and education levels according to race are too lopsided to ignore. We know some of the approaches that work and we see more evidence every day of the strides children can make when they are taught by dedicated, supported teachers. It's time to put more of these lessons into practice.

Only then will our post-racial era begin.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at