Our chore is to clean up history's mess.

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Black History Month will be over in a week, but the unfinished business of building a more equitable society continues.

A lot of the work has to do with cleaning up after generations that left a mess behind.

The mess affects every person, every institution, every level of government.

Mayor Mike McGinn mentioned it in his State of the City message. It arose in a Supreme Court decision to reconsider whether colleges can use race in admissions, and in the coverage of basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, an Asian American, and apparent government indifference to violence on Indian reservations.

A culture that for most of its history used race as a factor, sometimes the main factor, in doling out our rights and privileges was bound to leave some nasty residue behind.

Lin’s star turn with the New York Knicks has drawn a barrage of bad puns and tasteless comments based on racist stereotypes.

Monday, The New York Times reported that despite high crime rates on Native-American reservations, “the Justice Department, which is responsible for prosecuting the most serious crimes on reservations, files charges in only about half of Indian Country murder investigations and turns down nearly two-thirds of sexual-assault cases. … “

We study history largely because it is essential for understanding our present. Our society didn’t suddenly take form yesterday.

Why do colleges take race into consideration in admissions?

Say you have two very large glasses and you have spent centuries pouring advantages into one of the glasses while giving only a few drops to the other. One day you decide it is unfair to favor one glass over the other, so from that point on you will pour advantages into them equally.

Will the second glass ever catch up? Of course not.

What’s more, there remain many conditions that negatively affect people’s lives long before they get to the point of applying for college and that continue to tip the scales away from black, Native American and Latino Americans in particular.

Poverty, inferior schools, bias in employment remain significant life-shaping factors.

Do we want to change how colleges choose their students? Then we have to improve access to jobs and access to quality education, especially preschool and kindergarten.

Doing nothing means keeping the status quo. We made rapid progress toward a more equitable society in the years after civil-rights legislation passed in the 1960s, but that began to stall as the economy changed in the 1970s, and that social backlash continues.

The country has seen that pattern before. Did you happen to catch the PBS program “Slavery by Another Name”? It’s based on a book by the same name that talks about the virtual slavery that prevailed under Jim Crow laws in the South after Reconstruction ended.

The effort to bring freed people into society began crumbling in state after state about a decade after it began.

Here we are again letting gains stagnate or recede.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, noted current conditions in a recent briefing paper.

“African Americans still reside mainly in separate and unequal communities,” it said.

“Unemployment rates for African Americans have been far higher than those of whites for the past 50 years.”

“Parental unemployment, and not simply low income, has negative effects on children’s educational outcomes.”

The institute prescribed jobs, and proposed a federal program targeted to poor communities that would benefit black, Latino, American Indian and some white communities.

It proposes, “direct public-sector employment, job training with job placement, and wage subsidies for employers who hire unemployed workers.” None of that is going to happen in this economy, as the institute acknowledges. But we can still make progress if we first recognize there is a problem. Seattle has had wake-up calls on a number of fronts and the mayor said Tuesday he takes them seriously.

McGinn decried the role race still plays in education, employment, housing and policing, and listed the action the city is taking to address each of those areas.

The mayor said, “We will work to be the city that Seattle wants to be, a city where people can achieve, and be treated with dignity, no matter what their race or background.”

That’s the kind of country we should aspire to be as well.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.