Article: Black America and the Class Divide

[Du Bois and his “Talented Tenth” circulate in my head with surprising frequency. When I consider my students and their futures, the idea of a class of leaders among African Americans rings in my ears. One of the goals at my school is to send select students beyond the top public schools to the region’s top parochial and independent schools. In focusing on this, are we helping students understand the consequences of those choices? Do the students feel, like I do, the sense of responsibility that great educational opportunity bestows? If our focus is on pushing the top students to meteoric levels, are we doing enough to support the other 75 students in the 8th grade? There are no children of that top 13% that Gates references at our school. But there are plenty among the 22% of African Americans whose income is below $15,000. Will our school’s talented tenth focus inwardly? Will they look back to pull up? Do I have any right to weigh in?]

Black America and the Class Divide

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.

{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}

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.” Continue Reading →

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