Guest Column: Reflections on Black History Month

Massachusetts State Sen. Kenneth Donnelly shares his thoughts on Black History Month and civil rights.

The following is as Op-Ed piece by Massachusetts State Senator Kenneth Donnelly:

Black History Month is a time to acknowledge the contributions African Americans have made to our country and to reflect on how far we as a nation have come in addressing social injustice.  And while it’s true that we have made great strides, we still face great challenges in creating a true land of equal opportunity.

Today the challenges faced by many, especially young adults and minorities, are that of economic opportunity.  In a speech given in 1963, Dr Martin Luther King stated, “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” The economic conditions King spoke of are as true today as they were in 1963 and while the reasons for the disparities may be different the effect is the same; a few people have much while more and more people have less.

Everyone should have access to a quality education, an opportunity to earn a living wage, and have an affordable, safe and adequate place to live and raise a family.  Unfortunately in Massachusetts and across the country, these basic needs seem to be out of reach for more and more working families, elderly, and young adults.  Wages are dropping.  Jobs that pay enough to support a family are becoming more and more difficult to find.  Staying healthy and getting health care when you need it is becoming unaffordable.

Dr. King’s warning in 1963 -an imbalance between those who have and those who have not- is strikingly true today.   Studies consistently show that minorities face more challenges getting jobs even when comparing potential workers of similar age and education. Black unemployment surged to over 16% while unemployment for whites dropped just above 8% in September of 2011.  Accounting for differences in education and income, African Americans are still hit significantly harder than whites when it comes to job loss. In addition, black men account for a disproportionate percentage of the prison population. Studies consistently show that this imbalance is in large part due to the lack of economic opportunity for black men, exacerbated by difficulties finding a job once released from prison.

People of all ethnic backgrounds face difficult economic times and uncertainty.  While corporations have seen their profits rise significantly, they have been slow to rehire laid off workers or add new jobs.  Safety nets in Massachusetts are not only supporting the poor, but working and middle class families as well.

To address this issue, we must focus on creating a level playing field for all our residents, regardless of their race or ethnic background.  We need a tax system that is coherent and fair.  We must ensure that nobody goes bankrupt paying for healthcare (the number 1 cause of bankruptcy in America).

Moreover, we must support the hard work and commitment of the Governor to close the educational achievement gap.  We must act quickly to provide  affordable quality training opportunities for our under employed  and unemployed workers to fill  the thousands of middle skills jobs that are available now and that will continue to grow in industries such as biotech, clean energy, and healthcare.  We need to ensure underemployed young people and minorities have access to job training programs that will lead to living wage jobs and stability.

Black History Month is a time to remember the incredible contributions and sacrifices African Americans have made for our country and to continue the struggle for equal justice, both social and economic, for all.



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