Most Americans know that February is Black History Month. Newspapers run a few additional civil rights stories; politicians will invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; schools implement some additional lessons; and companies run commercials extolling tolerance and diversity. Whether all this accomplishes anything with respect to the real obstacles that African-Americans routinely face because of their race remains to be seen.
Fewer Americans know that March is designated as “Women’s History Month.” If we did, we could expect Women’s History Month to consist of many of the same gestures as Black History Month—with the result being commercialization and political opportunism, with little lasting change. This is not to say that the efforts to educate people about the struggles faced by African-Americans, women, and other minority groups are pointless. A basic understanding and appreciation of the longstanding oppression of a majority of the people in the United States is necessary to grapple with the ongoing disparate treatment that these groups continue to face. However, this education is often delivered out of context, without paying adequate attention to ongoing marginalization or to finding a plan of action to address it.
Listening to the titular fifteen seconds of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is stirring and inspiring, but we must also be careful not to treat it as an artifact and relegate the civil rights movement to the category of “history.” Placing the struggle for civil rights and equality in the past can create the impression that these issues are no longer relevant today.
Similarly, focusing only on the highlights and successes of these movements can create the impression that discrimination is no longer a problem. Obviously, this is not the case; we work every day with people who have been subjected to discrimination and harassment because of their gender or race, disability or religion. Examining and commemorating the battles won in past struggles for equality is critical, but we cannot let our celebration of progress allow us to ignore past defeats or today’s challenges. The fight against discrimination and for equality is ongoing; perhaps one day our society will have reached a point where we can rest, but we are not there yet.
In order to address the discrimination and prejudice that still exists in this country, we need to acknowledge it in the present. Reviewing the facts of Dr. King’s life and death, or reading about the history of Susan B. Anthony and the suffrage movement, is not enough. Taking time, whether during a “history month” or not, to reflect on the past is important, but reflection alone accomplishes little. It can even be counterproductive if the end result is to instill complacency. During this women’s history month, celebrate historical victories—such as women winning the right to vote and the right to work—but don’t focus only on past achievements: focus on what still needs to be done.
If your employer has discriminated against you because of your race, gender, or any other protected characteristic, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.