The Talented Tenth is Failing Us – Part 2
It’s been a while since my last post but I want to tie a bow on my thoughts about the Talented Tenth. As a reminder, when I use the term “Talented Tenth” I’m referring to the black elites who make policy, analyze social and political trends, shape culture through arts and entertainment, and influence mainstream thought on issues related to race. The things they say matter. They matter to politicians and CEOs. They matter to other activists and intellectuals. And they matter to regular everyday people. That means we have an obligation to assess the extent to which their thoughts, words and actions are moving the black community in the right direction. While they do a great deal that is positive, here are four things that are directly hurting black folk.
They make white people the center of the black universe
One of the most peculiar aspects of the Talented Tenth is the amount of time black culture-shapers and content-creators spend thinking and talking about white people. Even outlets specifically created for black people do this with great regularity. One article on The Root entitled “The 5 Types of Becky” captures the centering of white people and the prioritization of entertainment perfectly.
“Not all white women are Beckys, but all Beckys are white women. However, just as people note that “black people are not a monolith,” it is unfair to paint the entire genus of Beckys with the same broad brush.
To combat this stereotype, we gathered some of the world’s leading board-certified Beckyologists and asked them to classify the disparate classes of Beckys so that we may have a better understanding when we discuss this subject. And after much discussion, our experts came up with five subgroups into which all Beckys can be categorized.”
I’m not sure why a publication focused on the interests and concerns of black people would waste ink on something like this. And this isn’t an anomaly either. The Root has an entire tag entitled White People with well over 150 articles. As someone who has written for The Root in the past, I consider this a sign of progress in some way. It is a luxury largely unknown a generation ago for brilliant black minds (aside from comedians) to spend the majority of their time mocking white people. But on a serious note, the black public intellectual’s preoccupation with white people is a sign of control. For many black people, whites are the sun around which our entire existence revolves. We often spend more time thinking about what they think and say about us than we do about what we think and say about ourselves. There are a significant number of black activists and intellectuals who are so controlled by white opinion that they can’t possibly believe that a black person would speak a loving truth to other black folk because they genuinely care about…black folk.
They root black identity in oppression
There are few things as frustrating as hearing academically elite, professionally successful, economically secure, and culturally influential black people complain about how oppressed they are. It is quite a confounding experience to have six-figure Ivy League grads using the same terms to describe their lives and experiences that we accurately use to describe the experiences of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. So a black Yale grad that feels her professional colleagues don’t take her ideas as seriously as her white counterparts is no different than her forbears who toiled in fields cutting sugar cane or picking cotton without pay. And the six-figure political consultant who is pulled over by the police is no different than his great-grandaddy who endured the lash whenever he got caught trying to teach himself to read.
There’s only a few ways for us to have reached this point. One is to be totally ignorant and disregarding of language. I find this hard to believe because all of us know how to distinguish mild annoyance from anger or the difference between an unfortunate occurrence and an atrocity. And we also know how to describe differences in intensity of feeling. So the alternative to ignorance of language is a difference in perception.
I’m not saying that oppression, discrimination, and injustice aren’t real. I see them when the police engage in unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests of young black men in Baltimore or whenever I see a man released from prison after serving 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. But those actual instances of injustice are a far cry from a sports editors claiming that the term “owner” to describe people (almost exclusively white) who own NBA franchises evokes the legacy of slavery in a league that is 70% black. I believe thinking people can come up with language to distinguish those two things. The reason that’s important is because we need to be able to discuss complex social and cultural realities with both nuance and clarity. Using the term “oppression” to describe all negative experiences and circumstances of black folk makes that task impossible.
They reject any responsibility to address our own problems
Perhaps the single biggest failure of the Talented Tenth is its total (public) rejection of responsibility that black people bear in addressing the most pressing problems in our community. Black folk have very complex conversations privately about where solutions for social and cultural ills fall on the spectrum between systemic change and personal responsibility, but our public conversations have been monopolized by the types of people who believe that the eradication of white supremacy is the key to black people getting ahead in America. That means that conversations about disparities in academic performance only focus on school funding, segregation, transportation, and racism to explain why black students are below the city average in math and English but never even ask about home environment and the extent to which academics are prioritized. In fact, you can’t even get people to accept responsibility for black people getting their children to school or ensuring they attend school every day. When DC uncovered an attendance scandal at one local high school (the majority of graduating seniors missed more than 30 days of school during the year), the conversation quickly pivoted to systemic failures (unreliable transportation) and competing priorities (jobs, medical care for sick parents) without even addressing what role parents were playing (and should play) in ensuring their children show up to school every day ready to learn.
The same thing is seen in black culture. Bring up any substantive critique of hip hop culture glorifying violence, drug use, and disrespecting women and watch the conversation switch from the responsibility of artists (largely black) to the responsibility of music executives (largely white) or larger American culture. Whether we’re talking about NWA’s declaration that “a bitch is a bitch”, Snoop showing up at the 2003 MTV Awards with two women on leashes, or Nelly swiping a credit card down a woman’s backside in Tip Drill, our reactions predictably exonerate the creators of the art and indict the people funding it. Simply put, there isn’t a single venue outside of the black church where public conversations about black issues even give significant space to individual agency and responsibility.
This is infantilizing for adults who have the capacity to make decisions for themselves and their families. It also a perplexing strategy for people who claim blacks have been oppressed by whites and “the system” for centuries. Why would we take our fate out of our own hands and place it into the hands of people we claim have been trying to hold us down since our ancestors first arrived in this country? That makes no sense to me at all. Black people, like all Americans, don’t have the ability to change every institution in this country overnight, but, like other Americans, there are many things that are currently within our control. These include how we relate to one another, how we see ourselves, how we form relationships and create families, and what things we value and prioritize. A radical shift in any of these areas would stimulate positive change and a realignment in all of them in the next few generations would be far more beneficial than the second coming of Martin and Malcolm. I’m not saying these changes would be easy. I’m saying they are possible. But they would mean taking bread out of the mouths of many people who look like us because there are many people within our community who have made a fortune on our dysfunction. But I would gladly put your favorite trap trapper out of business if it meant more of our kids weren’t constantly being told to kill one another over the most minor disagreements.
The Road Forward
The Talented Tenth can leverage its intellectual firepower and cultural influence to help assess and address some of the most important issues facing black people. In the 20th century those problems were largely ones of political, economic, and social second-class citizenship that had to be fought in courts, remedied with legislation, and normalized in the culture through media. The black leaders in that day were equipped for the task at hand. Our current crop of leaders is not. They are largely fighting 2019 problems with a 1969 mindset. They think that the main hurdles to black progress are legal and ignore the significant cultural rot that has been spreading for decades. Violent crime, fractured families, and entertainment that both responds to and glorifies the worst types of social behavior are everyday issues that touch every single black person in this country.
These issues are clearly visible to anyone who is looking honestly at the state of our communities honestly. Part of the problem is that intellectual border patrol police black political thought by deploying racial insults and using emotional manipulation to stifle dissenters who don’t subscribe to a particular way of seeing the world and the problems black folk face. The effect is a black public discourse that is boring and predictable, with talking points and arguments that almost always falls on the left side of the political spectrum. Don’t believe me? Name one black conservative that is respected in mainstream black culture. People like Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, and Jason Riley have thought-provoking things to say about both culture and policy (e.g., minimum wage laws have a negative impact on black teen unemployment). I’m not saying we would all agree about what they say but at least we’d be having substantive debates, which is much more productive than yelling “coon!” every time a black person says something that sounds too “conservative”.
Black leaders having these types of honest conversations would do much more good for our community than them searching for the next retailer to boycott or panel discussion about whether professional athletes should kneel, sit, or stretch during the national anthem. Those issues are symbolic but largely irrelevant with respect to improving the condition of the average black person’s life. I’d love to see a crop of new black leaders who have the courage to speak truth to the (cultural) powers that influence the values in our community. The same could be said for systemic issues that require policy fixes. The NAACP partnering with the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation to tackle criminal justice reform–including issues like qualified immunity, civil asset forfeiture, use of force laws, and cash bail–would be much more direct and impactful for creating long term change than Jay-Z partnering with the NFL. I have no doubt that the Talented Tenth love black folk. The only question is whether they love us enough to speak the types of hard truth that can help lead to change.