The Talented Tenth is Failing Us – Part 1
Part one of a series that will examine how the Talented Tenth that W.E.B DuBois described is largely failing the black community today.
The term “Talented Tenth” was used by W.E.B DuBois to describe a leadership class of African Americans who used their higher education to engage in politics, advocate for social change and shape culture. DuBois came to embrace the possibility of leadership coming from individuals without formal education but his earlier vision was largely realized in some of the most notable black leaders in the 20th and 21st century, with the crowning achievement being the election of the first black president.
The problem is that the world that DuBois saw in the early 20th century is very different than ours today. It may not feel that way to many black people but our country has made significant progress in the past 50 years. The types of explicit discrimination that were legally permissible and socially accepted decades ago have largely been outlawed. This doesn’t mean that we’ve reached full equality but it does mean that today’s fight is different than in years past. It also means leaders need a different set of tools and tactics to effectively press for change. Unfortunately many of our leaders, from pundits to professors to politicians, often misuse their tools and misapply those tactics. One reason why is that they act like doctors but not physicians. Allow me to explain.
All of us have gotten sick at some point and needed to see a physician. Medical doctors are trained to observe symptoms, make a diagnosis, recommend a treatment, and give a prognosis. The entire point of their work is to see their patients get healthy, whether that means giving vaccines for prevention, antibiotics for cure, or medication for conditions that will never go away. Some may not be as gentle–both verbally and physically–as we’d like and often they have to deliver bad news. This doesn’t mean they dislike their patients and it doesn’t mean they’re insensitive to a patient’s environment and family history. It just means that they still have to recommend the treatment that’s likeliest to succeed regardless of the patient’s circumstances.
Leadership, whether social, political, or economic should function in the same way. People who are serious about solving problems need to have the skill to diagnose a problem, the wisdom to find the right treatment, and the courage to give a prognosis. Unfortunately, many of the thought leaders and culture-shapers in the African American community are adept at pointing to symptoms (e.g., income inequality, incarceration rates) but little else. They are often inept at diagnosing a problem and prescribing a treatment, aside from “dismantling white supremacy”, and they rarely ever give any substantive prognosis about what life for black folk would look like even if that treatment was possible.
What we have in abundance in our community are two other types of doctors. The first group are Spin Doctors. This type of “doctor” is very familiar to anyone who has ever watched a public figure or company try to get out of a major crisis. Whether it’s a politician caught in an adulterous affair or an oil company trying to rehabilitate its image after a major spill, having someone trained in the art of spin is a necessity for any institution looking to protect its image and reputation.
Spin doctors serve their clients by telling the public that a situation isn’t as bad as they think it is. So it is with spin doctors in our community. They find ways to consistently tell black folk that a given situation isn’t as bad as we think it is. They use distraction and deflection to make us doubt the things that are right in front of our face. Racial spin doctors are the types that minimize issues in our community by, among other things, noting how prevalent they are in the white community. For example, when someone brings up the homicide rate in our community, some black blogger or writer will smugly respond “why don’t we talk about white-on-white crime?”. That typically draws applause from many black progressives but it doesn’t address the fact that half of the country’s homicide victims are black and homicide is one of the top four leading causes of death for black men in the CDC’s seven age categories between 1 and 44. It’s the leading cause for black males age 15-19 (48.6%), 20-24 (47.7%), and 25-34 (31.9%). There is no such trend for whites. The highest rate for whites is for ages 15-19 (7.6%) and that is lower than the lowest rate for blacks (8.0% for ages 5-9).
Bringing up “white-on-white crime” in conversations about the epidemic level homicide rates in some black communities is a rhetorical dodge that uses feelings to rebut facts. That is right out of the spin doctor playbook. Spin doctors think the protection of people’s feelings is more important than honest discussion of issues. For black spin doctors, the highest offense that can be committed is to say something critical about black folk or black culture. They typically respond to those types of critiques by refocusing attention on systemic issues or institutions controlled by whites. There are times when this is completely appropriate but the frequency with which spin doctors use this tactic make it difficult to address issues that individuals or communities can control.
A perfect example of this dynamic can be seen whenever someone points to the violence and misogyny that is so deeply woven into the culture of hip hop. Hip hop’s most ardent defenders, including black artists, cultural critics, and professors, hear this criticism and immediately go into spin mode. They blame society for creating conditions artists are forced to reflect and record executives for creating a financial incentive to create certain types of music. Some will go a step further and state that white suburban kids are the primary purchasers of the music. Spin doctors will blame everyone else as long attention is taken off of the black men who shape hip hop culture.
Listen to Russell Simmons in the video below answer questions about how women are degraded and objectified in hip hop and contrast his mealy-mouthed response to that critique with the clarity with which he (and other high-profile black men) can speak to the evil of anti-black racism. I find it ironic that artists who so often refer to themselves as kings, gods, and bosses allow themselves to be so easily infantilized by their defenders.
The other type of doctor that is guilty of leadership malpractice is the Witch Doctor. This doctor is one who knowingly gives solutions that have little chance of working. They say things that sound deep but can’t withstand any significant scrutiny in the real world. For example, when confronted with data on the declining marriage rates in the black community over the past 50 years, the witch doctor would say that the end of the nuclear family is a net positive for black folk because it promotes patriarchy and is no different than other arrangements. In fact, one Rutgers professor, Brittney Cooper, wrote in Salon that we should “celebrate the fact that the two-parent, nuclear family ideal has gone the way of the floppy disk.” Given the thoroughly researched link between family structure and child well-being, that type of statement is grossly irresponsible. The bonds holding together the nuclear black family have been fraying for decades. We talk about it at barbershops, church, and family gatherings and lament the effects that we observe in our everyday lives—whether in our own families or in our communities. No person who claims to have the best interest of our community in mind should be celebrating the decline of nuclear families or minimizing the impact of fathers on their children.
Another example of how the Talented Tenth is setting us back can be seen in an op-ed from Carl Hart, a Columbia professor of psychology who studies drugs and drug addiction. Professor Hart takes the growing calls for drug law reform (through legalization or decriminalization) further than most. He wrote in the Washington Post that he would “much rather my own children interact with drugs than with the police”. Professor Hart’s argument is that the effects of drugs are predictable while police interactions with black people are not. This view, coupled with his belief that drugs are not nearly as dangerous as society believes probably resonates with many people. The problem is his views are not grounded in reality.
According to the Washington Post’s research, 963 people were fatally shot by police in 2016, 233 (24%) of whom were identified as black. In contrast, the CDC reports that more than 64,000 people died from drug overdose in the same year, including more than 15,000 from heroin, 10,000 from cocaine, and 7,500 from methamphetamine. Put another way, the total number of deaths by police shooting is about 1.5% of the number of deaths by drug overdose. Not only are drug overdoses the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, the death rate has increased for all major racial groups since 2010. I’m sure someone more intellectual than me can twist this data to fit Hart’s worldview, but two eyes, a functioning mind, and a dash of common sense should reveal his proclamation for the witch doctory it clearly is.
These three types of people can be of any political stripe. With respect to black issues, they’re often left-leaning but that’s only because liberal voices tend to have the biggest platforms in our community. But black conservatives often practice the same spin doctory and witchcraft to minimize the impact of systemic racism on the everyday lives of black folk. I don’t doubt that all three groups have the best interests of black folk in mind, but that’s exactly why it is so important to shine a light on the spin and witch doctors when we see them. In the medical world it is impossible to a find a cure for an ailment you can’t or won’t diagnose. Same goes for our social and cultural ailments. True physicians can speak to issues that are systemic in nature and require legal remedies. Barriers to employment and voting are two such issues that come to mind because both are examples of what institutions can do to us or allow us to do for ourselves. Those same physicians should also have the skill (and courage) to address issues of culture that shape the norms and values that ultimately influence our behavior. A good physician can see what is ailing us and speak directly to the heart of the matter. The other two doctors may be just as concerned but they aren’t effective because sidestepping issues and advocating counterproductive ideas won’t solve our serious problems. That’s why we need the right type of doctors on call.