February is Black History Month, celebrating the lives and contributions of African-Americans in the United States. However, more than half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech, racial discrimination persists across America.
A recent poll conducted by UCLA surveyed students across more than 200 colleges and universities. It found that 25 percent of students believe racism is a thing of the past. That’s not a very large number, but it is up 7 percentage points from 1990.
There’s still a major disparity in the number of African Americans receiving a higher education. According to a report by The Education Trust, only 69 percent of black students graduated from high school in 2012, compared to 86 percent of their white peers.
Still, the country has elected its first black president, and there are many influential African Americans across various industries, including television personalities, athletes, authors, and entertainers.
During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead,” Thomas Drayton spoke to Christopher Emdin, Associate Professor of Science Education at Columbia University; and to Jamilah Lemieux, Senior Editor at Ebony.com.
“The conversations [about race] have always existed, but they are more critical than ever before because of platforms like social media and more avenues for the gathering of young people,” says Emdin.
“The election of President Obama kind of stirred up this notion of post-racialism in America,” says Emdin. “I would argue that the 25 percent who are under the impression that racism no longer exists are still falling under the myth that was created with the presence of a black president.”
Lemieux agrees and believes the president is not being allowed to reach his full potential. “The attempts to keep him from doing anything is a very obvious example of racism.”
When it comes to how blacks perceive themselves, Emdin says, “I think it’s a misperception that self-worth is not prevalent in [black] communities. It’s more a matter of whether or not the communities at large are able to identify the forms of self-worth that black males in particular exhibit.”
Emdin explains that a black student who under-performs in school may be mistaken as not wanting to do well, when in fact it may actually may be a result of the inability of schools to focus on the culture of the student or a disengaging curriculum.
Another, often over-looked, aspect of the African American community is the struggles of women. “Unfortunately, the civil rights and black power movements have centered black male struggle as the definitive black struggle.” Lemieux says that now particularly under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” women and their issues are becoming more visible.
The recent controversies over police incidents in which white officers use deadly force toward black men has set emotion running high. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year led to massive protests across the country, and it’s raised questions about profiling and racial discrimination in police forces.
“I think something was triggered there,” says Lemieux. She says the deaths did not revisit standard ground laws the way they should have.
Some people argue that young black males are not respectful of law enforcement officials. But Emdin disagrees. “The notion that one must subjugate his or her voice and civil rights for the sake of being treated better has been part of the narrative of causing dysfunction within African American communities,” he says. “It’s blaming the person being subjugated for the reason of their subjugation. The same case of ‘maybe if you listened’ is not applied to other populations.”
Back on the topic of schools, Emdin says that “schools in urban areas today are more segregated now than they were post-Brown vs. Board of Education,” the case that declared laws permitting separate public schools for black and white children to be unconstitutional.
He says funding for students should be equal across the board. “The issue is not the young people or whether or not they’re dangerous, but rather how we teach black children in a way that meets their unique needs. Our failure to recognize that leads to the kind of issues that we have today.”