Black History Month will end on the last day of February, but UCSB research will continue to look deeper into questions of race in American society.
Black History Month began as Negro History Week in 1926 and has been observed annually ever since. A variety of speeches, lectures, activities and events aim to recognize and mend the racial divide in the United States. Local organizers have seen a popular response, but a number of UCSB scholars studying African-American heritage in the U.S. are asking if four weeks is enough.
“[Black History Month] does not in any way make up for the woeful ignorance of the American public,” black studies professor Douglas Daniels said. “It saddens me every year it comes around. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a cancer. I mean, is it anything more than the equivalent of singing happy birthday? We need to do some research on the affects of Black History Month. Maybe a week is enough, maybe a year isn’t enough.”
Daniels said having Black History Month is progress and plays an important part in understanding African-American heritage. However, broader research, such as that going on at UCSB, is necessary to focus attention on a full-time problem 12 month a year.
“It’s an important reminder, albeit once a year, of the important contributions that black people have made to American history, not only in the past but the present. African-Americans are very much a part of the American matrix and have yet to be fully incorporated as Americans,” he said. “I think it needs to be an ongoing dialogue, not just as African-American month, but as African-Americans as part of American history.”
Psychology professor Leda Cosmides and anthropology professor John Tooby are exploring the evolutionary psychology of racial relationships. One experiment tested whether people on racially mixed teams would group themselves by race or by different colored jerseys.
“The question is, do people automatically categorize by race?” said graduate student Debra Lieberman, who was involved with the study. “The answer is, when left to their own devices, yes, that’s true. But people categorize based on other coalitional markers. When left without anything else, I think people would use race as a coalitional marker and tend to group themselves by race. However, give them green jerseys and people will categorize by jersey and not race.”
UCLA graduate student Robert Kurzban, the original author of the study, said the experiment determined that jersey color was more influential than race in the way team members related with each other.
“This is an optimistic message about racial relations,” he said. “It suggests that people are fairly flexible in terms of the social groups they interact with. The human mind is a little more flexible than once thought.”
Political science assistant professor Christopher Parker is studying the flexibility of the brain and how it adjusts to its environment. Parker is studying the effects of war and, more specifically, the effects of Sept. 11 on race relations in the U.S.
“Post-Sept. 11, there was a period of time for the first two months where the country came together and we were close,” he said. “Everyone seemed like they identified with America. But the further we move away, the more race relations turn back to the status quo.”
Wars in which American cultural values are invoked to mobilize the public tend to improve race relations, Parker said. Unless that war endures and expands, however, all progress regresses shortly after the surge in patriotism dies down.
“The sad part of it is saying that race relations will return to the status quo,” he said. “Unless we get involved in a total war, then the benefits of national cohesion that will accrue in the wake of Sept. 11 won’t persist.”
Women’s Studies Dept. Chair Jacqueline Bobo also has misgivings about the impact and efficacy of Black History Month. Her research focuses on the contributions of black women in the media.
“When you have a mainstream film or television program,” she said, “people can watch those programs and at the same time find something that they recognize, and extract from that something that makes them feel good, and feel that there is some sort of authentic representation of their culture.”
Race relations will be the subject of a panel of scholars coming to UCSB from May 2-4. They will examine the effects of slavery in terms of insurance companies and the question of reparations and present their findings to the California State Legislature.