As the nation celebrates Black History Month, the O’Neill School is working to amplify Black voices within our own community. From students to faculty and alumni, the O’Neill IUPUI blog will feature guest posts throughout February discussing the individual’s research, fields of expertise, and/or experiences.
Written by: Roxy Lawrence, Director of Evaluation for the IU Public Policy Institute’s Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy
In 1925, the historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the Father of Black History announced Negro History Week—a bold, but necessary proclamation to commemorate the contributions of Black Americans in the United States. Decades later, the United States celebrates Black History Month during the month of February to highlight the plight of Black Americans and commemorate their far-reaching and indelible achievements.
Over the years, there has been much to celebrate. The sacrifices of Black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederik Douglas—who fought for Black suffrage and our collective liberation—have granted Black Americans so many of their inalienable rights. Modern-day heroines like Stacey Abrams, Helen Butler, and Tameika Atkins continue to fight for Black voting rights and representation in the electoral process. Grassroots movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have worked tirelessly to ensure that injustices perpetuated against Black bodies are brought to justice.
Their collective contributions have led us to a reality in which Kamala Harris, the second Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, was also elected as the first Black U.S. Vice President in the past year. In a time with so much uncertainty stemming from an ongoing pandemic and racial injustice, seeing Vice President Harris serve in one of the highest offices in the country might offer Black Americans and youth with much-needed representation in government.
However, while it is pivotal to honor the Black men and women who fought tirelessly—and often to the detriment of their well-being—it is equally important to acknowledge that pervasive anti-Blackness, racial inequity, and social injustice continue to devastate and decimate Black lives and Black communities in this country.
The atrocities committed against Black Americans persist. The nation might not be plagued by slavery or Jim Crow laws, but this cruelty exists in different forms today. Issues such as police brutality and disproportionate incarceration that benefits private prisons. Historically, laws—such as drug laws—have targeted Black communities. Other issues like housing discrimination and gentrification prevent Black Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. Redlining and discriminatory lending practices have converged to keep Black communities segregated.
These concerted efforts to segregate Black communities have also led to severe educational disparities in our country. As a program analyst for the IU Public Policy Institute’s Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP), I see the research firsthand.
A 2021 report from the United Negro College Fund found that Black students attend K-12 schools with less qualified teachers, are less likely to be ready for college, and spend less time in the classroom due to disciplinary measures, which negatively affects their educational attainment. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that higher rates of policing in schools have led to the arrests, suspensions, and expulsions of Black youth, thereby reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. Very often, schools function as a conduit for the mass incarceration of Black people, which directly serves to disenfranchise the Black community. The justice system, however, is not the only place where we experience disenfranchisement. Voter suppression tactics—such as purging Black people from voting lists and the lack of adequate polling stations in Black communities— intentionally exclude us from civically engaging in matters that directly affect our lives.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic further illustrated how racial disparities continue to exist. Similar to what we are seeing nationally, our work at PPI found that Black Hoosiers have disproportionately high infection and death rates. Research has shown that, when compared to white Americans, Black Americans have lower levels of insurance coverage, are less likely to receive high-quality physician care, and have poorer health outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that these enduring systemic health inequities have increased the risk of Black people getting infected and dying from COVID-19. The convergence of all these issues is consequential realities of institutional racism and hegemonic whiteness.
So, you ask, what does Black History Month mean to me? For me, it embodies a duality of Black pride, excellence, and resilience, but also pain, suffering, and exhaustion. It means holding institutions accountable for serving, protecting, and upholding the rights and livelihood of Black people. It means acknowledging that our history and present are not mutually exclusive, but rather interconnected. It means elevating social disparities and inequities through policy research that includes the voices of Black people afflicted by injustices they cannot overcome on their own. It is our hope that through our work at CRISP, Hoosiers will work collectively to challenge institutional racism and rebuild institutions that serve all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background.
For more information on the studies cited in this blog:
Bulatao, R.A., Anderson, N.B. (2004). Understanding Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health and Late Life: A Research Agenda. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK24693/
Center for Disease and Control. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html
United Negro College Fund. (2021). Retrieved from https://uncf.org/pages/k-12-disparity-facts-and-stats
U.S Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. (2014). Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-discipline-snapshot.pdf