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Black History Month Lessons for ‘Trump World’

Fight for equality continues to be a few steps forward followed by pushback

Despite the success of “Hidden Figures,” we are still far from a time when people of color and women play more than token roles in the telling of the nation’s history, Curtis writes. (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)
Despite the success of “Hidden Figures,” we are still far from a time when people of color and women play more than token roles in the telling of the nation’s history, Curtis writes. (Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

Every year, when February rolls around, you hear the same questions: Why do we need a Black History Month? When is White History Month? (The answer to that second question is January through December, by the way.)

For the answer to the first, look no further than the movie that just picked up the top award from the Screen Actors Guild. “Hidden Figures” is about the African-American female mathematicians who helped propel the U.S. space program, and who were mostly left out of the history books and previous film accounts of NASA and the talents who made it soar. (John Glenn wouldn’t leave home without their trajectory equations.)

When people of color and women play more than token roles in the telling of this nation’s history, there will no longer be a need to remedy omissions with a designated month here and there.

In 2017, we are far from that moment.

At what was billed as a “listening session” on Wednesday, Donald Trump, surrounded by African-American supporters and staff, said: “During this month, we honor the tremendous history of the African-Americans throughout our country — throughout the world if you really think about it. … This story is one of unimaginable sacrifice, hard work and faith in America.” It was reported that he also pledged better schools, jobs and wages before detouring to complain, yet again, about the “biased” media.

So much for listening from the world leader whose vision of blacks in America is skewed toward stereotype and generalizations — and that’s putting it mildly. The first step would be to repeal and replace the dark history of Donald Trump, as well as some in his inner circle and in his ear.

The month definitely needs to move beyond the speedy timeline of Rosa Parks sat on a bus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached “I Have a Dream” and President Barack Obama was elected. Ta-da!

In reality, the fight for inclusion in this aspirational yet contentious country has always been a few steps forward followed by pushback: a Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, but was blocked and obstructed by massive resistance for years after; or laws promoting civil rights and voting rights passed in the 1960s after a president was assassinated, but are still being argued over in the courts. Always, part of the justification for justice delayed is that those who seek it, fight for it and die for it are undeserving in some way — haven’t achieved enough or worked hard enough.

Our new president has a history that is part of the pushback.

When presented with the reality of an African-American president, a man whose achievements had to be respected, even when his worldview might not be, Trump tried to delegitimize everything Barack Obama had earned — his election as president of the Harvard Law Review, his citizenship, his right to be president of the United States. That those ideas gained traction among many in Trump’s base proved how fertile the American soil remains for such toxic notions to grow.

We know Trump’s opinion of any neighborhood where minorities reside, a view that was mocked when he incorporated the prosperous and well-educated Atlanta of John Lewis into a “hell scape” scenario. But does the president know that many of America’s neighborhoods remain divided by race because racist mortgage and real-estate rules deliberately structured them that way?

Trump owns a piece of that history, too. After the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which, for example, made restrictive deeds like the ones that still taint my Charlotte, North Carolina, neighborhood unenforceable, the real-estate and building management firm of Trump and his father was still marking “C” for “colored” on the rejected rental applications of African-Americans. After fighting a 1973 Justice Department lawsuit, they eventually agreed to a consent decree that admitted no guilt, but included a list of stringent stipulations.

As it makes its decisions, will a Trump Department of Justice, headed by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who has his own checkered past on race, be mindful of that history? With a Secretary Ben Carson, who has called the Obama administration’s fair housing efforts “failed socialist experiments,” will the Department of Housing and Urban Development care?

As for Trump whisperer Steve Bannon, during his tenure leading Breitbart, the news site ran the headline, “Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage,” weeks after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black parishioners in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Rather than celebrating heritage, those who raised the flag over the statehouse in 1961 were pledging defiance to the civil rights movement, as speeches from the time make clear, if that’s the kind of history you’re interested in learning.

A president won’t get much credit for a shout-out to the “amazing” Frederick Douglass when your policies and policymakers have shown that equality and justice are not at the top of the administration’s “to-do” list while an unvetted travel ban is rolled out, flaws and all.

In one of many moving scenes in “Hidden Figures,” Octavia Spencer as NASA’s first African-American manager, Dorothy Vaughan, is not allowed to borrow a book from the “white” section of the library, one that would help her become an expert FORTRAN programmer. After she slips the book into her purse, she explains to her children on the bus ride home that it’s not stealing because her tax money is paying for that library.

It’s a quiet history lesson, the understanding that for generations, African-Americans paid for schools and buses, roads and pools, every manner of public facility they were prevented by law from using — paying a literal as well as psychological black tax to prop up the lifestyle of others who lapped it up as their due.

Only 28 days of cramming for a billionaire president who won’t reveal his own tax returns.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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