When W.E.B. DuBois published his “Talented Tenth” essay in September of 1903, he sought to define and characterize the type of leadership class Black people needed at the turn of the century to move from the ambiguous status of former slaves, to full U.S. citizenship.
According to DuBois,
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst.”
DuBois believed that those of us with the best education and opportunities would teach and cultivate the masses. These individuals would be “race men” or people devoted to uplifting, defending and advancing Black people.
The venerable historian and sociologist later came to see the error of his thinking. Speaking more than 40 years after publishing “The Talented Tenth,” Dubois noted: “I assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow. In my youth and idealism, I did not realize that selfishness is even more natural than sacrifice.”
What DuBois failed to consider was that the acquisition of higher learning, higher salaries, and more social status comes a class consciousness. For those members of the Black middle class (which by the way, is quickly eroding in this economy), this class consciousness often translates to an emphasis on accumulating wealth, material consumption for the purpose of acquiring or demonstrating social status, a disconnection from civil or human rights concerns, an arrogant and detached attitude toward members of the Black working class, and the view that one’s success has everything to do with intelligence, talent and work ethic, rather than structural forces.
It is both inaccurate and unfair to cast blanket condemnation over the Black middle class. We can all name quite a few Black celebrities, college grads and professional brothers and sisters that are outspoken on issues of race, class and gender and who use philanthropy to support Black institutions.
And yet E. Franklin Frazier’s analysis in his 1957 classic, “Black Bourgeoisie“ is still germane to the discussion:
- The Black Middle class generally seeks assimilation into and validation from the dominant culture, rendering their leadership/policies for the Black working class severely compromised
- Many members of this class spend too much time and money acquiring possessions to demonstrate their class status or “importance.”
- They tend to become alienated from and hostile to the Black working class, which incidentally, comprises the majority of our people
But it is brother Malcolm’s critique of the Black middle class as being pacifiers of the race and defenders of corporate and racial oppression that I’m most interested in here. In their attempt to fit in, and be validated by whites, they often adopt conservative values, identify with oppressive agencies and policies, and work to defend the status quo and neutralize or misdirect the righteous indignation of the Black masses. Malcolm explains this dynamic brilliantly in his analogy of the “House Negro and the Field Negro,” then uses this to explain how/why Black middle class leaders of the 60s tried to cool the flames of Black working class resistance.
Both Frazier and Brother Malcolm’s critique of the Black middle class helps us understand some rather troubling developments in American society today. This is why certain Black folk like Larry Elders and Ben Carson argue that racial injustice is either non existent or greatly exaggerated by Black people. This is how some of us actually promote the false notion that America is a post-racial nation. This helps explain how some of our leaders become government informants or agents, or white-sponsored critics of more radical or progressive leadership, ideas, and movements. Finally, this also helps explain the disturbing trend of college Black Student Unions transforming from uncompromising agents of radical Black resistance and political/cultural empowerment, to apolitical, sanitized social clubs sponsoring fashion shows, date auctions, and debutante balls. Concerns about building impressive resumes, career/financial stability and middle class households begin to replace concerns about social justice, race/gender/class oppression, or Black liberation within and outside of corporate offices.
Certainly all members and aspiring members of the Black middle class do not collaborate with our sworn enemies. In fact, some commit “class suicide” by unashamedly standing with the masses and being critical of establishment politics. But make no mistake. The class divide in terms of values, priorities and political trajectory is conspicuously evident.
When we stand up to protest, petition, or confront oppressive forces in our society, white political interests turn to their effective buffer group, conservative members of the middle class, to defend their policies, and encourage us as Malcolm said, to “Suffer peacefully.” They will continue to lead attacks on Affirmative Action, to justify tax cuts for the wealthy, and try to convince us that our collective suffering stems from our lack of work ethic, family values, and personal accountability. Even in the face of escalating police violence, corporate corruption, and legal injustice, they will tell us to relax, cool down, and allow the system to do its job. When we complain about racism, whites will point to these exceptional Black people as evidence that racial barriers and ceilings don’t exist. And in doing all of this, they will expose themselves as naive or willing collaborators with those who despise our very presence and see our wealth and labor as their own possessions. The time will come when you’ll have to choose sides or even contemplate class suicide yourself. Choose wisely. You’ve been warned…
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.