What is called Black History Month might more accurately be called “the sins of white people” month. The “sins” of any branch of the human race are virtually inexhaustible, but the history of blacks in America includes a lot more than the sins of white people, which are put front and center each February.
Obviously, there is current political mileage to be gotten from historic grievances. At a minimum, politicians and activists get the media attention that is the lifeblood of their careers. Then there are racial quotas, money for special minority programs and hopes for reparations for slavery. If nothing else, some people get excuses for their own shortcomings — and excuses are very important.
One of the many penetrating insights of the late Eric Hoffer was that, for many people, an excuse is better than an achievement. That is because an achievement, no matter how great, leaves you having to prove yourself again in the future. But an excuse can last for life.
Those black achievements which did not involve fighting the sins of white people get little attention during Black History Month. Indeed, many of those achievements undermine the blanket excuse that white sins are what prevent blacks from accomplishing more. How many people have heard of Paul Williams, who became a prominent black architect long before the civil rights revolution, or about successful black writers in the 19th century?
There was also an outstanding black high school in Washington, D.C., which had remarkable achievements from 1870 to 1955. For example, most of its graduates during that period went on to college, even though most white high school graduates did not make it to college during that era. As far back as 1899, this school’s students scored higher on standardized tests than two of the three white academic high schools in the District of Columbia.
Given the terrible educational performances of so many ghetto schools, you might think that there would be great interest in how this particular school succeeded when so many others failed. But you would be wrong. Where there was any reaction at all from the black establishment to an article I wrote about the history of this school, that reaction was hostility.
Dunbar High School was an achievement, but it destroyed a thousand excuses. The prevailing dogma is that all the failures of black schools were due to the sins of white people, including inadequate funding and racial segregation. But Dunbar was inadequately funded — its class sizes were 40 or more — and it was racially segregated for more than 80 years. Its history of success was therefore not welcomed by black “leaders.”
Another big problem with Black History Month is its narrowness. You cannot understand even your own history if that is the only history you know. Some explanations of what has happened in your history might sound plausible within the framework of just one people’s history, but these explanations can collapse like a house of cards if you look at the same factors in the histories of other groups, other countries, and other eras.
Shelby Steele has pointed out that whites are desperate to escape guilt and blacks are desperate to escape implications of inferiority. But, viewed against the background of world history, neither group of Americans is unique. Nor are the differences between them. Both their anxieties are overblown.
Black-white differences in income, IQ, lifestyle or anything else you care to name are exceeded by differences between innumerable other groups around the world today and throughout history — even when none of the factors that we blame for the differences in America was present.
For example, when the Romans invaded Britain, they came from an empire with magnificent art, architecture, literature, political organization and military might. But the Britons were an illiterate tribal people. There was not a building on the island, and no Briton’s name had ever been recorded in the pages of history.
The Britons didn’t build London. The Romans built London. And when the Romans left, four centuries later, the country fragmented into tribal domains again, the economy collapsed, and buildings and roads decayed. No one would have dreamed at that point that someday there would be a British Empire to exceed anything the Romans had ever achieved.
Maybe we need a British History Month.
This post originally appeared in Capitalism Magazine in Feb 2002.