Henry Louis Gates on Black America and the Class Divide

Today’s student activists could be considered the grandchildren of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “talented 10th.” Above, protesting last November at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times
Today’s student activists could be considered the grandchildren of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “talented 10th.” Above, protesting last November at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus. Credit Daniel Brenner for The New York Times

The economic gap within the African-American community is
one of the most important factors in the rise of Black Lives
Matter, led by a new generation of college graduates and students.

In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois, the leading scholar of the first half of the 20th century, defined the urgency of black social responsibility in his famous essay “The Talented Tenth” — 10 being the percentage of the African-American demographic needed to lead the race into an integrated, equal America. In “The Talented Tenth,” Du Bois called for “intelligent leadership” directed by “college-trained men” devoted to a “thorough understanding of the mass of Negroes and their problems” for the purpose of solving these problems, still so deeply entrenched a half century after the abolition of slavery.

Forty-five years later, Du Bois would lament, this call had been largely ignored. He worried aloud about the growing class divide within Black America and how the consequences of that divide might affect the task of “lifting as we climb,” the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, describing the privilege and burden of the middle class to facilitate black upward mobility.

Indeed, by 1948 Du Bois felt that the new black middle class had forgotten this noble calling. There had been, even during his college days at Fisk, troublesome warning signs: “sharp young persons, who received the education given very cheaply at Fisk University, with the distinct and single-minded idea, of seeing how much they could make out of it for themselves, and nobody else.”

Du Bois knew, of course, that any black person at that time had to struggle to tear down barriers just to lift oneself and one’s family. But that was not enough: Successful black people, he said, must recognize that their place in life was merely a matter of opportunity. “If such opportunity were extended and broadened, a thousand times as many Negroes could join the ranks of the educated and able, instead of sinking into poverty, disease, and crime.”

Du Bois also knew that Black America had never consisted of one social or economic class. Even before the outbreak of the Civil War, about 11 percent of Black America was free, some born into families that had been free for generations. And in 1899, when Du Bois published his seminal sociological study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” he was already noting that these two classes had morphed into four: the middle class and above, working people (“fair to comfortable”), the poor and, in terms his Victorian contemporaries would have approved of, the “vicious and criminal classes.”

Du Bois would probably be astonished to see how these classes have fared, especially since the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just as new affirmative action programs were beginning to expand drastically the ranks of black students on white campuses and thus to affect the class structure of Black America.

The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson calls the remarkable gains in black income “the most significant change” since Dr. King’s passing. When adjusted for inflation to 2014 dollars, the percentage of African-Americans making at least $75,000 more than doubled from 1970 to 2014, to 21 percent. Those making $100,000 or more nearly quadrupled, to 13 percent (in contrast, white Americans saw a less impressive increase, from 11 to 26 percent). Du Bois’s “talented 10th” has become the “prosperous 13 percent.”

But, Dr. Wilson is quick to note, the percentage of Black America with income below $15,000 declined by only four percentage points, to 22 percent.

In other words, there are really two nations within Black America. The problem of income inequality, Dr. Wilson concludes, is not between Black America and White America but between black haves and have-nots, something we don’t often discuss in public in an era dominated by a narrative of fear and failure and the claim that racism impacts 42 million people in all the same ways.

What effect, many of us have worried, would this unprecedented rise in prosperity have on the New Millennials? Would they heed Du Bois’s call, as students like John Lewis and Julian Bond, Charlayne Hunter and Diane Nash did under the leadership of the “Negro Gandhi” presciently predicted by Du Bois back in 1948?

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Source: The New York Times | HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.