February 1 begins the celebration of Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history. While progress of racial discrimination has been made since the creation of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month, in 1926, there are still some things that could be better.
Although this is a time to reflect on the history of America through the role of blacks, it is also a time to understand the situations of today. Issues like institutional racism, cultural appropriation, and police brutality have become common in America today.
Representation in media
Blacks have been misrepresented in media since blackface became popular in the US after the Civil War. In Hollywood, blacks barely appeared and if they did, they were played by a white person in blackface. However, as Hollywood has cast more back actors, it has also emphasized more black stereotypes.
According to dw.com, the “scary black man” and “sassy black woman” tropes are frequently seen in Hollywood. It is also likely to see a character as the token “black best friend,” and a black person is still likely to die first in a movie.
Moreover, news media consistently portrays black people as criminals, poor, and dependent. These stereotypes fuel political rhetoric and support for stricter work requirements, drug testing, and other welfare restrictions.
As stated by The Washington Post, “Black families represent 59 percent of the poor portrayed in the media…but account for just 27 percent of Americans in poverty,”. Additionally, “Blacks represent 37 percent of criminals shown in the news, but constitute 26 percent of those arrested on criminal charges”. The misrepresentation of blacks in media help to fuel false stereotypes.
Cultural appropriation is defined as the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. However, it becomes a problem when people of a majority begin to adopt the culture of a minority, like blacks.
This discussion of cultural appropriation became highlighted again when famous people like Kim Kardashian West began wearing braids. The problem is that braids come from ancestral roots in Africa and also have special significance in American slavery.
The Netflix show “Dear White People” also discusses the cultural appropriation of Halloween costumes as a main concept in the show’s first season after a blackface party is held. The cultural appropriation of other cultures has been a major problem for years.
On August 9, 2014, unarmed teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests and riots ensued, which helped to solidify the Black Lives Matter movement created by the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Sadly, events like this have decreased in frequency over the past five years. According to pbs.org, black men and boys face the highest risk of being killed by police at a rate of 96 out of 100,000 deaths. This rate is about 2.5 times higher for black men and boys than white men and boys.
There is a wide gap in perceptions about police performance between black and white Americans. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that,”only 33 percent of African Americans said police do a good or excellent job of using the right amount of force in each encounter compared to the 75 percent of white Americans who believed in the judgement of police”.
The book and movie The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas, does a wonderful job at speaking about the reality of police brutality. It illustrates the unarmed killing of a black teenager by a white police officer at a traffic stop.
Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, is defined as racism perpetrated by social and political institutions and can be seen in areas of wealth, criminal justice, employment, health care, housing, education, and politics.
An article by U.S. News highlights some of the outraging statistics of institutional racism in the United States. For example, a black person is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, and six times more likely to go to jail, than a white person. Moreover, black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children.
However, institutional racism is not only seen in our criminal justice system. In education, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, and black student make up almost 40 percent of all school expulsions.
Even though Black History Month is a time to honor African Americans that have helped shape the history of America, it is important to recognize the things that still need to change. Just because life for African Americans is better now than in 1926 doesn’t mean that we have reached complete equality. I recommend that you take some time to learn about the things that you don’t always see on the news.