| America Behind the Color Line |
By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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When I was growing up in the fifties, I could never have imagined that one of Harvard's most respected departments would be a Department of Afro-American Studies and that twenty professors would be teaching here at the turn of the century. Our experience at Harvard is just one instance of a much larger phenomenon. Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, individual African Americans have earned positions higher within white society than any person black or white could have dreamed possible in the segregated 1950s. And this is true in national and local government, in the military and in business, in medicine and education, on TV and in film. Virtually anywhere you look in America today, you'll find black people. Not enough black people, but who can deny that progress has been made? In fact, since 1968, the black middle class has tripled, as measured by the percentage of families earning $50,000 or more. At the same time-and this is the kicker-the percentage of black children who live at or below the poverty line is almost 35 percent, just about what it was on the day that Dr. King was killed.
Since 1968, then, two distinct classes have emerged within Black America: a black middle class with "white money," as my mother used to say, and what some would argue is a self-perpetuating, static black underclass. Is this what the Civil Rights Movement was all about? Can we ever bridge this black class divide?
What does the success of this expanding middle class-W. E. B. Du Bois's Talented Tenth, the college-educated black person, even now only 17 percent of all black Americans-mean for the progress of our people? Is this economic ascent the ultimate realization of Dr. King's "dream" of integration?.How do we continue to expand the size of the middle class? And most scary of all, is this class divide permanent, a way of life that will never be altered? Writing in the New York Times on May 31, 2003, Jack Bass, author of Unlikely Heroes: Southern Federal Judges and Civil Rights, quoted from an interview with John Minor Wisdom, "the legendary jurist and scholar," which Bass had conducted just four months before the judge's death at the age of ninety-three in 1999: "He told me he was uncertain which was more important," Bass wrote: "how far blacks have come in overcoming discrimination, or 'how far they still have to go.'" This question arose in another form in an amusing, signifying interplay between the titles of William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and Cornel West's best-selling Race Matters (1993). There can be no doubt that "race" is far less important as a factor affecting economic success for our generation than it was for any previous generation of African Americans in this country. Still, there can be little doubt that the fact of one's blackness remains the hallmark of our various identities in a country whose wealth, to a large extent, was constructed on race-based slavery, followed by a full century of de jure segregation and discrimination in every major aspect of a black citizen's social, economic, and political existence.
I decided to talk with some of the most remarkably successful African Americans of our generation who-because of opportunities created to one degree or another by affirmative action-have been enabled to excel in positions of authority that our antecedents could scarcely have dreamed of occupying, or even aspiring to hold. Had they become the Putney Swopes of our generation? I could think of no place more appropriate to begin than at the offices of the U.S. secretary of state, General Colin Powell.
Since 1963, we've had seventy-five black congressmen and congresswomen, two U.S. senators, a whole slew of mayors, and two Supreme Court justices, but only in the last few years have we penetrated the heart of executive political power in Washington. Just a generation ago, the idea of a black president was a joke we'd tell in barbershops. We figured that a black man could be king of England before he'd be elected president of the United States! Yet today one of the most important political figures in the world is a black man, a man fourth in line to the presidency. Many people think that he would have easily defeated Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.
General Colin Powell grew up in the Bronx, the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants. He joined the army after college and saw combat in Vietnam. Like many of us, his career benefited enormously from affirmative action. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a five-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He commanded our troops in Desert Storm. As national security adviser to two presidents and now as secretary of state, General Powell is the most powerful black person in the history of the American government and is one of the most powerful people in the world.
I asked Powell if race had been a hindrance to his career path, or even to his aspirations. He replied, "I was raised in a family that never felt constrained by their poverty or by their race . . . And I was raised in a community that had blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans . . . a melting pot of the New York City environment. So I never really knew I was supposed to feel in some way constrained by being an inner-city, public school black kid, the son of immigrants. I just went into the army and I found an organization that said, no, no, no, we've changed, we're ahead of the rest of the society. We don't care if you're black or blue, we only care if you're a good green soldier. And if you do your best, you watch, you'll be recognized. If you don't do your best, you'll be punished. And I started out as a black lieutenant but I became a general who was black."
I asked him if his position as secretary of state had made his race a nonissue, had, in effect, allowed him to transcend his racial identity. "When you walk into a room," I wondered, "if you go to Asia or the Middle East, do the people you deal with still see a black man first, before they see you as the secretary of state?"
"Yeah, sure, but they also see the American secretary of state and they know that I'm not coming to them as a black man; I'm coming to them as a representative of the American people, as a representative of the president of the United States. I represent all the values of this country and the power of this country, its military power, its economic power and political power. Once they sit down and get past whatever color I am, they want to do business."
I asked Powell what he thought was the responsibility of those of us within the African-American community who have made it to those left behind, an issue that still plagues my friends and that especially worries me. "I want to continue to be a role model for the kids in the neighborhood I grew up in, and for other youngsters in America," he said. "Not just a black role model in that stereotypical sense, but an example of what you can achieve if you are willing to work for it. And second, those of us in the African-American community who have been successful financially ought to give some of it back to the community. You can do it through scholarships, through donations, through mentoring, through adopting or sponsoring a school. There are lots of ways to do it, and everything I've just mentioned I have done, or try to do. You don't have to scream and shout about it but just get it done, reach back and help these youngsters who are coming along."
But why do we have more of a responsibility, it seems sometimes, than our white counterparts? I asked.
"Our youngsters need us more perhaps, for one thing," he said. "And our youngsters are still living in a society that is really only one generation removed from racism, discrimination, segregation, and economic deprivation, and we're still suffering from that."
The tension between societal factors as the causes of our people's social and economic disadvantages, and those traceable to individual initiative or the lack thereof, would become a leitmotif within the interviews I conducted throughout the black community. I think it's fair to say that it is the largest single point of contention within the black community itself. Like General Powell, I, too, worry about the values of certain aspects of black urban street culture and the self-destructive behavior that reinforces the cycle of poverty- behavior that helps to keep the black poor impoverished. But the inner-city culture that General Powell says holds us back is also the source of the tremendous creativity found in hip-hop culture. If hip-hop is the culture of the black poor, it is simultaneously the face and voice of American popular culture. It is also rich with a few phenomenal success stories.
I traveled from Washington to New York to meet the king of hip-hop culture, Russell Simmons. Simmons has transformed black urban street culture into the lingua franca of American popular culture worldwide-and into a music and fashion empire that grosses more than $300 million per year. "How old were you when you became an entrepreneur?" I asked him.
"When I was sixteen," Simmons said, "I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but selling weed was one of the few options open to me."
"Really? When did you become legitimate?"
"I used to give hip-hop parties when I was at City College. People would pay to get in-all the hip-hop artists, DJ Cheeba and all these guys. I had this music thing I loved, and I was lucky enough to get a job in the music industry."
Simmons's career took off in 1979 when he produced "Christmas Rappin'," by Kurtis Blow, on Mercury Records. It was phenomenally successful, and the rest, one might say, is the history of hip-hop.
Simmons's company, Def Jam, brilliantly punched hip-hop from the ghetto straight into the heart of middle-class, teenage white America, launching bands such as Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash. Simmons, a brilliant marketer, has branched out to fashion design. His Phat Farm label is the rage from Harlem to Harvard Square, from Watts to Westwood.
How did he create a business based on rebellious black culture and make it as American as apple pie? Simmons's genius was to take an underground movement and turn it into the common language of American popular culture.
Where did his understanding of the entrepreneurial system come from? "The entrepreneurial spirit came from within me," he said. "I was never offered a salary; they didn't like what we did. There was never an interest in giving me a job, or even making a record deal, so we started our own company . . . I wanted to be in the fashion business. Do you think anybody wanted to hire me or give me a job? I wanted to be in the advertising business. These things had to be forged with a little bit of resilience and vision. . . "The independence that was forced on us by managing some part of our culture, or ideas, is the same independence that's creating a whole new lifestyle among young black people. All I had was drug dealers, some numbers runners, and an occasional pimp. They were the entrepreneurs. Now all these young people have images. It's true that a lot of them are hardheaded and kind of twisted and unsophisticated. That's why they did it in the first place. You think if they spoke the King's English, if they went to school and were told, do what you're supposed to do, that they'd be doing what they're doing?. . . They came from the street and they did what they had to do and they created what they've created."
Are these the new heroes in our community, people like Simmons, people like Richard Parsons and Ken Chenault, the CEOs of AOL Time Warner and American Express, respectively?
"Parsons and Ken Chenault and people like them are huge role models. . . But Puffy's a much greater hero, a much greater inspiration," said Simmons. "He's self-made. The same sophistication and education that guys like Parsons and Chenault have can come from some of our kids who will have enough experience to take on businesses that have smaller margins. We are spreading out. Do you know how many energy drinks are made by kids in the ghetto?
"I see the way young people are so excited about being entrepreneurs, and I believe that's the climate that will make a difference economically in our community. And the education part of it, they all recognize it's necessary."
For Simmons, the inner city is a font of entrepreneurial activity; the black entrepreneur is the true black revolutionary today, the inheritor of the legacy of Maroons and other renegades from slavery, the "bad nigger" characters in traditional black folklore and literature. These figures stole the white man's secrets, penetrated the logic of the system, and then used these acquisitions to attempt to liberate black people. Where once the means to our freedom was thought to be literacy, or reclaiming the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or utilizing the legal system-or taking up guns-for hip-hop entrepreneurs, the means, according to Simmons, is hardheaded capitalism, and the goal, massive profits. Is Simmons a visionary who has redefined the black entrepreneur as the new urban revolutionary? As he rightly argues, the black ghetto has always been full of entrepreneurs; moreover, success in that world doesn't even require a high school diploma or a college degree, opening up, as it does, economic opportunities otherwise closed to so many African Americans whose choices are limited because of their education.
We certainly need more entrepreneurs in the inner city, but not at the expense of education. In a highly technological world, formal education is the principal conduit out of poverty, just as it has been for our people since slavery and the days of Jim Crow. Our people's need to stay in school is even greater and more urgent today than it was back then, in harsher times under legal segregation.
Simmons is correct that success in this world doesn't require a high school diploma. But that also concerns me. Does the kind of success that Russell Simmons- and hip-hop-encourages also help our kids to get an education and expand their options?
From Simmons's office in Midtown Manhattan, I went to see another African-American icon, one who uses his particular genius to seduce inner-city children into the love of learning and the value of school.
Maurice Ashley is the world's first and only black Grand Master in chess- a title held by only seven hundred people in history. Ashley is the Tiger Woods of chess. As with golf, we think of chess as a pastime of the upper middle class. Ashley was born into poverty in Jamaica, then grew up in the inner city in Brooklyn. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has helped to make chess black. I asked Ashley why chess, of all things, would be relevant to black people. "Chess transposes the imagination of inner-city black kids so they can see themselves in the back row where all the power pieces are . . . It's much harder for inner-city kids to understand why they should learn something that seems to have no meaning for their future life. But in chess, I'll show kids a move and five minutes later they can use it against their friend. In another five or ten minutes, they'll win the game and come back to me and say, show me something else, 'cause I just won that game and I wanna win again. It's self-reinforcing." How did he get involved in chess? I asked.
"I learned to play many different games at an early age. . . By the time I was seven or eight, I could beat the other kids and I could compete with all the adults," Ashley said. In America, he told me, "in tenth grade, when I was fourteen, I had a friend who played chess a lot. I thought, I'm better at games than all the rest of the kids, so I'm going to play this guy and beat him. He crushed me. It was ugly. Then one day when I was at the library, I came across a book on chess . . . It was love at first sight. . . That's when I discovered that reading could open your mind to the wonders of everything you wanted to know. For the first time, I understood the power of books, because after I started reading them, I began crushing players I couldn't beat before."
In 1991, Ashley shook the chess world-and America-when his team from Harlem, the Raging Rooks, beat elite white private schools to become national champions. Stereotypically, black people weren't supposed to excel at intellectual activities, and these inner-city black kids had won a national chess tournament! This was news.
Ashley realized that chess could be the lure to hook schoolchildren into attending school regularly and focusing on their classwork. Chess could be a "black thing," its mental rigor and discipline transferred into new study habits in every other school subject. By kids learning chess, grades-and graduation rates-would go up. In 1991, at the Mott Hall School in Harlem, he and businessman- philanthropist Dan Rose helped establish an educational program in which chess was an integral part of the curriculum.
It amazes me in the generation of fast food and video games that kids would have the patience for chess, so I asked Ashley if this is a problem. "I think fundamentally kids love to learn, as long as you make the learning engaging. . . . They sit and memorize and study so that when they get into actual competition they'll be ready . . . The great thing about chess is that it's practical."
I asked him if the kind of thing he's accomplishing with chess can be exported throughout the community.
"Chess is not the only solution, but I think of it as a direction. Chess insists that you use your mind. You can't play the game without it. But success does too; that's what success is all about, having a direction . . . I think we're approaching a time when kids' aspirations will be much, much higher than they were. We have a long way to go to put the structures in place that can finally bring about progress racewide, but we're closing in on the effort psychologically . . . We have people striving in all walks of life."
Ashley invited me to see another inner-city program, called HEAF, that is literally putting these ideas into practice. HEAF-the Harlem Educational Activities Fund-is dedicated to helping students who are being failed by their schools to get a solid education.
"HEAF takes kids in the community and makes them successful, that is, gets them through high school and beyond," Ashley explained. The program takes kids from junior high school and gets them all the way through college, teaching them that education is their ticket out. "These kids are hot," said Ashley.
And without HEAF?
"Without the tremendous support and direction that HEAF has been providing since 1992, thousands of inner-city kids who have gone on to college as a result of HEAF programs may have fallen through the cracks." HEAF's after-school chess class helps draw these children into educational programs. Dan Rose is the founder of HEAF. He summarized his philosophy of education this way:
"The challenge of bringing inner-city disadvantaged children into the mainstream of American life is without question the most pressing, most important social challenge in American life. It is the challenge. Anyone who doesn't see it or who doesn't address it is not living in the real world . . . "If a smart inner-city kid goes bad and goes to prison, it will cost the city, the public, $60,000 a year, and could cost him the rest of his life. Our goal is to turn these kids into professionals who make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and who pay $60,000 in taxes. I tell my archconservative friends that our goal is to take a $60,000-a-year tax eater and turn him into a $60,000-a-year taxpayer."
For Ashley and Rose, the long-term success of our people depends upon education, leading inevitably to a greater slice of the economic pie. And the economic pie is baked in the corporate world, symbolized by Wall Street-a world traditionally as "white" as chess.
Who would have believed just a few years ago that four of the world's largest corporations would be run by black men? For many of us, the corporate world was the last bastion of black exclusion. Quite visibly, that has begun to change. One man I spoke to understood the importance of black representation at the top of the corporate world long before anyone else did. For him, economics, class, and wealth accumulation were the next fronts in the war for civil rights. He was a prophet of black class mobility. Vernon Jordan is the first person to retire from the Civil Rights Movement and take it to the next level-Wall Street. Among black Wall Street executives, Vernon Jordan is the proverbial chairman of the board. Jordan grew up in a black middle-class neighborhood in segregated Atlanta. His mother was a successful businesswoman, his father a postal clerk. He was the only black student in his class in the 1950s at DePauw University, before earning a law degree at Howard University. Jordan recounts a bit of stark advice that his father gave him when he dropped him off at DePauw:
"I remember my father shaking my hand to tell me good-bye, but he didn't say good-bye; he said, you can't come home. I said, what do you mean? He said, the college counselor says your reading scores are far lower than those of your classmates . . . these white kids went to fine township high schools and private schools and you went to this old dilapidated, segregated, ill-equipped, double-sessioned, overcrowded school, he said, but you can't come home. And so I said, well, what am I supposed to do, Dad? And he said, read, boy, read, and he drove away." Jordan rose to prominence as a civil rights lawyer, then led several key black organizations, such as the National Urban League. In the early 1980s, however, he deliberately became an agent of another kind of social change, a pioneering force in the integration of the all-white boards of directors of corporate America. This led to the hiring of black corporate executives. Quietly, Jordan had taken the Civil Rights Movement from the segregated cities of the South straight to the heart of Wall Street.
As "First Friend" and confidant to President Bill Clinton, and as a member of some of the most influential corporate boards in the world, no one is better placed to explain what the presence of blacks on Wall Street means to our people than Vernon Jordan. New times, new duties: I asked Jordan if the integration of corporate America is the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement.
"The integration of corporate America has been going on a very long time. I went on my first corporate board in 1972 . . . but we've come a long way from the seventies if you think about Dick Parsons, CEO at AOL Time Warner, Ken Chenault of AmEx, Stan O'Neal of Merrill Lynch, and Frank Raines of Fannie Mae. These four black men control in excess of $300 billion in market capitalization, and they employ some 300,000 people. That was inconceivable in my time, and now they are CEOs at companies that would not have hired their parents, except in menial jobs."
But how important to the progress of our people is it that individual black people are occupying these positions? I asked him.
"It's important in that it says to young people that they can do it too-that anything you want to achieve can in fact be achieved. But it says something else. It says that if you have the ability, the tenacity, the perseverance, the fortitude, and the smarts, they will put you in this job . . . when you think about Parsons, Raines, Chenault, and O'Neal, white people have put them in charge of their money, and my people did it. That's very serious! And the one thing that we know is that white people like money, and that's why they sold us and bought us. It had to do with money . . . But white people have entrusted their trust funds and the future of their children and their grandchildren to these brothers, because they are competent."
Jordan's dream of integration has affected every level of Wall Street, from the boardroom through upper middle management. Milton Irvin is one such executive, and he has excelled on Wall Street. Irvin grew up in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey. For the past thirty years, he has steadily ascended the corporate ladder on Wall Street. His lifestyle is on a par with that of his white upper-middle-class counterparts.
Irvin recently became the first black member of his country club. Fees are now $70,000 per year. Almost twenty years ago, he and his family moved to Summit, New Jersey, an affluent and still predominantly white suburb forty minutes from Manhattan.
"When I moved to Summit in 1985, there were not a lot of middle-class African Americans, and to a certain extent it was lonely being here . . . But something inside of me said, you know what, someone has to put a stake in the ground in a community like this, and show that we can be woven into this fabric."
I asked Irvin if he ever felt, as he integrated his golf club in Summit, for example, as if he had to ingratiate himself to the white people who were mem-bers there.
"When I've joined these clubs, I've never approached it with the attitude that I've got to make white people feel comfortable around a black person. It's more like I've felt they had to figure out, over time, that . . . you're really not different from them . . . I consciously try to be a full participant in the activities of these clubs. This done, it begins to give the others a sense and feeling of comfort . . . It's all a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement. Economic empowerment is a part of it. It's what we're building now."
Irvin and I visited the home of his friends Walt and Donna Pearson. Walt Pearson graduated from the Harvard Business School and was another Wall Street executive before recently assuming a new executive position in the Boston area. As with many affluent African-American families of our generation, their home is a splendid shrine to black history, art, and culture. I asked Pearson what he thought the constituent parts might be of our people being held back. "Nowadays there are programs to help bright and motivated African-American kids get out of the 'hood-whether it's ABC or Prep for Prep or private schools that offer some students full scholarships," he said. "However, if you come home to little or no family structure, you need something to keep you going, and that's the tough part. Beyond that, the playing field is far from level in terms of the ability to make connections in a white world."
Despite all of his success, did he and his wife, Donna, still experience racism? "On Wall Street," he said, "what happens now is they let us in the door, but instead of blatant racism, you come across subtle things. For example, it seemed like they never wanted me to get too big an assignment, too big a client. When I went after those guys, I was always told I had enough clients, I had enough capacity, whereas my colleague could have even more clients than I did but yet he wasn't at capacity. It was things like that."
Donna Pearson agrees: "Racism still exists, but it's more quiet. It's kept behind closed doors. In Summit I saw instances, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, particularly at the school. Because I'm so fair-skinned, people sometimes think I'm white, and they'll say things and I'll say, excuse me, I'm African American too. And all of a sudden their face gets red."
I wondered how blatant this form of behavior could become. For example, did Donna ever hear these people say the "n" word?
"They don't say the 'n' word, but one time someone said to me, oh, that black person, they don't know what they're doing. And I said, excuse me? Or they'll think that the way I'm doing something is inferior to what they're doing and that I can't do a job like they do . . . you have to let them know right away that you can take the lead just as well as they can."
Did the Pearsons ever worry that their kids will be criticized by lower-class black kids?
"They will have to learn to handle being called white," said Walt. "I went to a private school, and I would come home to a housing project every day and was called 'schoolboy' a couple of times. I had to knock a few heads . . . But I tell my kids now, you're going to encounter a different kind of racism. You're going to confront the class system from your African-American peers, some of whom are going to call you 'whitey' or 'Oreo' . . . In addition, you will have racism from white people. It's going to be arduous. The kids . . . have to come home and be able to tell us everything. They have to realize they're blessed, but they must give back. It's nonstop."
As I conversed with these two families, it became clear that despite all of their personal success and wealth, the task of integrating the white power structure is far from over. Very few African Americans have penetrated the upper echelons of Wall Street. Just as painful, the success of those who have is viewed by some members of the black community somehow as a betrayal of the race.
I asked Melody Irvin, Milton's wife, how this bizarre attitude came to be, when social integration and economic success were cardinal virtues of the Civil Rights Revolution. How did it get to be that being successful is equated by some black people with being white?
"I think being successful has always been equated with being white," she said. "It's hard to change what's always been . . . Things are different for some of the young people that Milton has brought into the industry. But things are also still the same."
"Some of that perception," added Milton, "is driven by the fact that a lot of blacks who are successful, at least on a corporate level, have moved out of what have traditionally been their communities . . . [and] then that community feels a loss of one of its people . . . White people have done a pretty good job of creating wealth. We were looking for a community where we could begin to create wealth, and Summit was one of them."
Milton sensitively explained one of the most surprising dilemmas facing the continued success of our people: the growing gulf between the black middle class and those left behind in the inner cities. Wealth differentials within the race are becoming as large and potentially as unbridgeable as the traditional gaps between white and black were during the Civil Rights Era. And this is reflected in attitudes about education and values such as deferred gratification. It's a gulf that is often as much cultural and psychological as it is economic. Traditionally in America, entry into the middle class and the accumulation of wealth are enabled by the ownership of a home. Blacks in many parts of America were barred from owning homes, whether they could afford to purchase them or not. No one in America has done more to facilitate black home ownership than the CEO of Fannie Mae, America's largest mortgage lender and our second largest corporation based on the size of its assets. Incredibly, it's run by a black man. I went to see him at his corporate headquarters in Washington. Franklin Raines was the first African American to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, in 1999. Raines escaped working-class poverty through education. He was recruited by Harvard, became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, then graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.
Raines has started a program at Fannie Mae designed to address the class gap among black Americans. By making it easier for African Americans to receive mortgages to purchase homes, Raines hopes to increase black home ownership by as many as 5 million people by the end of the decade. The ultimate effect of this on class distribution in American society would be profound. His goal, Raines told me, is "to have the same class divide in the black community as . . . in the white community. I want the same percentage of middle class, the same percentage of rich, the same percentage of poor, in the white and black communities. Average is fine with me, because by all the measures, the black community is far behind average in income, in job status, and in education."
So how do we get more black people into the middle class?
"Step by step," said Raines. "There's no shortcut. To begin with, we've got to get folks the preparation that's needed. More people have got to finish high school . . . Then folks have got to get into these companies and persist." I asked Raines how we can inspire those very people who are trapped in the inner city to aspire to be the next Franklin Raines.
"You've got to let them know it's possible," he said, "because most of them don't even know it's possible. When I was growing up in Seattle, I hadn't been to most of the city, let alone anywhere else. We'd go to day camp, and that was it. It was a big deal to go to another part of the city. My world was two or three square miles . . . Then I went to Harvard, across the country. After that I went to Oxford, and then it became the world. What I thought was possible just kept expanding. For many people it never expands; they never get off the block . . . We must make it clear that there are greater possibilities . . . We just have to make lots of kids aware of the opportunities and give them a chance, and if we give them a chance, we'll be surprised by how many will do well."
How do we drive that message home to black children themselves, whose attitudes are shaped in an environment of unemployment, teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, drugs, instant gratification, and the bizarre attitude that success in school or in the white mainstream is an act of racial betrayal, an act of selling out to the white man?
Lenora Fulani, a political activist and educator, has devoted the last decade to tackling these issues on the street. I met her at her project's offices in Manhattan. Her first observation echoed Raines's comment about parochialism:
"We have kids living in New York City communities like Queens and Brooklyn today, forget thirty-five years ago, who never saw the World Trade Center. They didn't know it existed until September 11. Almost none of the young men in these communities know the experience of putting on a suit and walking down a street in Midtown and finding a way of being related to that's so very different from the usual ways in which they're related to."
But what happens when they see Colin Powell on TV, or Condoleezza Rice? Doesn't this take them out of their environment? Don't the accomplishments of black people of our generation, people like us, inspire black youth? Isn't this the fundamental premise of integration, and the most important aspect of our individual accomplishments to our people?
"You want me to tell you what I really think?" she asked mysteriously. "Even on TV, the kids barely notice all the accomplishments of black people of our generation, the black role models of today, like Colin Powell and Maxine Waters. My experience is that when the kids recognize me on TV and say, oh I know Dr. Fulani, it's because they've seen me first in their communities. A lot of these kids don't know who Colin Powell is. It may seem impossible, but how could you have lived in New York and never seen the World Trade Center?"
For Fulani, successful black people at the top of the establishment can't possibly serve as role models if the children in the inner city don't know they exist. With Dr. Fred Newman, she founded the All Stars Talent Show Network and the Joseph A. Forgione Development School for Youth, designed to change dramatically the way that teenagers in the ghetto behave and think about themselves and their career possibilities. Fulani has designed a program that can be a class escalator, and she's campaigning for poor kids to step on board. Her theory of performance starts with a controversial premise:
"We don't have to negate the positive aspects of hip-hop culture, and I don't think that being black has to be equated with hip-hop. I think it's a cultural expression that's in our community . . . A lot of white kids who come from affluent backgrounds are influenced by hip-hop, and they have five earrings and the whole bit. It's a performance. We're trying to teach inner-city kids that it's a performance that they don't have to be trapped in. They, too, can wake up the next day, put on a suit, and go to work."
Fulani has "predominantly white, well-to-do businesspeople" who train the kids in her program to do corporate internships. "I tell them to teach the kids how to be white, and they almost fall off their chair. They have all the liberal reaction of oh my God, we're going to step on their cultural toes. I tell them, believe me, after the twelve weeks of training they'll still be black. But why don't you use this time as an opportunity to share with them some of the secrets of white success?"
Skeptical, I observed one of Fulani's programs. These teenagers, poor and from inner-city schools, were enrolled in her Development School for Youth. In just twelve weeks, the school promises to transform them from disaffected street kids to potential Wall Street employees. How can she possibly achieve this? "What it means to use performance as a teaching method is that you put young people in situations that are way beyond anything they know how to do. This is totally new learning. You don't know anything about Wall Street; you barely know how to spell the word 'stock.' And then we have them perform as if they do know these things. And, in the process, they learn how to produce their own learning."
But what sorts of things does her program teach these kids?
"Oh, all kinds of wonderful things: basically, how to have conversations that are not in authoritarian situations. We teach them how to shake people's hands, how to look them directly in the eyes. 'Hi! My name is Shakimah Smith. It's great to meet you.'"
I have to confess that, initially, I worried that this program might be little more than a finishing school for poor kids. But I was wrong. As well as a grounding in finance, the students are taught practical skills-like how to comport themselves in the corporate world-that their schools don't teach them. They are taught, as Fulani humorously puts it, "to act white" to gain employment, without sacrificing the values of their home and neighborhood: in other words, how to be black and function successfully in a white world. Parents, schools, and churches did this when I was growing up but are failing at this acculturation process now. At the end of twelve weeks, Fulani's students are given paid internships on Wall Street.
These are ghetto street kids, and Fulani transforms them into potential Wall Street executives in twelve weeks? "I don't really care whether the kids in the Development School become Wall Street executives. I want them to know that Wall Street exists. I don't care what they do with that knowledge or that experience; I want them to have it," she said.
What Fulani is doing seems like a small miracle, but she would be the first to admit that it's just a beginning, a drop in an ocean of black economic misery. When I was growing up in the fifties, becoming a successful doctor, lawyer, or businessman was about the blackest thing you could be. For too many of our young people today, mainstream America will always be a closed shop for white boys, and we're better off on our own.
How we as people got here is, frankly, a dark and troubling mystery to me. Attitudes such as these are a perversion of Dr. King's dream, of all that he gave his life for. But perhaps it is not so very surprising, really. For as long as any of us can remember, the odds have been deeply stacked against our success in American society. But historically, our political leaders, our mentors in school and church, our parents and families, all insisted that we fight to succeed, despite the odds.
The great poet Audre Lorde once wrote that you cannot dismantle the master's house using the master's tools. But what other tools can we use, except those that built the house in the first place? Since Dr. King's death, as a result of the expanded opportunities of affirmative action and our own hard work, an unprecedented number of African Americans have succeeded in worlds once all-white, the doors to which were historically locked shut for more than a hundred years.
Despite the negative spin that Herbert Marcuse gave to it in the late fifties, the growth of the black middle class is one of the truly great victories of Dr. King's Civil Rights Movement. Each hire and every promotion of a black on Wall Street is a victory over racism for our people. The challenge facing the black middle class is to use their clout and wealth to fight structural and institutional racism, on the one hand, and to become more effective role models- living, breathing mentors of social mobility-for dispirited millions of black youth thus far left behind, to show them that you no longer have to be white to aspire to obtain our share of the American dream. The level of social consciousness among the new black middle and upper middle class is deeply moving; built as their newfound status is on political gains made only because of the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps this should come as no surprise. These people's lives and concerns, their political orientation and their social consciences, have refuted Marcuse's worry that they would be tokens, or raceless, soulless black men and women in whiteface who had left their people behind, as E. Franklin Frazier describes the old middle class in The Black Bourgeoisie (1957). But unless we do these things, the new class divide within the black community will be a permanent fixture in African-American life, with deep and profound economic and structural differences masked to some extent, as they are now, by a seemingly shared African-American culture. No one can believe that Martin Luther King, Jr., died for that.
Excerpted from America Behind the Color Line , by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. . Copyright (c) 2004 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top