The Smithsonian Institute will open the African American Museum of History and Culture on September 24th featuring exhibits that honor prominent figures in African American history. But the inauguration of the museum is a token concession made on behalf of a society that marginalizes African Americans. Contemporary issues of institutional racism and widespread poverty among black communities are trivialized by the media and disregarded by elected officials. Erecting a museum to honor African American history when racial injustice is still prevalent in the 21st Century is a yielding compromise that benefits everyone except the black community.
Establishing the African American Museum of History and Culture does not hide the fact that blacks have been treated as second-class citizens from before the founding of the country through the present. In fact, even passing legislation to establish the museum exemplifies how legislators neglect bills that affect blacks, unless the legislators can benefit politically from the legislation.
The first proposal to establish the museum was pitched in 1915. The idea was proposed by former black Civil War soldiers who wanted to create a museum to honor black Union Army veterans. Legislation to create the museum was struck down at least 13 times between 1915 and 2003. Congress wanted black representatives to make concessions – such as moving the location of the museum to the outskirts of D.C.,miles from the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall. Members of Congress and the President passed the bill only when it was politically convenient. President George W. Bush signed legislation in 2003 establishing the creation of the museum, after Bush received only nine percent of the black vote in the 2000 election. The passage of this legislation bears similarities to Ronald Reagan, who received less than 20 percent of the black vote in 1980, mandating that Martin Luther King Jr. Day be celebrated as a federal holiday in 1983. Both pieces of legislation were signed by the Republican Presidents to gain favor with black voters.
When legislation for the museum passed in 2003, only 39 of the 538 members of Congress were black. In 2016, only 47 of the 540 members of Congress are black. With such small representation in the nation’s highest legislative branches, it’s hardly surprising that the black community is underrepresented in nearly every aspect of society. The administrations of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush initiated policies that further exacerbated issues of poverty, increased the wealth gap between rich and poor and white and black.
The Clinton administration stripped social programs that would benefit low-income families, forced poor families off of welfare, denied financial help to families with underprivileged children, and denied health insurance to nearly 11 million uninsured children. In the meantime, the administration spent $8 billion to build more prisons.
Since the Clinton administration passed the Crime Bill of 1994, blacks have been negatively affected by a racially biased criminal justice system. According to the National Research Council, there was a 222 percent increase in the prison population between 1980 and 2010. Black men are convicted to prison terms 20 percent longer than whites that are convicted of the same crime. The Crime Bill of 1996 imposed harsher sentencing laws. However, studies have shown that harsher sentences do not affect the rate of crime. Neighborhoods that suffer from extreme poverty breed more crime. The “tough on crime” approach of the United States government has led to money being spent on prisons and not the epidemic of poverty. While only 10 percent of whites live in poverty, the poverty rate among blacks is nearly 27 percent. Likewise, 36 percent of the children who live in poverty are black.
Blacks are six times more likely than whites to be sent to prison. Policing in the US has been ruled discriminatory toward blacks on several occasions. In the 1990’s, the Superior Court of New Jersey ruled that blacks were disproportionately targeted by state troopers while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. A federal district judge in New York ruled in 2013 that New York City’s “stop and frisk” program violated the constitutional rights of blacks and Hispanics by encouraging police officers to target minorities. There were 4.4 million stops conducted under the “stop and frisk” program by NYC police between 2004 and 2012; 83 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic. Despite this ruling and the similar conclusion of an internal investigation of the program in 1999, stop and frisk programs continue in New York and at least six other major cities.
When issues regarding the black community are raised, the media trivializes the reality of the problem and uses the response of the black community to create further divisiveness between blacks and whites. For instance, the media’s response to black NFL players refusing to stand for the National Anthem is an example of the media further dividing America by race, rather than highlighting the issues of class injustices between races which leads to an epidemic of poverty in the black community. Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for San Francisco 49’ers, launched the protests by refusing to stand during the performance of the National Anthem at NFL games. While two-thirds of NFL players are black, coverage of the protests have come from a predominately white-male driven media, leading to largely negative coverage of the protests. The media has questioned the sincerity and the appropriateness of the players involved, instead of focusing on the issues of racial injustices raised by the players.
This is not the only time media has covered blacks negatively. In fact, a study by the Heinz Endowment’s African-American Men and Boys Task Force concluded that African-Americans are rarely covered in the media, and when they are covered, stories center on crime and sports. According to the study, a black American’s mug shot is four times more likely to appear on screen than a white’s. Similarly, blacks are twice as likely to be shown being physically restrained than whites.
Black voices are also silenced on the ballot. According to a University of Massachusetts study, laws restricting voter access often are passed in states that have large minority voter turnout. The study determined that restrictive legislation was passed in states with a higher-than-usual turnout of minority voters in the 2008 election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, seven out of eleven states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008 passed restrictive voting laws, and nine of fifteen Southern States that were previously monitored for racial discrimination passed restrictive laws. Since the 2010 midterm elections, 20 states passed laws that curtail minority voters. Keeping blacks away from the polls prevents progressive change coming from the government.
Skyscrapers, office buildings, and museums cannot hide the prevailing underlying causes of racial injustices in American society. Racism no longer comes with cross-burning ceremonies or white hoods – rather it comes more covertly in the form of legislation, policing, and media coverage. The opening of the Smithsonian Institute’s African-American Museum of History and Culture is meant to honor progress made by blacks to overcome slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and discrimination, but it’s hard to accept the museum as a genuine effort to honor the past when the struggle against racial injustice is a history that is still being written.