Harvard's 'Talented Tenth'
Early in this century, after becoming the first black to receive a Ph.D. at Harvard, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a famous essay arguing that the fate of the Negro race was closely tied to its most exceptional men and women. History, he said, shows that the "Talented Tenth" of every race plays a vital part in lifting up others. He urged gifted blacks to serve as "leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people."
Now, at century's end, Harvard has embarked on a fascinating venture that may allow some of the most gifted African-Americans of this generation to realize a piece of Du Bois's vision. It began five years ago when Harvard lured Henry Louis Gates Jr. from Duke to head its Afro-American studies department and the Du Bois Institute. Since then, Gates has energetically recruited other black intellectuals to join him. Cornel West, an irrepressible, best-selling philosopher, has left Princeton for Harvard, and, just recently, the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson surprised the University of Chicago with word that he, too, was heading for Cambridge. Along with other black scholars already there--Alvin Poussaint, Orlando Patterson and Martin Kilson, among others--Harvard is assembling the academy's answer to the 1927 Yankees.
Of course, many fine black thinkers work elsewhere, but the Harvard "dream team" has reached a critical mass that is not only exciting but offers rich potential for the nation. Never before has so much intellectual firepower been gathered in one place to focus on our most intractable problem: racial inequality.
Gates himself suggested a worthy place for them to start in a New Yorker article in 1994. "We need something we do not yet have: a way of speaking about black poverty that does not falsify the reality of black advancement; a way of speaking about black advancement that does not distort the enduring realities of black poverty. Much depends on whether we get it."
Gates is right. With media that focus relentlessly on the negative, the public largely ignores the emergence of a black middle class. For too many of us, black has become synonymous with family breakdown, poverty, drugs, crime and, worst of all, hopelessness. Even Jesse Jackson said a few years ago, "There is nothing more painful to me ... than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."
It's time we reached a more balanced view, recognizing how many blacks have worked their way into the mainstream. Consider:
The proportion of blacks age 25 and over with a high-school diploma increased from 31 percent in 1970 to 73 percent in 1994. A Rand Corp. study found that during the 1970-1990 period, black students also showed the most significant improvement in reading and math performance of any racial or ethnic group. As records improve, blacks also have been flowing into higher education, so that today about a third have some college training--a level roughly equal to whites.
In 1959, 55 percent of blacks were officially living in poverty; today, 33 percent are. Seeking a better life, the black suburban population grew by 70 percent in the 1970s and another 35 percent in the 1980s. Peter Drucker recently wrote that, "In the 50 years since the Second World War, the economic position of African-Americans in America has improved faster than that of any other group in American social history--or in the social history of any country. Three fifths of America's blacks rose into middle-class incomes; before the Second World War the figure was one twentieth."
This progress in no way denies the ugly reality of those blacks living in an urban hell. Nor does it deny continuing prejudice against African-Americans and rising anger among some successful blacks. But, as sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argues in his illuminating new book, American Exceptionalism, the repeated emphasis on black failures only serves to perpetuate the myth that purposeful social actions designed to benefit blacks simply do not work and to reinforce racist stereotypes. Such beliefs also undermine black morale and ambition.
W.E.B. Du Bois would have been thrilled that a new generation of black scholars may now bring us a deeper understanding of race in America. And he would have agreed that much depends on whether we get it.
This story appears in the March 18, 1996 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.