February 19, 2019
by Olanike Ojelabi, Doctoral Student, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs
As African Americans living in America, we have come a long way! From slavery to emancipation to a Black president who served two terms, to many other great accomplishments by Black iconic leaders and individuals for America. This progress made by peoples and communities of African descent is commendable; yet, the health of America’s democracy is questionable if there remain stark disparities in equity and social justice for all.
More than 100 years ago in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois- a civil rights activist who died in Africa- specifically in Accra, Ghana- was a vanguard pan-Africanist, Black sociologist, historian, and the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. Du Bois wrote “The Souls of Black Folk”  and many of his words in this groundbreaking book resonates with the experiences of many peoples of African descent in America today. In his first chapter “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” DuBois highlights this unasked question – How does it feel to be a problem? For Du Bois, Whites couldn’t ask this real question to him directly. Du Bois contended that between him (Blacks) and this other world (America), there remained an invisible line, making it difficult to attain equality. Du Bois would say that despite being free, peoples of African descent remain constrained by the veil – a metaphor for color line that makes it difficult to achieve a relative level of success in America.
Du Bois’ concerns then are still valid today. Racial segregation, discrimination, and inequality are not yet a thing of the past. They pervade many institutions saddled with the responsibility to serve all Americans. An encounter with one institution can affect opportunities in another institution, making it more difficult for many African Americans to succeed. For instance, African Americans are only 13.4% of America’ population; yet, they are over-represented in the criminal justice system, accounting for 40% of the more than 2 million people in it . Our encounter with the criminal justice system can lead to loss of voting right, job, housing, and educational opportunities. These systems, the type of interactions among them, and the conscious or unconscious racialized policies in place continue to enhance racial nuances that have consequential effects for peoples and communities of African descent and America .
The school system, that ought to nurture the intellectual capacity of American children, is another example. Through policies and practices like the zero-tolerance policies, this same system fosters the journey of many Black kids into the criminal justice system in a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline . According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights , Black students, even preschoolers, are disproportionately suspended from school. While Black students represent only 16% of student enrollment, they account for 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest. This is concerning especially when compared with White students who represent 51% of enrollment, but only 39% of those subjected to a school-related arrest . This systematic racism tends to make us oblivious of the persistence of racism, but the experiences and effects linger in our society, even much more in the lives of African Americans who live in this reality.
W.E.B. Du Bois concludes his book with hopes for the future. This will be a future where all Americans irrespective of their identity can be assured equality and justice. We celebrate Black history month in remembrance and appreciation of great Americans – and Africans – like Du Bois, but the joy of celebration will become greater if we celebrate in the realization of their hopes- an America for all. So, let America and all its people rise for racial justice. We can make Black history month celebrate both accomplishments of Blacks in America, and the equality and justice that all Americans have truly achieved!
 W.E.B. Du Bois. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chapter One “Of our spiritual strivings,” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm
 Wagner P., and Rabuy, B. (2019). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017. Prison Policy Initiative https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html
 Grant-Thomas, A., and Powell, J.A. (2009). “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” in A., Grant-Thomas and G., Orfield (Eds.). Twenty-First Century Color Lines: Multiracial Change in Contemporary America (pp. 118-142). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
 Cole, N.L. (2019). Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline. ThoughtCo.
 U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection: Data Snapshot (School Discipline). U.S. Department of Education. https://ocrdata.ed.gov/Downloads/CRDC-School-Discipline-Snapshot.pdf