"I'm glad this is a leap year because we'll have an extra day this month to hear platitudes about blacks in America." That was the sentiment expressed by a friend — who is also black — in a recent discussion about Black History Month and the progress of blacks in America.
I agree with him; and I believe it to be a true and valid depiction of how we have all come to deal with matters of race today, especially since the election of Barack Obama. We need to take the blinders off. There's no better illustration of those blinders than what was captured in the finger-wagging episode between Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and President Obama. As noted in Politico, "If there were any illusion that 2012 would be the post-racial election most Americans hoped for, it vanished with that single shake of a finger." I thought 2008 was the postracial election. So much for that idea.
This brings me back to my friend's sarcastic assessment of Black History Month. While I get the sarcasm, I also take from his words a genuine concern that the annual observance has become nothing more than a placebo designed to further the black community's sense of "belonging" in America, but to no real political or sociological effect.
It should not be lost on us that the racial lines between black and white America are not as well defined as they once were. In fact, those lines have taken on new hues and textures as America has changed.
But despite the increasingly camouflaged nature of race relations (and racism), the story of black people in America continues to be told through the lives, experiences and contributions of men and women of uncommon strength, imagination and success. That story has survived the abomination of slavery and flourished, despite separate-but-equal treatment in the past. It is, in its purest form, the story of men and women who remained faithful to our country's ideals and who continue to pass on to the next generation their story of devotion to family and community, God and country.
Black history is not so much about the past as it is about our present and our future. It helps us define who we are and what we mean to a nation that still struggles with matters of race. No doubt, enormous strides have been made since the days blacks were water-hosed for wanting an education, or refused service at a lunch counter, but there remains so much unsettled business buried beneath the surface of our relationship with the rest of America.
And let's be honest about that, too: This racial dynamic may have many hues to it, but its primary colors have been and will remain black and white. Consequently, we must not allow black history to be diminished — or the need to recognize where it has led us to be appropriated by others in order to elevate their own causes or agendas.
The fact that there are perceived (or real) "racial overtones" in the image of a white woman wagging her finger in the face of a black man; or in referring to that same black man as a "food stamp president"; or in equating more than 300 years of black struggle with pop-culture issues should tell each of us that we need to deal with the unsettled stuff beneath the surface as we jealously protect the rich legacy that is black history.
In his 2008 speech on race, President Obama noted with great eloquence that " … words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggles, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time."
In order to narrow the gap between our ideals and reality, each of us must continue to challenge the narrative about what it means to be black in America today.
Not far from the Capitol steps on which I was inaugurated the first black lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2002, the ancestor of Roots writer Alex Haley, Kunta Kinte, was sold into slavery more than 150 years ago. Moreover, not far from the very Capitol steps on which Barack Obama was inaugurated the nation's first black president, our parents and grandparents could not drink from the same water fountain as whites 50 years ago.
But standing on Capitol steps is not solely a testament to progress but also a challenge to the idea that we have completed the journey. Such progress, while impressive, leaves us wanting in the face of too-high incarceration rates, unemployment rates, drop-out rates, abortion rates, HIV-infection rates and the general rate of poverty in the black community.
Moreover, we should recognize that sometimes we are enslaved not by the hands of others but by our own hands. As we address the external issues that confront our communities, we must also address the internal issues that affect our community.
Once we truly appreciate the struggles of preceding generations, we can begin to comprehend our own destiny and confront more effectively the vestiges of old and new racism, segregation and self-hate that buttress the statistics and labels that have come to define our community.
In the 46 years since the launch of Great Society programs to alleviate poverty and racism, the long odds faced by successive generations of black children have changed very little.
At some point — and it had better be soon — the black community must define its agenda and fundamentally realign its priorities. Otherwise, our stake in Dr. King's dream — let alone the American dream — will further erode to the point of eliminating any sense of ownership of our history, our culture or our future.
Diminished access to high-quality education, and fewer and fewer opportunities either to have a job or to own a business, are not the lessons or the legacy that black history offers us. Further still, the old approaches born out of a Great Society ideology of dependency and victimhood have left many in the black community lurching from one promise to the next that "this time" those promises will be fulfilled. Meanwhile, others move ahead of us in the line.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Black history teaches us that. Without a doubt, educational and economic upward mobility is the root source of empowerment, ownership and opportunity. You undermine this movement, and you guarantee preservation of the status quo. And as you and I know, America has never settled for the status quo.
Black History Month begs us to ask, "Why should we?"
Michael Steele is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is currently a political analyst for MSNBC.