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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Bring back Booker T.

by Dana Kelley | June 4, 2021 at 3:09 a.m.

By every statistical measure, political gains for Blacks in America are off the charts. When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, only five of 535 members of Congress were Black. This past January, the 117th Congress was sworn in with more than 10 times as many Blacks (57).

No Black presidential candidate in the entire 20th century ever garnered more than a few million primary votes. Three times in the first 20 years of this century, Black candidates have been on winning tickets receiving 65 million votes or more.

Racial discrimination, which was rampant in 1964, has been outlawed everywhere by landmark legislative milestones security legal equality, including multiple civil and voting rights acts. From housing to employment to finance to education, anti-discrimination policies and practices have become the statutory status quo.

Jim Crow is a past-tense relic, only existing now in partisan fringe scare tactics of being "brought back."

By and large, W.E.B. Du Bois' pursuit of political freedom has been realized. But political rights don't automatically equate to prosperity. Or, in the more eloquent verbiage of Du Bois' contemporary rival, Booker T. Washington: "It is important and right that all privileges of the laws be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera house."

The fact that economic gains have not kept pace for Blacks underscores the validity of the Wizard of Tuskegee's vision--and makes the case for a renaissance of his ideals.

The political split between Du Bois and Washington was settled forever in the former's favor when Washington died unexpectedly in 1915. Born and bred from vastly different backgrounds (Washington was born a Southern slave, and self-made; Du Bois came from a free Black land-owning family in Massachusetts, attended integrated schools and eventually graduated from Harvard), Du Bois and his influence would survive another five decades.

A 2020 congressional report on the Economic State of Black America details some gains, but more gaps. Median family wealth is 10 times higher for whites than Blacks, for instance. Only 42 percent of Black families own their homes, compared to 73 percent of white families. The typical Black household earns $29,000 less than its white counterpart.

The problem with holistic racial analysis, however--measuring anything only by race--is that it must accommodate drastic extremes that skew medians and averages and distort the findings.

Consider the example of college graduation rates. Black rates have more than doubled since 1990, yet still trail white rates. But what if we compare the rates between Blacks and whites who both come from college-educated parents with higher than average household incomes? And also had superior high school grades and ACT scores?

The disparity plunges or disappears entirely.

What worried Booker T. Washington most was that without practical education, training and skills, Blacks couldn't become prosperous as business owners, land-owners and merchants. And without economic independence, he feared political achievements would ring hollow.

"Education is not a thing apart from life--not a 'system,' nor a philosophy," he said. "It is direct teaching how to live and how to work."

While he valued liberal arts education, Washington's priority was teaching basics and fundamentals to Blacks who were starting out behind to begin with, with a focus on self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.

That included lessons in citizenry, religion and a reverence for the dignity of labor and personal discipline. He recognized crime as a prime barrier to Black progress, and in a speech in 1900, he noted that of all the graduates from Tuskegee Institute, only one had since been sentenced to prison.

"What we should do in our schools," Washington would say, "is to turn out fewer job seekers and more job creators."

By its 25th anniversary in 1905, Tuskegee had produced more self-made millionaires than Harvard, Yale and Princeton combined.

A diehard Republican, Washington's contention that a flourishing Black business sector would be good for all races is as timely as ever, and offers the perfect opportunity for his party to rally forward today in specifically promoting Black business success.

Despite his other shortcomings, President Trump had already begun leading the party in that direction with higher funding of historically Black universities, the creation of opportunity zones and the achievement of record-low Black unemployment.

Booker T. Washington was the first African American to dine in the White House (with Republican Teddy Roosevelt), the first to be commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp and the first to be featured on a commemorative coin.

Given inflation over time, maybe it's time to bring back the $500 bill with Washington's visage replacing William McKinley's, to signify his relentless emphasis on economic independence.

Great Republican philanthropists supported Booker T. Washington's ideas a century ago, and indications are they'd be even more enthusiastic today.

The GOP needs new energy. Prioritizing greater economic independence for Blacks would unleash gains and benefits for not only the party and all communities of color, but the nation as a whole.


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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