Black history has become a commodity traded by Republicans and corporations

First published in the Guardian February 14, 2014

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass is one of the prominent black icons celebrated by Republican ads for black history month.

Why do we have a Black History Month in America? As many have said, black history should be part of our national conversation 365 days a year, not just jammed into a single month. While it may not have been intended this way, this annual February event only serves to further separate black people from mainstream America.

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream was to see black people treated as equals in this country, protected by the constitution and given the same opportunities to achieve as their white counterparts, yet black history month runs counter to King’s goals of inclusion. Since 1976, when it was officially recognized, it has become a tool used by black activists to shame businesses, schools and politicians into showing blacks they “care”.

And companies seem only too happy to oblige, even though I doubt if any of them really care about black history at all. As February rolls around, we see corporations from McDonald’s to Northrup Grumman advertizing Black History Month. The ads usually begin with “we salute” or “we celebrate”, but they simply don’t want to be called racist for not acknowledging it.

The National Basketball Association’s ads for black history month are somewhat better – they feature black doctors and judges – but even they continue to push the stereotype that all black boys aspire to be professional athletes. Black Miami Heat center Chris Bosh figures prominently throughout the ad. More African-Americans play professional basketball than whites. But how many NFL head coaches are black?

It’s hypocritical for businesses to honor Black History Month when the rest of the year they do little or nothing to mitigate the chronic double digit unemployment of blacks or address the woefully low numbers of blacks in board rooms and executive positions.

What’s the point of corporations honoring black history when they don’t practice what they preach all year long?

Sure, all major corporations have “diversity programs” but these include primarily cosmetic efforts (like honoring black history month). But I’m not necessarily calling for more affirmative action policies. I’m talking about making a commitment to hiring more qualified black people.

In 2011, Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson challenged Fortune 1000 companies in America to seriously address the hiring disparity among blacks and whites by applying the NFL Rooney Rule to their hiring practices. The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to include qualified minority candidates when interviewing for head-coaching or general manager positions. Since the Rooney rule was adopted in 2003, the NFL has hired 12 head coaches and at least one minority head coach or general manager has made it to the Super Bowl every year since 2006.

Johnson emphasized he wasn’t suggesting quotas. He was simply recommending “companies voluntarily implement a plan to interview a minimum of two qualified African American candidates for every job opening at the vice president level and above” among other recommendations. This is an initiative that represents why black history month was created in the first place – to encourage public schools to incorporate the many contributions of black people to US history throughout the year, not just for one month.

The Republican National Committee is also jumping on the black history month bandwagon. It hosted its second annual Black Republican Trailblazer Awards lunch on 4 February in Washington DC and launched its first ever ad targeting black Americans. Blacks are suddenly supposed to take the RNC seriously.

If you haven’t heard, the Republican Party has been short on black votes for the past 50 years. But after Obama won a second term based on winning 93% of the black vote, 71% of the Hispanic vote and 73% of the Asian vote, the GOP is slowly coming to grips with the reality that wooing the white vote won’t win them future elections. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 59% of the white vote in the 2012 election, which the Washington Post called “more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988”.

In a disingenuous, stilted voice, RNC Committee Chairman Reince Priebus declares in the 30 second radio ad, that the RNC honors the achievements of “black Republican trailblazers” like Judge Sara Harper, Michigan businessman Bill Brooks, and Dr Louis Sullivan of Georgia. The equally sterile, unimaginative print ad features several prominent black Republicans like Senator Tim Scott, Frederick Douglass and Condoleezza Rice.

The RNC Trailblazer lunch, which I attended, was more pandering than welcoming. Guests sitting at my table, Allen from Virginia and Jamila Bey of DC, didn’t seem too impressed by the event. Reviewing the crowd of about 300, Allen laughed that the average age of attendees was over 40. The program simply wasn’t very appealing to young blacks. Featuring a loud gospel choir, black actor Joseph C Phillips and the venue of the Howard Theatre, the event seemed to push stereotypes of black Americans more than anything.

Priebus made a point of telling the audience that several black Redskins football players were in attendance along with Toni Braxton’s sister, who was soon to release a new album. The subliminal message here seemed to be that all black people love or aspire to be professional athletes and singers.

Reminding the predominantly black audience of the RNC’s 2013 Growth & Opportunity Project promising to outreach to minority voters, Priebus said:

I’m not interested in hiring a few people down the hallway and calling it outreach …

But that’s exactly what he’s done. Aside from making a few token minority hires, where is the RNC delivering on its message of economic empowerment to blacks or any other minority groups for that matter?

At the event, I asked Jamila, who is an atheist and considers herself apolitical, if she felt excluded by the GOP. “It’s not that I feel, I am ostracized.” It made Jamila feel like an outsider. The RNC, like the black history month it attempts to recognize, simply isn’t inclusive.

During the civil rights movement, my parents sat in at white-only lunch counters in Richmond, Virginia to fight segregation and fight for equality and inclusion in American life 365 days and 12 months of the year. Black History Month seems to take blacks back to those days when we were looked upon as Others, ostracized by the majority. If businesses and organizations like the RNC want to honor the spirit of black history month, they should give blacks the opportunity to participate in every aspect of their operations from machinists to the board room, on and off the court.


If you enjoyed this article, Get email updates (It’s Free)

9 Responses to “Black history has become a commodity traded by Republicans and corporations”

  1. sam smith says:

    The GOP is not even on the radar of Black Americans.

  2. Bruce Guercio says:

    In the 1970’s we were told that Black History Month was to educate the country of the historicity of Black Americans and their contributions to the greatness of America, which had been missing form the average History Class/Book. The commercialization of the idea is nothing new. One just needs to look at Christmas, Memorial Day, Independence Day, even Thanksgiving Day. These Corporations and even the GOP, have been so barraged and harassed by the Liberal Black Activists, like Revs. Jackson, Sharpton, and the like, being called racists and bigots. No matter what program these organisations try to implement it is never viewed as a positive and they are called panderers or just giving lip-service, or just giving tokens to the Black Community. It has become a “Damned if they do, or damned if they don’t” mentality. Especially the GOP has been blasted by the Black Community “Spokespeople”, Democrats and the Media at every turn. Shell-Shock is a term that can easily explain why the GOP and even Corporations don’t reach out as you wish they would. I think this column is an indicator of that process. No matter their actions, the GOP and Corporations have to take the hits from every side.

  3. Franklin says:

    Whites don’t have much time for black history….

    they are to busy protecting themselves from current black thugs….

  4. John says:

    Pat, I don’t believe the older generations have much knowledge of Black Republican history, either. Why? Lack of not only the positive aspects of Black history of long ago, but the positive aspects in the schoolbooks, both grade school and higher education. The “professors” of history don’t even know the significant history that is there.

  5. RON (yep) says:

    i don’t know what to tell you, Ms Crystal, except that most of these programs that people get invited to in general are pretty friggen hokey… it’s amazing that people are too polite to get up and leave.

    maybe that’s what should have happened. perhaps that’d make the message a little more clear to the old frat-boys?


  6. Noel says:

    Why are you so quiet? Come out and play! I miss your comments. What’s your take on black history month?

    I love that face; Frederick Douglass’s. It depicts a Self Made Man.

    No, if businesses and organizations like the RNC want to honor the spirit of black history month, they should honor the spirit of self made men and women. They should give blacks the opportunity to
    participate in the economy by fighting for the spirit of the self made man; laissez faire capitalism, instead of the spirit of crony capitalism and the welfare state.

  7. Pat Longo says:

    So what would you have the RNC do? Ignore the month’s designation? I would consider this a recognition of accomplishment. We do see acknowledgement of many people in many months. Young people have little knowledge of black Republican history.

    How many job creation bills were passed by the House? They were designed for everyone regardless of race or anything else.

  8. Pat Longo says:

    So what would you suggest the RNC should do? Seems to me young people are unaware of early black political history as Republicans.

    How many job creation initiatives were passed by the House? They did not apply only to blacks or whites or any one else, but to all.

Leave a Reply