The Talented Tenth Betrayed the Black Community

The Collectivist Left has propagated a narrative that blames the problems in the black community on racism in America.  While race is an illegitimate standard by which to assess such political questions in a country which has proven equal protection before the law, let’s talk in terms of racial distinctions for the purpose of relating the Collectivist Left’s narrative to WEB DuBois’ 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth.”   In looking for a cause to contemporary concrete problems of racial self-segregation, economic lagging, educational gaps, et al, it is correct to look for the ideas that are the root cause of these consequences.  That cause was the shift of black intellectual thought from the American individualism of Booker T Washington to the Germanic collectivism of WEB DuBois as exemplified by DuBois’ “The Talented Tenth” essay.

A hundred plus years ago, there was a leadership transition amongst American black intellectuals from Booker T Washington to WEB DuBois, who had fundamental differences at the root of their intellectual contributions.

Born a slave, Washington was educated at Hampton Normal School, which had the purpose of educating freedmen after the Civil War, and he went on to create the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  Washington emphasized the improvement of individuals through practical education for the purpose of skills development to support an independent and productive life.

In contrast, DuBois was born in the North to a family that had immigrated from the Caribbean and had been free before the Civil War; he was educated at Harvard, studied in Germany, and founded the NAACP.  DuBois emphasized collective political action by the black community led by an educated elite to achieve broad political rights.

Thus, in the context of the then Jim Crow South, their disagreement was concretely over whether it was more important to educate the masses and secure economic freedoms [Washington] or educate an elite who would negotiate with the power structure to secure political rights.  Today, DuBois’ emphasis has been achieved by the black elites who continue to hold on to their personal position and power while lamenting that Washington’s emphasis was not achieved and DuBois’ achievements are insufficient while developing of a dependent fatherless underclass.  By examining DuBois’ “The Talented Tenth” essay, we can identify ideas that are at the root of these negative consequences in order to identify necessary ideological corrections.

In his 1903 essay, DuBois’ fundamental thesis, in contrast to Washington, was that the primary emphasis must be placed on the development and education of an elite, the exceptional 10%, who would lead the black community “away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.” Further, DuBois derided education focused on technical skill and making money.  After the foundation of an educated black elite had been achieved, then the black community would develop skills and talents necessary for bread winning. DuBois identified that historically “the sole obstacles that nullified and retarded their efforts were slavery and race prejudice;” given the current prevalence after more than 100 years of this same claim, one may question the effectiveness of today’s black political elites at achieving meaningful change.

For DuBois, the development of these few black elites would be done by colleges and universities where these superior individuals “are not so mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toil of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies, and no God greater than Gold.” As they had been, DuBois expected that the educated elite would be “the group leader, the man who sets the ideals of the community where he lives, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements;” yet at that time, he found that the black community was deficient in such social leadership. For DuBois, it was particularly important that the ignorant masses be taught by “teachers of their own race and blood” as a demonstration for those masses of “an attainable ideal” through the representation of a black teacher.  Further, that the work of such teachers not be focused “simply for bread winning, but also for human culture,” which I add would be informed by an alien German collectivist philosophy of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al as a basis for DuBois’ new culture. DuBois acknowledged the importance of industrial education for the masses, but prioritized developing institutions and spending money so that a limited number of college educated black elites could be trained in order “to inspire the masses, to raise the Talented Tenth to leadership.”

Overall, DuBois is a skilled reporter of facts, but his analysis of those facts is corrupted by flawed collectivist premises.  The point now is not to reargue the correct policy to be followed after 1903, but to look at the consequences of those ideas applied to reality over decades and to assess the need to change old thinking.  Now in Current Year, Jim Crow and legal segregation has been abolished for a few generations. For that, much credit is owed to the NAACP’s legal work in overturning racial discrimination through the courts and later legislatures.  Yet today, despite the creation and empowerment of the Talented Tenth, many of the concrete points cited by DuBois in his essay still are a problem today, such as fatherlessness, a lack of qualified teachers, and the negative social influence of degrading cultural forces.

Today, there isn’t actually a uniform black community as was mostly true in the segregated South familiar to Washington and DuBois. Instead of a shared history of slavery, segregation, legal abuse, and alienation, the black “community” today contains a diversity of those who integrated, those who immigrated from other countries in order to live the American dream, urban descendants of the Great Migration to the North, and an underclass of government dependents.  Frankly, the black “community” is full of individuals who live the American promise with the exception of that intergenerational underclass of government dependents, who also exist in all other races as well.

Political rhetoric today focuses on the intergenerational underclass who are essentially shepherded by DuBois’ Talented Tenth as the basis for their privileged careers and political power.  In exchange for political patronage [government jobs, contract set asides, welfare spending and subsidies], the Talented Tenth delivers the black vote to the Democratic Party machine at a rate higher than any other constituency.  In exchange, the Talented Tenth agree to policies that harm the black community such as:

  • restrictive labor and business laws that sacrifice jobs,
  • professional certification and licensing requirements that expensively block opportunities,
  • gun disarmament that prevents self-defense from criminals,
  • financial inducements to block the formation of intact families,
  • political attacks on private trade schools that offer vocational training in high paying job sectors, and
  • financial regulations that obstruct access to credit.

Of the above, the most pernicious are the urban public schools that utterly fail in the education of urban youth while operating for the benefit of the employees utilizing such misbegotten educational theories that it amounts to crippling the children. This was the big failed promise of DuBois in the Talented Tenth…the investment in educating the elite did not translate into black students developing life skills under the guidance of inspiring black teachers.  Instead, the Talented Tenth through their political influence in the Democratic Party made efforts to block all efforts to improve the education of urban black students by:

  • testing teacher qualifications,
  • firing ineffective teachers,
  • incentivizing teachers through merit pay and performance bonuses,
  • allowing for competition of private education management through charter schools,
  • reassignment of students with disruptive discipline issues,
  • abandoning Progressive educational methods that fail to educate, and
  • a commitment to funding and promoting vocational course options.

Beyond just the underclass and urban communities, DuBois’ prioritization has had a broader negative outcome over cultural norms related to what it means to be black in America.  Earnings gaps are still being reported by race; such gaps are attributable to the ideas in DuBois’ Talent Tenth essay as it has influenced education and career choices.  Consistent with DuBois’ direction, American blacks tend to gain higher education degrees in less lucrative fields, seek employment in the lower paid public instead of the private sector, and opt less often for employment in business leadership and entrepreneurship.  Of course, each individual makes their own choices about their education and career, yet broader trends are consistent with DuBois’ themes of anti-capitalism and community development in his Talented Tenth essay.

The gap between the promises of DuBois’ Talented Tenth and actual outcomes impacting individual lives has fostered more recriminations and complaints of betrayal than an actual conversation about whether the correct ideas are being used to achieve the correct goals.  Several generations after segregation and Jim Crow ended now is the time to seriously have that conversation.  Politically the #Blexit rhetoric and energy of new black conservatives promise a broader discussion than has been had, but that is not fundamental enough and has not seriously engaged black intellectuals who broadly speaking are happy to personally benefit in the status quo from their Talented Tenth pedestals.

While DuBois was correct to say fundamental educational and moral reform was necessary, he was utterly mistaken in his anti-capitalism and degradation of productive work in all but a few fields.  Related to education reform today, public control of education and financing is the primary obstacle to better education outcomes for students.  Without K-12 privatization, the best option for parents, especially fathers, is to invest more time and money in actively developing their own children as the public schools will not do so.  DuBois and many of today’s new black conservatives would agree that moral reform would be led by Christian churches; however, I suggest a more radical and individual approach to moral reform through Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics, a rational selfishness rooted in purpose, the practice of virtues, and a fundamental understanding of the role of choice in each of our lives.

In general, contrary to DuBois, we need to focus on American solutions and not black solutions; further, these changes need to be rooted in ideas from American individualism and not DuBois’ Germanic collectivism.  Such change does not require everyone to agree, as each individual is at liberty to choose paths that primarily advance their own life and that of their loved ones while possibly having a secondary positive influence in their acquaintances.  Fundamentally, this is accomplished by individuals independently identifying the values that they seek in their own life, including in their productive work, without subordinating themselves to someone else’s expectations or direction.  Each of us needs to recognize that our lives are fundamentally the consequences of our choices, and not the influence of external forces such as racism, while we each take responsibility for our own choices.

Within the context of politics, each of us must also think independently instead of following a racially assigned script or be obedient to the choices of a political party. Personally, I recommend everyone consider that the protection of each of our individual rights is the only legitimate basis for government action and that government restraints on each of our ability to act on our own moral judgment should be repealed so that we are free to pursue our opportunities without violating the rights of anyone else.

Within the context of this post, I don’t intend to be prescriptive of what the reader must think on these issues but emphasize instead that they must think and do so fundamentally.  The lives of too many of our fellow Americans are circling the drain of DuBois’ impotent ideas. Many of the same problems that he identified not only still exist but are worse in many ways.  It is time for each of us to learn from past mistakes and make new choices wisely.

 

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