DuBois Was Over-Optimistic

This is hardly a gut moment, not a scholarly analysis. But in that old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DeBois about how to advance African American interests, Washington is totally ahead.

To review: DuBois said empowering the Talented Tenth (of which he was one) would have what might be called a trickle down impact for all African Americans. White folks would see their true capabilities. The success of African American leaders would inspire all the others to work harder, do better in school themselves. It was as if that top level success would transform involuntary immigrants to voluntary ones.

Washington was a nuts and bolts kinda guy. He said every African American ought to have solid work skills and a change to apply them.

Frankly, DuBois wasn’t just wrong about the Talented Tenth for African Americans. it isn’t working for any of us. Washington wanted to empower and honor the working class majority, not provide it with tools to escape. His essential wisdom was that most of us are never going to Harvard — as DuBois did — nor should we have to do so to care for our families, our neighborhoods, our country.

My thoughts often turn to diversities of intelligence as an alternative to diversity of skin tone, language group. There are kinesthetic learners in every race and gender, book learners spread out as well. There’s a place to talk about the empowerment of white folks — qualified with limiters like these. 

DuBois was so wrong. if Barack Obama went out for a walk this Sunday at one a.m. with just one Secret Service agent at his side, the D.C. police would probably wonder what he was doing at that place at that time. How close would they have to draw before they recognized him? Being part of the Talented Tenth has gotten him no advantage, except what Secret Service and The Beast can provide. Money can’t buy it. 

DuBois was only right about this. Obama has eliminated the last excuse for racism. What the Talented Tenth has shown the world that it’s not about work, it’s not about talent, it’s not about patriotism, it’s not about family values.

So now, what do we do?


2 thoughts on “DuBois Was Over-Optimistic

  1. Both Booker T. and WEB were wrong. I think Booker T. was more wrong because he thought that there was a way for blacks to prove themselves; that having skills would somehow disprove all the racist lies. Doesn’t seem to have worked.

    I think the reason WEB’s ideas have stood the test of time is because he understood the psychology of the system better than Booker T.

    • Well, both were a bit wrong and both were a bit right. I appreciate your reminder that it was about proving worthiness rather than simply getting a foothold — that escaped my attention. Their long-running debate always evokes for me the universally-applicable debate over class. How much is it about the different dignities of different forms of work, versus how much is it about the individual’s capabilities? Washington, to me, was always getting at the dignity of the workaday laborer — a message we need more and more in today’s hyper-academic elitism.

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