Booker T. Washington was right — except where he was wrong. Washington and fellow civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois had, as PBS noted in its 1998 documentary “The Two Nations of Black America,” somewhat variant ideas of how to reach the goal of equal rights for “Negroes.”
In the companion site to the film, PBS tells us that Du Bois is the forbear of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Washington of African American thought leaders such as Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele.
Washington’s path was for black people to “... concentrate on elevating themselves through hard work and material prosperity ... education in the crafts, industrial and farming skills and the cultivation of the virtues of patience, enterprise and thrift (and so) lead to African Americans being fully accepted as citizens and integrated into all strata of society.”
By contrast, “Du Bois advocated political action and a civil rights agenda (he helped found the NAACP). In addition, he argued that social change could be accomplished by developing the small group of college-educated blacks he called “the Talented Tenth ... the best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the worst.”
Du Bois, too, was right — except where he was wrong.
Like the song says, “It takes two, baby.”
Without the marches and protests, without the sacrifices of the Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Riders, tragic incidents such as the murder of Medgar Evers, there would be no Civil Rights Act and no Voting Rights Act.
But here’s the elephant in the room: Once those laws were enacted, whatever gains were made thereafter came about because the police power of the federal government was a gun held to the heads of recalcitrant agents of de jure racism.
Not only is enforcement what the government does best; ultimately it’s all it can do. What we’re seeing in the nation this summer is the result of thinking the government per se cares about people.
Du Bois’ methods were fine for creating awareness and enacting legal changes but Washington should have been heeded when it came to the social needs of black people in America.
Instead they got federal poverty programs that were great at creating absentee-father African American families but did frick-all about poverty. They got housing programs that quickly became new ghettos. They got a “Talented Tenth” that morphed into race hustlers who worked these programs for profit at the expense of really solving problems.
So much for elevating “the Mass.”
Of course, no one is ever just one thing and so Booker T. Washington’s path was followed as well. A Venn diagram of those active in the two paths would show a lot of overlap.
Back in July 2016, I quoted Michael Fortner of Rutgers University on this topic: “... the black middle class shaped the development of this punitive policy and played a crucial role in the development of mass incarceration.”
I don’t want to just repeat that column. Please read it online if you care to do so. It is, however, critical to remember that the government actions that have proved to have exacerbated social problems were born out of a need for safety felt by the African American community itself as well as middle-class whites.
Getting tough on crime: Stiffening sentencing, over-incarceration and aggressive policing abetted by qualified immunity — these are, as with the negative consequences of poverty programs, the unintended consequences of trying to have the government solve problems no government can solve.
That’s because, in the end, the loaded gun of the government’s police power is all it has. It’s the government’s hammer and to it everything sooner or later becomes a nail.
The only thing to do with government to help reduce incidents of police brutality is to scale it back. Voices as politically different as Reason and Slate have both outlined sound steps to take in that direction. U.S. Rep. Justin Amash is trying to get qualified immunity for police repealed.
The citizenry needs to support these efforts. We need to remember that great power should come with great responsibility, not less; that more laws mean more police interactions and more chances for those to go bad; that — however well-intended, however truly concerned and caring for people or their safety those who advocate for government programs might be — government is incapable of reflecting that concern and care.
The scorpion cannot change its nature. You will always end up with the treadmill, the workhouse, and the prison. You will always end up “Gridlock’d.”
Only people can demonstrate “concern for others over and above ourselves, even at great personal expense” i.e. only we can love one another. Only we can take care of one another — person to person, community to community.
Don’t let another George Floyd die because we as a nation can’t think outside the box on race relations.
Hennigan, of Asotin, is an instructional technology administrator at Lewis-Clark State College. His email address is email@example.com.