On September 18, 1895, Booker Taliaferro Washington ascended a stage in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Cotton States Exposition and delivered the speech that led to his, along with W.E.B. Du Bois, becoming the leading “race man” of his time. The alluded to speech that many critics refer to as “the Atlanta Compromise” because of its conciliatory tone and absence of demands upon a segregated South pointed African-Americans toward building the Black community from the bottom up. Washington admonished his people that “Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life we began at the top instead of at the bottom.”
Considering the current plights of African-American males where the median earnings are $37,290, a significant distance from the $48,099 all other males’ earnings, and 40% of African-American males ages ‘16 and up’ had zero earnings for the entire year, it may be time to revisit Booker T. Washington’s formula for success. Shockingly, 1 out of every 4 Black males lived below the poverty level in 2013.
Although many may question the desire to re-evaluate Washington’s position that we should “Cast our financial hopes down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions…Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life…” As an educator who lectures throughout the nation, I can attest that significant portions of African-American males are directionless regarding their future. Absent future goals, our young men are understandably directionless. From Washington’s perspective they have failed to “…draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.”
For many African-American males, their engagement with higher education is a lesson in futility. The greatest evidence of such is that for African-American males age 25 and up, 48% have attended college at some point in their lifetime. However, only 17% have matriculated from institutions of higher education with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
Statistics indicate that there is little difference between those who did and those who did not graduate from an institution of higher education in regards to how they match up to their white contemporaries. Degreed African-American males not only lag behind their white counterparts in every economic measure, but also inexplicably refuse to divorce themselves from a system that does not reward them financially. They refuse to embrace entrepreneurial opportunities and service the needs of a Black community with $1,100,000,000,000.00 (yes, 1.1 trillion dollars) to spend.
Non-degreed African-American males all too often find themselves involved in the criminal justice system. The incarceration rate of African-American males is triple that of other American males and more disturbing is the reality that approximately 34% of all working-age African-American males not incarcerated are ex-offenders convicted of some type of a felony. Let’s face facts, these African-American males will never conquer the societal stigma that whites place upon them, what many consider to be the only path to ‘gainful employment’. Similar to their degreed brethren, it appears that entrepreneurship is their only path to financial stability or success.
I can hear Washington lamenting to contemporary African-American males that “It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities…The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.”
Within this contemporary context of African-American males lagging behind in every measurable economic/financial category, it may be time for our community to re-evaluate our propensity to view “higher-education” as a natural fit for all of the young men in our community. Particularly when one considers that many of them have never explicitly expressed any interest in ideas, theories, and books; for many, their only priority is discovering a way to provide for themselves and their dependents.
It is this pursuit of money, which is often needlessly blocked by societal hurdles that leads to their involvement in the American criminal justice system. Booker T. Washington’s advice that the majority of us will live by our hands is not only applicable today, but also relates a immediate need to ‘double-down’ on efforts to teach African-American males ‘skills and trades’ that can be combined with basic business training that paves the way for them to not only be certified in their profession, but also provides the necessary resources for them, regardless of their criminal background, to become entrepreneurs.
So often we have heard that the small business owner is the backbone of this nation’s economy, it may be time for African-Americans to assume that critical role and abandon the centuries-old tradition of begging whites for jobs and provide opportunities for African-Americans to circulate the $1,100,000,000,000.00 that they have and give away to other communities due to a lack of viable black businesses offering needed services beyond barber/beauty shops and funeral homes.
James Thomas Jones III, Ph.D.
©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015