(Note: Scroll down to the end for a link to 21 free graphics for observing Black History Month.)
by Kenneth Rudich
One main point of interest about this change is the degree to which it democratizes the myriad voices of the American public. It’s an unprecedented phenomenon, in no small part due to present day technology.
Three technological attributes in particular have opened doors once closed to many. They are:
- Accessibility – it’s readily available, easy-to-use and comparatively inexpensive. It has made digitally connected devices and platforms commonplace and widespread.
- Immediacy – it provides the capability of bringing one into direct and instant involvement with something, often giving rise to a sense of urgency or excitement. It exponentially enhances the ability to be situationally responsive.
- Scalability – it can accommodate a range of uses — from “one-to-one” interactions to “one-to-many” — on a global level.
These three attributes, working in concert together, have unleashed a communications revolution; and it, in turn, has afforded a far greater degree of democratization.
But what does this mean for American culture, and how does it affect a national observance like Black History Month?
A Simple Social Construct
Let’s begin with a simple social construct like the one above. It represents the way we tend to organize our world, from a single individual at the base to society at-large on top. In between are the various layers that make up the better part of an average person’s journey through life.
We can employ the practice of “aggregation-disaggregation” to flesh this out further.
The verb to aggregate is to form, assemble or group into a class or cluster. This is bottom-up in the social construct.
Disaggregate is to separate or disassemble (something) into its component parts. This appears as top-down.
We’ve all seen this idea used in numerous circumstances and for countless reasons. One common example is in data analysis. The possibilities for aggregating-disaggregating data — also known as “slice-and-dice” — in a large and diverse society are nearly endless.
Here’s a hierarchical chart to show one example of this process in action.
Starting at the top level, U.S. society at-large is divisible into many different cultural groups, one of which is African-Americans (AA) (Note: the Etc. in this graphic is shorthand for saying we’ve run out of room to list all possible groups). It’s then feasible to disaggregate the AA group into a sub-grouping of males and females, whereby each of these is populated by individuals from the base of the chart.
Here’s another possible representation of U.S. society at-large.
Again, these are but two examples from a multitude of possibilities for filtering — slicing and dicing — data/information about people as they pass through the social construct.
In reality, most people slip in and out of different dominant roles and identities during the course of any given day, let alone through life in general. Aggregation-disaggregation is one way of depicting this sometimes nuanced dynamic.
For example, in one circumstance, such as a race discussion, a woman may identify herself as African-American first and female second. In another, such as child care, she may be female first and African-American second. In still other cases, like shopping for certain cosmetics or hair products, being AA and female may be of equal importance.
Social Causes and Activism
For social causes, social movements, social advocacy and social activism, the idea of aggregation-disaggregation merits special attention. The reason is because these activities tend to be predominantly self-organizing (self-aggregating) in the lower levels of the social construct, but must then shift gears and become more formally organized at the societal level if it’s to survive and be sustainable.
Let’s look at the two major types of clustering patterns that typically occur under these conditions:
- Affinity Clustering – when people aggregate together due to sharing similar or unique core characteristics, beliefs, culture or values. For example, political parties bring together like-minded people into the group level from the bottom-up. Here’s another example: at the societal level, all people in the U.S. are subject to the same rule of law regardless of political affiliation or any other affinity origins such as religion, race, etc. This represents a shared common value at the societal level, which is why instances of unequal enforcement can draw people together from various groups for ad hoc rallies or protests.
- Alliance Building – relationships, usually strategic, based on deriving a mutual benefit or stronger sum effect, outside of what a single affinity cluster alone can offer. For example, some readers may remember the emergence of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” in 1984. It was comprised of different minority groups with common political worries, such as social programs, voting rights and affirmative action. The attempt was to forge a stronger sum effect through a strategic alliance.
In Part 1 of this series, Carter G. Woodson’s combination short term/long term strategy for Negro History Week reflects a similar appreciation for these two types of clustering. The fact that it took 50 years to get Black History Month formally adopted by the federal government (which amounts to a strategic alliance outcome at the societal level) suggests that Woodson had prepared well for a long and intensely process-driven climb up the social construct.
Modern Technology’s Influence
The democratizing power of modern communications technology has thus far had a mixed (and sometimes bittersweet) effect on this social construct process.
On one hand, it has helped to facilitate the affinity clustering aspect by allowing news and information to be tailored in a manner that speaks directly to the concerns of a given audience or affinity group (you may have alternately heard this described as target marketing or mass customization).
The African-American community, for example, can boast the emergence of online publications like theGrio.com and theroot.com, the formation of so-called “black twitter,” and other specialized online forums.
To be sure, they’re not alone. Nearly every kind of affinity cluster you can name is being better served in this manner due to the democratizing effect of modern technology. And nearly every one of them has gotten better at being situationally responsive to the issues that affect their dominant affinity group identity.
On the other hand, greater democratization also may be responsible for introducing more tension than ever at the societal level. The thrust toward stronger affinity clustering has fostered a seemingly waning appetite for seeking common ground across the various groups at the societal level. Even the press has been called out on occasion as a dubious agent for truth and objectivity, due to exhibiting certain biases.
Admittedly, this is not an entirely new dynamic in America, but it can be argued that modern technology has, so far at least, made it livelier, more inclusive and more contentious. Individual group identity agendas have become clearly enunciated and amplified as a direct result of what technology brings to the table.
What about Black History Month?
A pessimist might say things are getting worse for the nation because of this dynamic, especially if trends of cynicism and distrust continue to deepen.
An optimist might say this dynamic actually provides a larger reason for hope – because although it may be initially chaotic and somewhat uncomfortable, it could in time become a catalyst for finding better ways to resolve our issues, embrace our diversity, preserve our democracy, and ultimately move the nation forward in a manner that brings it closer to having every citizen live with dignity and respect.
And perhaps we’re already getting a glimpse of how this might work. We’ve chosen three examples to illustrate this very point.
This piece is informative on several levels. First, consider the nature of the controversy – what caused it and how it came into being. Second, consider the nature of the response and the wholesome display of emotional intelligence that accompanies it (P.S.- It’s also worthwhile to read through the comments section.). It’s an illustration of how democratization can spur greater engagement and dialogue.
Second: “The Good News About Race And Crime In America,” by Radley Balko.
Watch out, you might be misled! In this report, the author uses aggregate data to debunk myths and misconceptions people tend to espouse when they rely too much on personal gut instinct and media coverage trends. You may very well find this content quite surprising in view of what you now hold to be true. Plus, it’ll drive home the reason we invested in explaining the concept of aggregation-disaggregation. In this case it offers an alternative world-view, with support from reasonable, rational evidence.
If dignity and respect derive from arousing empathy and compassion, then this short but stirring video will almost certainly hit you where it counts. As now deceased radio/tv personality Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darndest things.” Sometimes, too, they make adults think and re-think.
Modern Black History Month
In the final analysis, Carter G. Woodson’s lofty vision was less about a certain week or month than it was about everything surrounding it.
It’s about the past and present and future; about individuals and sub-groups and groups; about roles and identities.
Most of all, it’s about the intensely process-driven aggregate effect of “being a great factor in our civilization.”
Grab our 21 Free Graphics for Observing Black History Month on your Internet websites and social media platforms.