The older I get, the more I appreciate Booker T. Washington’s educational philosophy of self-help and self-reliance for the masses of blacks. His teachings are all the more striking, since they are directed to a populace that emerged from slavery with little more than the clothes on their backs. Although Washington is often criticized for accepting second-class citizenship for his race, there is much wisdom in his pragmatic approach to fostering black empowerment. Washington wisely stressed the laudable virtues of personal responsibility, thrift, and hard work as the most effective means of achieving self-sufficiency and white acceptance by defying negative stereotypes. Some of the commonsense approach he advocated for blacks 100 years ago would be beneficial now in improving the lives and life chances of blacks trapped in cross generational cycles of poverty and hopelessness.
I admire Washington for many reasons that extend beyond the fact that he was a fellow Virginian born about 20 miles from the hamlet where I grew up in rural poverty. Although Washington was born a slave on a large plantation, he managed to get an education, and he founded an institution designed to uplift other former slaves and their offspring. Instead of lecturing white Americans about the litany of injustices perpetrated against blacks, Washington appealed to their better natures and gave them an opportunity to use their money to help him establish and maintain Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee taught black men and women mechanical skills and trades that would make them more valuable citizens, a stark contrast to today's black leaders who seek money for a redress of grievances. Washington differed from other black leaders of his day in that he did not ask whites to pay for blacks to obtain what most white Americans did not have-a liberal arts education that focused on broadening the intellect through the study of classical music, philosophy, art history, and mathematics. I have an abiding respect for Washington because he spoke for blacks from poor families like mine. W.E.B. Du Bois, his Harvard-educated counterpart, represented the needs and desires of a more elite constituency, as can be gleaned from his advocacy of a liberal arts education of what he referred to as the "Talented Tenth" of the black race. This remnant, he argued, would labor on behalf of the betterment of the others ("The Talentless Masses"?). Du Bois's elitism was also evident in his framing of issues and solutions.
Du Bois’s constituency included many well-to-do descendents of free blacks, or individuals who emerged from slavery and managed to get an education at the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges. Unfortunately, not enough Americans know that many Northeastern colleges and universities admitted and graduated qualified black students as early as 1823. The Winter 2002 issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a list of such colleges, which includes Middlebury, Amherst, Bates, and Oberlin among many others. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs these educated blacks were in a quite different situation than those Washington sought to empower.
In today’s milieu, Booker T. Washington's name (like that of his modern-day counterpart Clarence Thomas) is considered an insult almost as bad as being called a Republican. These names are given to blacks perceived as selling out their race. The black intelligentsia has found little of lasting value in Washington’s common sense approach to racial empowerment for the masses of blacks that emerged from slavery penniless and oppressed in the Jim Crow South. Du Bois is embraced, while Washington is often ridiculed and rejected for his pragmatism. Washington believed that blacks could help themselves and gain the respect of whites by living dignified lives and developing positive work habits with the technical skills they learned from Tuskegee. It has now become unacceptable to even hint at the possibility that black people might bear some responsibility for the condition (or enrichment) of their lives.
According to the mantra of the liberal left, it is the racism of white people - and not the personal choices of blacks - that is responsible for the high rate of illegitimacy, drug abuse, HIV infections and criminal acts that distinguish them from other racial and ethnic groups. White racism, they claim, is responsible for the inability of the offspring of the black middle class to excel on standardized tests and other indicators of academic merit. In their view most, if not all, contemporary black problems can be traced to the actions of white people or the very "lingering effects of slavery" Washington sought to repair. How different these accusatory judgements are from Washington’s philosophy of self-help, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. To the extent that there is a contemporary black leadership, it disproportionately focuses its attention on issues such as slave reparations, the preservation of racial preferences and the abolishment of felony disenfranchisement while ignoring the pressing matters of reducing black crime and illiteracy. Redress for grievances is sought from the government, private corporations, and foundations, while nothing is expected of their "victims."
While I believe that state and federal governments have a responsibility to improve the lives of disadvantaged Americans, I have no faith in their power to address the needs of blacks who reject mainstream values and norms, not to mention Biblical principles delineating acceptable standards of behavior. The latter is especially important, since the overwhelming majority of blacks in America purport to be Bible-believing Christians. I believe every middle-class black American has a special obligation to extend a helping hand to those members of his or her race trapped in hopeless situations. This obligation might be satisfied by tutoring a child, or offering words of encouragement to a welfare mother, or dropping a dollar into the cup of a homeless person. While we should love and embrace all humanity, I believe that the greatest responsibilities for solving black problems rest on the shoulders of black people.
I often wonder what Booker T. Washington would say to black Americans if he were suddenly to reappear on the scene and assess their behavior. I have a deep suspicion he would once again declare to the members of his race, "cast down your bucket where you are—cast it down in making friends. . . of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded. Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. . .No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem" (Atlanta Exposition speech, 1895). In their willingness to take menial jobs, many immigrants have demonstrated an internalization of the norms that Washington preached to blacks more than 100 years ago. Indeed, Americans of all races have much to learn from the practical wisdom of this former slave, who dined with Presidents.
Carol M. Swain is a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. A highly acclaimed author, her latest book is The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration. She is also the co-author with Dr. Russ Nieli of Contemporary Voices of White Nationalism in America (forthcoming March 2003). Visit her Website at