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Child Watch® Column: "The Racial Divide: Will It Widen or Close?"

Release Date: August 31, 2012

Marian Wright Edelman

I often say to people who come to the Schomburg that the crisis of today is a consequence of not one, but two generations born after the Civil Rights Movement who have been deliberately kept from their history.

-Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, June 2012

When Dr. Khalil Muhammad speaks people listen. He is a scholar, historian, and the director of the New York Public Library’s renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Dr. Muhammad knows a lot about the importance of being mindful of learning from history. When he spoke about equality of opportunity to 1800 young leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm leadership training session in June, he explained that our nation is testing the old saying “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

He said: “Because of individual Black achievement, some today believe that we have finally reached the promised land of a colorblind equal opportunity America, and yet—and here’s the history lesson—this is the not the first time we’ve been to the mountaintop. Five generations ago many Americans believed that the heavy lifting of building racial democracy had been completed. What better proof, they claimed, than the election of more than a dozen African Americans to the United States Congress? From the 1870s through the turn of the 20th century 14 Black men served in the U.S. House of Representatives and two Black men served in the U.S. Senate. Undeniably these were historic times, watershed events and moments for great optimism.”

As it turned out, the golden Reconstruction era just after the Civil War was just the beginning in a long string of false hopes that eventually became unfulfilled expectations. Dr. Muhammad noted that observers have continued to make the same mistake of unfounded optimism about racial equality over and over in the decades since then. Meanwhile, children are not being taught about past battles in the struggle for equality, even relatively recent ones—as shown by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only two percent of the nation’s high school seniors demonstrated basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement including Brown v. Board of Education. Many students don’t learn about other pieces of the Black experience like the full horror of slavery at all, and “by the time they enter college they don't recall much Black history that wasn’t about Rosa Parks’s tired feet or King’s dream.” History is being re-written and kept from our children, replaced by a hazy and sanitized version of events that can make it sound as if the fight for racial equality is already over with a happy ending rather than a continuing struggle demanding continuing vigilance.

Dr. Muhammad warned that we gloss over the truth about our history at our peril. Slavery, for example, “cannot slip into the dark recesses of our collective memories because it’s too painful or we worry our kids will lose hope for the future . . . Every generation should know what we are capable of doing to one another.” He insisted: “Too often in this country change and progress have been short-lived and history has been forgotten . . . We must have a firm commitment to teaching young people the history of racism—not as a static, unchanging evil, but as a constantly evolving system of beliefs, practices, and policies that are capable of adapting to new circumstances, including a Black president. Each generation must relearn the past in light of the present, and each generation must discern for itself the relative challenges that discrimination and inequality present for its survival. . . This rise and fall, this two steps forward for three steps backward, is not inevitable unless we choose to forget the lessons we've learned from the past.”

So many of the formidable threats millions of poor children of all races, but especially Black children, face today are actually dangerous steps backwards. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ which places one in three Black boys (and one in six Latino boys) born in 2001 at risk of imprisonment. Mass incarceration of people of color – especially Black males. “Stop and frisk” racial profiling in policing. Huge racial disparities in often harsh arbitrary zero tolerance school discipline policies that deny countless children of essential education and push them into the criminal justice system. Massive attacks on voting rights with new identification—“show your papers” or get new papers policies—and cost burden (“poll tax”) requirements which especially impact the poor, minority groups, the elderly, the disabled, and the young. Resegregating and substandard schools denying millions of poor Black and Latino children skills they will need to work in our increasingly competitive globalized economy. Each and all of these are siren calls for attentive action.

We are once again at a critical turning point for our children and nation. Despite all the harsh lessons of the past and all the lofty rhetoric about who we want and need to be as a 21st century multicultural nation in a multiracial and multicultural world, we’re heading in the wrong direction—backwards into a second Post-Reconstruction Era. We need to correct course and challenge the huge and interlocking economic and racial inequality that threaten the very idea of America.

Dr. Muhammad said, “We've heard so much from people over these last couple of years wanting to ‘take the country back’—prompting many of us, of course, to think ‘back to what?’ . . . If you hadn't heard, Black and Brown babies are being born for the first time in American history at faster rates than White babies. The challenge here is to make sure that we don't move towards apartheid, with a White minority running a majority Black and Brown country.” Are we up to that challenge? When it comes to racial inequality will we keep taking two steps forward and three back? Or will America continue to move forward to ensure a level playing field for every child of every color and every income regardless of the lottery of birth?

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Ginger at: September 17, 2012
It is so true that those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it, As you indicate in your column, we are seeing it before our eyes. The battle is not over, it has just changed. "Aluta Continua". We need to take our heads out of the sand and teach our children what they need to know to live in this country. Knowing our history is critical to their being able to live and thrive in this country. Black history shouldn't be an elective in high school, it should be part of American history, just as we are.

Submitted by cheri at: September 5, 2012
Oh my goodness. A frog, when she is dropped in boiling water, hops out immediately; however, when she is lowered into tepid water, she relaxes, not knowing that it is on the stove with the fire being turned up gradually. We cannot be lulled into a false sense of security. Thank you, Dr Muhammad.

Submitted by anoel at: September 4, 2012
Amen. Amen. The problem for conservatives lies in the truth in the above observation about the birth rate of Black and Brown babies. This fact is the impetus behind the conservatives, tea partyers, etc. trying to crush women's right to planned parenting, birth control, etc. However, they want their race to multiply, but steadily weild the axe to eliminate as many healthcare and social programs as possible. How will these babies that they want produced be taken care of when the parents have no jobs? Not many people want a child for which they can't provide basic necessities. If the wealthy 1% would focus on jobs creation, this country could move forward in all areas.

Submitted by welder at: September 4, 2012

Submitted by K.C at: September 3, 2012
I am a avid follower of the literature and statements of Mrs. Marian Wright Eldeman. This article, however, is slightly different then her more recent publications, which seemed more informative. The implications of the use rhetoric from a speaker in June (it now being September) is powerful and a call to action. M.W. Edelman is reminding us that we must not allow for these silent, yet blatant attempt to slip through the ranks of legislation. The era of "Delusions of achievement" is going to lead us back to the moments of voicelessness. I often share the post of M.W. Edelman and this time I stand with her in pursuit of justice for our children's future and the protection of our history to ensure we have a future.

Submitted by letpeacereign at: September 3, 2012
Thank you for this very necessary reminder of how much further we have to go, and how much soul-searching by us white brothers and sisters is required. We must "keep our eye on the prize."

Submitted by Jean at: September 1, 2012
As always, when I read your comments, I am impressed with your thoughtfulness, knowledge of history, and forthrightness as you speak of these issues of culture and race. It would be good to be directed by you to other forums that address these very important issues. Thank you.

Submitted by Jackie at: September 1, 2012
Excellent and true article. History needs to be taught in the classroom . Should be an elective in High school. Articles about Black history should be in the our church bulletin each week . Thanks Retired teacher

Submitted by Royal at: September 1, 2012
I long for a time when we can "judge a man by his character and not his color". A paraphrase of Dr King. Unfortunately many "black leaders" would loose their place in front of the camera if they didn't "stir the pot". It is unfortunate that you can't criticize a president who happens to be black without many calling you a racist. It reminds me of the cry wolf story. Let us all be respectful of each other, treat all with dignity and move forward. You can't heal a sore as long as you pick at it.

Submitted by Caroll at: August 31, 2012
I too am extremely concerned about these voting laws that are being passed which will prevent people of color, the elderly and others from voting. A Democracy is a kind of government that protects the rights of it's citizens to vote, among other things. These ID voting laws, along with things like the Citizen's United Supreme Court Decision are ruining our Democracy. We must become active, assist people to vote and spread the truth where ever we can. We must speak up and not let those in power who would take away our Democratic rights away from us win this battle.

Submitted by Anonymous at: August 31, 2012
As a YALT leader and mother of five African American males , I feel the pressure and pains of a failing public school system and the whip of stop and frisk in my community everyday. As I have successful educated two my sons, to a college degree and college junior, not on drugs, & no criminal record. I have three other to follow and the pain and fight to just give them a chance has been a tired less struggle . Most days I have had to be a human buffer to keep my sons healthy and sane. Yes, history has been the most important tool I have use to keep my boys focused! As long as you know who you are you will remember your value to life .

Submitted by mick at: August 31, 2012
I often like the column. Education is the key to advance people everywhere. Every child needs to have the best education possible, yet ed funds seem to be the first both parties want to economize on! Race and racial pride and racial survival are also of vital interest to me; I am worried about white europeans slowly disappearing. White women need to be encouraged to have a lot more than replacement rate, if we are to survive.

Submitted by Val at: August 31, 2012
It saddens me that many of us do everything we can not to remember where we came from; we have taken the position that people like me, who won't forget are crazy, and looking for racism. I do not have to look very far, it comes to me. We must fight for equal education, whether we have children in school, or not. We can teach our own, we do not have to rely upon the school system to do so. We can go to libraries, and demand that they order what we want to read, we do not have to purchase every book out of pocket to educate ourselves. We spend entirely too much time on things of no significance, i.e. facebook, twitter, and utilzing these devices to belittle each other. Wake Up People before it is too late. Stop, look, and listen, have heard what the Republicans have said this week, they refuse to respect a man of color in the White House, they were taught to lead, but lead us where, back to the Plantation. They cannot accomplish this without our help. People of color unite! Last but not least many of us have taken out student loans to get higher education, and are still not able to get our share of the American Dream. I have never asked anyone for a handout, just my fair chance to do some of the things that I would like to do!

Submitted by Joe at: August 31, 2012
Who could deny Dr. Muhammad"s statement? And of course the nexus between race and poverty has always been strong in the US, while the bond between poverty and inferior education is undeniable. Yet there are plenty of political people not making this message clear, not to mention those who deny it. There is a real battle to be fought!