The racial differential in the poverty rate is staggering. Last time I checked, about 12 percent people in the United States, one in eight people are poor. Depending on race and ethnicity, however, poverty is differently experienced. Fewer than one in ten whites are poor, more than one in four African Americans and Latinos are poor. Differences in occupation, income, employment and education are considered the main reasons for poverty, with current and past discrimination playing a role in educational, employment and occupational attainment. We see the discrimination when we consider that African American women with a doctoral degree have median earnings of about $1000 a week, compared to about $1200 a week for black men and white women, and $1600 a week for white men. White men earn 60 percent more than African American women, and a third more than black men and white women.
It would not take much to recite the differences, by race, or education, unemployment, earnings and occupation. The recurrent question in reviewing the data is “what are we going to do”. It makes no sense to just recite the data and then wring our hands as if nothing can be done. The three steps in social change are organization (especially protest), which leads to legislation (width pressure) and litigation (when legislation is not implemented). Often laws preventing discrimination have been passed but not adhered to, forcing litigation to get offenders to “do the right thing”. Of course, it takes more than a minute. It takes people who are committed to the long run. “The arc of the moral universe is long”, Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1964, “but it bends toward justice.
Dr. Carter Goodson Woodson understood the long arc when he founded the Journal of Negro History and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. The organization and the journal have changed their names to reflect the nomenclature of these times, and they are now called The Journal of African American History and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Both the organization and the journal have now existed for one hundred years which is perhaps why ASALH chose “A Century of Black Lives, History and Culture” as its 2015 theme. (ASALH, as founders of Black History Month, choose a theme each year). This year their focus on the long arc of African American life in our nation and asserts that “this transformation is the result of effort, not chance”.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson made many choices that led to his education and to the creativity and brilliance that motivated him to uplift Black History through Negro History week, now called Black History Month. Woodson was born the son of former slaves, and a family that was large and poor. He worked as a miner in West Virginia, and attended school just a few months a year. At 20, he started high school; by 28 he earned his bachelor’s degree. He was only the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard (WEB DuBois was the first). He was a member of the Howard University faculty; later he was the Dean. He wrote, “If you can contrail a man’s thinking, you don’t worry about his action. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have to worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told, and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”
In other words, poverty can be the reality of living, but it doesn’t have to be a state of mind. Many are trapped in poverty because that may be all they know, and because protest, legislation, and litigation have not provided passages out of poverty. No one provided a passage out of poverty for Woodson. He worked as a miner to earn a living, and he transcended his status as a minor to make a life of embracing his people and our history. He wrote about the ways that our thinking could oppress us as much as living conditions can. He is a role model and example for African Americans today because, motivated by a desire to be educated, he fought his way out of poverty. There is a difference between thinking you can live like Carter G. Woodson, and thinking that you can’t. (CHECK OUT www.ASALH.org for more information on Carter G Woodson and his organization.)