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Still much to overcome: African American history month is a good reminder to keep our eyes on the prize.

CARTER WOODSON'S LIFE READS LIKE A MADE-TO-ORDER American success story: taught to read by family members, he worked as a coal miner in West Virginia, graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1903, and in his spare time learned Romance languages via correspondence classes. What distinguishes Woodson's American tale from others, however, is that as a black man growing up in turn-of-the-century America, none of these achievements could have been accomplished without a remarkable degree of personal fortitude.

In 1912 he became only the second African American to earn a Harvard doctorate. In 1926, troubled by the invisibility of the black experience in history texts, Woodson began promoting Negro History Week during the second week of February (acknowledging the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass). That effort evolved into our contemporary month of remembrance and recognition.

A social critic and visionary, Woodson, the "father of black history," was at heart a teacher. He hoped that an African American history commemoration would help build an educational foundation for the work of racial justice and restitution the nation so achingly required. If Woodson were around on this 80th celebration of African American history, he would find much has improved in race relations in the United States, but he would also find much that is sadly familiar.

Integration as a general goal of American community and educational life seems to have exhausted itself. Schools are rapidly re-segregating across the nation, and gated communities are springing up in the suburbs, while many urban neighborhoods still remain "no go" zones to black would-be homeowners. Black Americans are denied mortgages and home improvement loans at twice the rate of whites.

In recent years impressive achievements in closing the economic and educational gap between white and black Americans have been shadowed by a persistent condition of poverty among African Americans and its associated social maladies. Just over 13 percent of the general population, black Americans still represent almost 25 percent of the nation's poor.

A reflection of the late-1990s boom, unemployment in the black community fell to an all-time low of 7 percent in the spring of 2000. Now, back up to 11 percent, unemployment among African Americans runs at twice the rate of whites. African Americans with comparable educations earn roughly 84 cents to the dollar earned by their white fellow citizens.

On average, African Americans are less likely to have dependable health care than white Americans and more likely to die prematurely from preventable illnesses. Meanwhile, the nation's various policies of the last decades have been especially tough on black Americans, particularly when they are arrested for low-level drug crimes that typically result in probation or for whites. A black person's average jail sentence is six months longer than a white person's for the same crime. Many states don't allow felons to vote again even after they have paid their debt to society, so tougher criminal penalties have the net effect of quieting the political voice of the African American community.

UNDOING THE INVISIBILITY OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN experience remains a worthy effort, one all the more critical as problems associated with low educational attainment and structural discrimination continue to thwart the personal and communal aspirations of African Americans and as a new cultural creed of "personal responsibility" obscures the communal responsibilities all Americans share for and with each other. Many white Americans--even as they continue to profit handsomely from family, corporate, and collegiate networks that few blacks can hope to penetrate--remain indifferent to the degrading realities of everyday and structural discrimination in America.

The problems confronting the African American community must be returned to the forefront of the nation's social agenda. Resolving them will be tougher now that funding for social programs will be hard to find because of epic budget deficits and defense spending. We will all have to take personal responsibility for rebuilding America's common good until such time as African American History Month--or at least the need for it--can be gratefully retired.

By KEVIN CLARKE, senior editor at U.S. CATHOLIC and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications.
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Title Annotation:margin notes
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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