February is known for many things, but perhaps none are as significant as Black History Month.
Black History Month began as “Negro History Week,” a week which encompassed the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History came up with the idea in 1925, and the first celebration in 1926 brought overwhelming support and activism from both Black and white Americans.
In 1926, the organization expanded the week to a month, celebrating the nation’s first Black History Month. In 2019, as a way to honor Black History Month, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Black Caucus proposed a resolution honoring several black leaders, including Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Leaders of the GOP, however, drafted their own resolution in response, excluding Kaepernick from the list of honorees.
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Kaepernick, a Wisconsin native who played for the San Francisco 49ers, sparked controversy in 2016 after kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality targeting Black Americans. President Donald Trump is one of many who condemned Kaepernick and other NFL players for doing so, even though Kaepernick actually consulted with a military veteran before deciding the action was appropriate.
Assembly Majority Leader Rep.Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, claimed Kaepernick was not included in the resolution “for obvious reasons.” It is worth noting, however, that Steineke — along with nearly all other Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature — are white.
This lack of representation is split strictly across party lines, as all members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus are Democrats. Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, summarized this problem when she said, “Wisconsin white Republicans told not only (the Assembly), but this body and the entire country that a white Republican legislator, that they’re best suited to decide for African-Americans what we should value, who we should honor.”
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Wisconsin is not a very diverse state, with Black people making up only 6.3 percent of the population, while white people comprise 85.9 percent. Nevertheless, a lack of representation in the Legislature should not excuse Wisconsin GOP leaders from removing Black leaders simply because they are deemed “controversial.” In fact, without a single Black Republican in the Wisconsin legislature, GOP leaders have no right to offer their own resolution.
Rep. David Crowley, D-Milwaukee, labeled the exclusion of Kaepernick as a “textbook example of white privilege,” and rightfully argued that as chair of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, he should not need guidance from white representatives on how to honor Black History Month. On the Senate floor, not one white Republican leader tried to defend removing Kaepernick from their resolution.
Unfortunately, without proper representation in the Wisconsin legislature, these kinds of issues will likely continue. Just last year, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, disagreed with the Black Caucus’ resolution for Black History Month honoring 14 Black Wisconsin leaders, offering his own resolution which recognized all Black Wisconsin residents.
Two consecutive years of debate on how to honor Black History Month in the Wisconsin Legislature show just how far Wisconsin has to go in reaching racial equality. That white representatives continuously claim the authority to correct those in the Legislature’s Black Caucus on how to honor their own people is absurd.
The takeaway here is about more than just the Wisconsin Legislature, however. When white people try to interfere with Black people’s decisions on how to honor their own history, it is an intrusion of authority and an assumption that “white people know best.” Especially in a state with such racial inequality, it is imperative that white people continue to acknowledge the validity of other races’ opinions, specifically when it comes to making decisions about their own cultures.
Courtney Degen ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism.