By Marian Wright Edelman
Carter G. Woodson, son of former slaves, pioneering Harvard-trained historian, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and inspirer of Black History Month, very clear that celebrating our rich Black history of struggle and courage was not the same as getting stuck in the past, but if we are going to understand the present and protect the future we must understand where we came from and what it took to get us here.
Black History Month is not just for Black Americans. It is for all Americans as we are at the tipping point of a country where the majority of our children are non-White. Black history is American history.
The Children’s Defense Fund’s recent report on The State of America’s Children 2014 shows children of color are already a majority of all children under 2 and in five years children of color will be the majority of all children in America. Yet CDF found the state of Black children in America today is grim.
A Black baby is born into poverty every two-and-a-half minutes. Over 4 million Black children (40 percent) were poor in 2012, compared to 5.2 million White children (14 percent). Twenty-five percent of poor children are Black although Black children are only 14 percent of the child population.
Black children suffer worse health outcomes. Black babies are more than twice as likely as White babies to die before their first birthdays and Black children are twice as likely to die before their 18th birthdays as White children. Black babies are more likely to die before their first birthdays than babies in 72 other countries, including Sri Lanka, Cuba, and Romania. Although 95 percent of all children are now eligible for health coverage, Black children are 40 percent more likely to be uninsured than White children and over 1 million Black children (9.5 percent) are uninsured. Access to health coverage is not actual coverage until we make every effort to enroll every child.
Children who cannot read or compute are being sentenced to social and economic death in our competitive globalizing economy and too many Black students fall behind in school early on and do not catch up. Black children begin kindergarten with lower levels of school readiness than White children and our country has been very slow in investing in high quality early childhood programs unlike many of our competitor nations.
More than 80 percent of fourth and eighth grade Black public school students cannot read or compute at grade level and Black children are more than twice as likely to drop out as White children. Each school day, 763 Black high school students drop out. Black students scored the lowest of any racial/ethnic group on the ACT® college entrance exam. Only 5 percent of these Black high school students were college ready compared to 33 percent of White students and 43 percent of Asian students.
Black children are at great risk of being funneled into the prison pipeline. A Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime. The schools are a major feeder system into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Black students made up only 18 percent of students in public schools in 2009-2010 but were 40 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. A Black public school student is suspended every 4 seconds of the school day. A Black child is arrested every 68 seconds. Black children and youth make up 32 percent of children arrested and 40 percent of all children and youth in residential placement in the juvenile justice system. Black children are overrepresented in abuse and neglect cases and in foster care.
Gun violence is the leading cause of death among Black children ages 1-19 although there is no hiding place for any of us from pervasive gun violence in America. Each day, three Black children or teens are killed by guns. Black children and teens are nearly five times more likely to die from gun violence than White children and teens. The number of Black children and teens killed by guns between 1963 and 2010 is 17 times greater than the recorded lynchings of Black people of all ages between 1882 and 1968.
I hope this Black History Month is not just about our history but about our obligation to protect our children and move our nation forward in our multiracial world.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.