Black History Month in America is—at its heart—a celebration of triumph. African Americans have overcome slavery, Jim Crow segregation and all the associated atrocities to become full citizens. We have entered every profession that was once closed to us—law, medicine, academia, and so on—and in February, we rightfully shine a spotlight on those incredible accomplishments. But Black History Month is also an occasion to reflect on the work we still have left to do.
The central challenge for American blacks has always been to persuade the entire country to see us as fully human. Slavery and the denial of the full rights of citizenship could never stand if African Americans were recognized as full members of the human race. The challenges we face today are rooted in this same problem. We want our young men to be recognized as human beings, worthy of the benefit of the doubt, not the assumption of criminality. We want our young women to be viewed respectfully, not as fast or loose. We want our hair to be acceptable the way God causes it to grow out of our heads, not to be required to undergo a toxic chemical process before we are received in polite company.
And we want all our children to be welcomed into the world. Several studies have demonstrated that people tend to view black children as “less innocent” than white children of the same age. White children are viewed in light of their potential to achieve great things and contribute to society, while black children are viewed in light of their potential to become victims and harm others. Affirming the full humanity of black children is a central challenge we face as a country if we are to complete the work of the Civil Rights Movement.
One truth that should be self-evident to all Americans is that the first baby of a white woman is no more valuable than the fifth baby of an African American woman. Yet this is not how many people behave. Recently, entrepreneur Leslie Lewis—a married mother of four—apparently had to defend herself against critics who chastised her for being pregnant with her fifth child. This criticism came despite the existence of a myriad of reality television shows celebrating white families with even larger numbers of children. According to Lewis, at least one person accused her of being on welfare and demanded she get on birth control.
Anyone who thinks Lewis’s story is unique does not have very many black friends. In fact, the persecution black women are subjected to for having children (especially more than two) goes far beyond verbal or cyber-harassment. I know several black women—friends and family members—who were pressured by their attending physicians to submit to sterilization when they gave birth to a child. This includes many women who were married at the time they gave birth. A young educated, married black couple I have known for years (both the husband and wife are children of friends of mine) became pregnant with their first child a few months after their 2018 wedding and were offered abortion five times during their prenatal visits.
During slavery, it was in the financial interests of slaveowners to keep birthrates of female slaves high, leading to well-documented atrocities. But after emancipation, a vicious eugenics movement took root, bent on if not exterminating black people, at least reducing us to easily controlled numbers. Over the next century many Americans came to share President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 sentiment that “[L]ess than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” At least 32 states developed federally funded sterilization programs targeted at low-income and minority women. An FDA audit of the clinical trials for contraceptive injection Depo Provera (conducted on low-income, mostly black women without proper consent at Atlanta’s Grady Hospital) concluded that “the clinic sacrificed scientific assessment of the drug’s health risks to its acceptability in promoting family planning goals.”
However unfashionable eugenics may be today, it is hard to deny that it has been a resounding success. Black birth rates have plummeted. Black women are about twice as likely as white women to struggle with infertility. Nationwide, black (and Native American) women are still twice as likely as white women to have been surgically sterilized, and black pregnancies are much more likely to end in abortion. There is also a well-established infant mortality gap, with black babies up to three times as likely to die as white babies in some areas.
So, this Black History Month, let’s remember that all babies—including black babies—are worthy of celebration and welcome. Let’s do whatever we can in our communities to make sure their parents have all the resources and support they need to give them the best possible start in life. And most of all, let’s see them as they truly are: completely innocent and full of potential to change the world!
Rev. Dean Nelson is Executive Director of Human Coalition Action, a pro-life organization committed to advocating for the dignity of all human life, including the unborn. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, Dean Nelson is responsible for advancing the Culture of Life in the political sphere, by building bridges, coalitions, and partnerships. Rev. Nelson also serves as the chairman of the board for the Douglass Leadership Institute.