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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is the race issue obsolete?

Back to the classroom: the continuing relevance of black history

A week ago—just 12 days after the historic inauguration of Barack Obama—the country began its annual commemoration of Black History Month. Typically, the month is marked by specific public rituals: Public television airs documentaries on the African-American experience; schoolchildren read books about black heroes and inventors; newspapers run op-eds on how far we've come or how far we have yet to travel. And, invariably, snippets of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech fill the airwaves in tributes of remembrance. n Is this year different? What new spin does the election of the nation's first African-American president put on the history of racial inequality and progress? Do we even need a Black History Month?

Some conservative commentators will likely insist that we have entered a post-racial America, that Obama's election marks the culmination of a long struggle and the realization of the American promise.

Various liberal and leftist critics will charge that Obama's election changes little, that opponents of racial progress will use the fact of a black "first" to validate their claims that "race is over" and we'd all be better off simply moving on.

Both positions—left and right—underscore not the irrelevance of Black History Month but its importance. Or, rather, the importance of a Black History Month that puts...well, history first.


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