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Authors: Henry Louis Gates

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BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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So it’s not so amazing that not much happened during that hundred years and that Du Bois had to talk about the Talented Tenth—blacks who are highly educated, who hold positions of leadership—because only a tenth had managed to emerge from this panoply of repression. The fact that a tenth did emerge is quite astonishing. Where did Du Bois himself come from? Where did that black man come from who had the temerity to get a doctorate from Harvard in the nineteenth century, in 1895? When you look back to these people who broke through back then, you go, now that’s an achievement. For me to have had a chance to go to a public school, to go to Harvard, to go to Oxford, to go to law school, and people say, he ended up okay, well, it’s in the range of things you expect. But for the prior generations to have done that, when they had none of that opportunity, none of that support, now that was an astounding achievement.

I think everybody in America who succeeds has a special responsibility for those who are left behind, who haven’t had the opportunity to succeed. Those of us in the Talented Tenth have this responsibility, but we are not alone in it. I don’t know that it was a voluntary thing for John D. Rockefeller to share his wealth. I think it was mandatory, morally mandatory, for him to share that wealth with society and to create the institutions he founded or sustained financially, whether it was the University of Chicago or Spelman College or the Rockefeller Foundation. I think it was mandatory in a moral sense. And I think it’s the same thing for African Americans. Those who have benefited from the opportunities that the country provides have an obligation to give back.

It starts as a moral question. It is that we really do, I believe, have a moral compact with one another to look out for the well-being of others who have not had the same opportunities. Second, no one succeeds on his or her own; everybody benefits from this infrastructure that everybody supports. The soldiers who were in World War II preserving a democracy—folks who might’ve been a machinist from some small town in the South, or who came off the farm—they protected this system that has allowed other people to prosper. None of these megabillionaires would be able to have all that they have without the people who did participate in protecting this system. So no one gets there on their own. What’s the old saying—if you’re walking along and you see a turtle on a fence post, you know one thing for sure: it didn’t get there by itself. I think that many of us are in that way turtles on the fence post and we have to acknowledge that as well. We have to acknowledge not just that there’s a moral imperative, but also that we didn’t do it on our own.

Third, I think we all share an obligation for this catch-up process of obliterating the impact of that hundred years of repression. I believe that we can’t allow another and another and another generation to go by who haven’t gotten into the system, haven’t had the opportunity. So I think part of the obligation for those who have succeeded flows from that as well.

One of my goals as CEO of Fannie Mae is addressing directly this one hundred years of repression. It’s fortunate that what we do in increasing home ownership is at the heart of the solution on the economic side. We finance one out of every four homes in America. But even with that, the home ownership rate among minorities is way too low—below 50 percent for African Americans, 47 percent for Hispanics, about 50 percent for Asians. And so what we do every day is gather capital around the world and bring it to the United States, and now we’re trying to focus more and more of that capital on minority communities. We’ve signed on for President Bush’s initiative to expand minority home ownership by 5.5 million families by the end of the decade, and we’re going to provide $700 billion over this decade for this goal. The more homeowners there are, the better it is for Fannie Mae, and the idea that we should say, well, these folks don’t qualify, would be like the soap company saying, well, we’re just not selling you soap. This is a good business, one that has a profound impact on people, because of the multiplier effect that comes from home ownership.

It’s not just the wealth issues, it’s the social capital issues. Homeowners vote more. Homeowners stay in the same neighborhood longer. Homeowners’ kids do better in school. Where you have more homeowners, there’s less crime. Lots of good things come from expanding home ownership, and by our focusing on it as a business, we believe that we can do more of it than you can just by doing it out of the goodness of your heart. I want to have the same class divide in the black community as you have in the white community. I want the same percentage of middle class, the same percentage of rich, the same percentage of poor, in the white and black communities. Average is fine with me, because by all the measures, the black community is far behind average in income, in job status, and in education.

There’s only one way to get more black people to the working class and from the working class to the middle class and into areas like Wall Street, and that’s step by step. There’s no shortcut. To begin with, we’ve got to get folks the preparation that’s needed. More people have got to finish high school and finish it having picked up those basic tools, with regard to reading and writing and the ability to perform on a par in mathematics. Then we’ve got to get more people into college and taking courses that translate into the kinds of jobs they’ve prepared for. They don’t have to major in economics, but they need to take economics, they need to understand economics, regardless of whether they major in literature or any other area.

Then folks have got to get into these companies and persist. It’s hard and it’s not always hospitable, but persistence, hanging in there, taking on the tough job, taking on the dirty job and giving yourself exposure, is the way you get ahead. For a lot of folks, there’s an expectation where you get into a job that you just sort of automatically get what comes with the job. You move up in grade, for instance in the civil service. Well, that’s not the way it works in business anymore. You’ve got to find ways to stand out. You’ve got to find ways that you can perform and show your stuff. A lot of times people say, that’s risky. Yes it is, but you don’t get a gain without risk. If you want to invest riskless, people pay you very little interest. If you want to take a little risk, you get a little more interest, and the same thing is true in human development. You have to take a risk, a prudent risk, and you have to keep investing in yourself. Sometimes people say, I’m done; I’ve now gone to a school and I’m done. Well, that’s not true. You’ve got to keep investing in yourself. You’ve got to keep learning and you’ve got to keep training, because your knowledge becomes obsolete much faster today than ever before. So you have to constantly invest.

Now, all of this can be helped by corporate America. A number of corporations have been tremendous supporters of education and improving education, particularly in our central cities, and insisting on quality education—not just having a good time, but having the kids learn. A number of corporations have been very helpful in supporting admissions to colleges. A number have training programs that can work, and more need to get involved. Expanding the pool of people is as important to the company as it is to the person, and investing in this human capital is important. As we become a country in which there is no majority, and where a significant percentage of new workers are going to be people of color, there’s not going to be any choice but to dip into this pool and train and promote the best people. Otherwise, you’re not going to have any people.

Companies are coming to realize this and are beginning to take the kinds of steps needed for success. Besides being a great moral principle, it’s just fundamentally good business. If you limit yourself and the scope of who you are willing to look at for talent, you’re going to limit the amount of talent you find. If you open it up to all the talent, you’re going to find more and more people.

It’s not that many years ago when the best job financially a woman could get was schoolteacher. And in fact, those of us who were in school then probably benefited from all these women who were teaching school but were also highly qualified in other areas. They were phenomenal and could have done a lot of things. Now as we’ve reached out to women, we’ve found all of this talent that’s out there, and that’s been terrific for our economy. I think the same thing is true as we look at different groups of minority Americans. As we look in there, we’re going to find all this talent, and people are going to say, wow, I didn’t know that was there. It is there, and it simply has to be found and developed. Not everybody’s going to be great; on average, people are going to be average. But there are going to be a lot of great performers who are going to blossom, who no one had thought were capable of doing something, because they’d never gotten the chance. You’ve got to let them know it’s possible, because most of them don’t even know it’s possible.

When I was growing up in Seattle, I hadn’t been to most of the city, let alone anywhere else. We’d go to day camp, and that was it. It was a big deal to go to another part of the city. My world was two or three square miles. Then others helped me, and I got to most of the city. When I got into debating, we traveled around the state. Then I went to Harvard, across the country. After that I went to Oxford, and then it became the world. What I thought was possible just kept expanding. For many people, it never expands; they never get off the block. And when they look on the block and ask, what’s possible here, there’s not that much possible on that block.

We must make it clear that there are greater possibilities. Sometimes people shrink from talking with me about my being a black CEO and about wanting to be a CEO, but I don’t shrink from that. The reason I don’t is I’ve had too many kids come up to me and say, I saw an article about you where I heard you say this, and ever since then I’ve been doing this or I’ve been thinking about that. So I think it’s important to be part of saying, look, I was a working-class kid from Seattle; my mother finished the sixth grade, and my father almost graduated from high school. If I can do it, this isn’t rocket science. There are opportunities. We just have to make lots of kids aware of the opportunities and give them a chance, and if we give them a chance, we’ll be surprised by how many will do well.

A couple of years ago, a
Washington Post
poll asked inner-city black kids to list things that were white, and they listed getting straight As in school, speaking standard English, visiting the Smithsonian, and so on. I think this shows two things. First, it’s an observable fact that most people who achieve those things are white. So the kids were just reflecting a reality that they see. Second, though, is a protective mechanism that people use so they can tell themselves, if I’m not going to be allowed in the club, then I don’t want it, that’s not a good club. People start denigrating things that they really know are probably good things, but because they’re not available to them, then they decide they’re not important. And that’s why it’s so important that people see that the opportunity is available to them and that there are people like them in the club. Then they don’t have to reject the opportunity for the sake of their own self-esteem—because if you’re not allowed in, how do you deal with that? People don’t deal with not being allowed in by saying, well I guess it’s something about me. They deal with it by saying, it’s them.

I saw this when I was growing up, and I went through it when I was in the ninth grade and decided I wanted to be with the brothers. There were only a few white kids in our school, and I didn’t want to be in these classes anymore that were white and Asian and that had just a few blacks in a school that was 90 percent black. The so-called accelerated classes were these little segregated classes. I wanted to be with the people, and so I tried very hard not to get good grades. I understand that pressure to want to fit in, to think that my club is a good club and their club is not. A lot of teachers helped me out of this quagmire. They gave me a very hard time about my grades, and there were coaches who said, no, that’s not going to work. We know what you can do and we expect you to do it. I had a lot of adult supervision beyond my parents, and lots of people who had very high expectations for me. At the time I was going, why have they all picked me? Why am I carrying all this weight? Well, it was a good thing for people to have high expectations of me, because I felt a need to respond to it, and the test of success for me was high. It wasn’t a low hurdle that I could just get over. People were going, no, no, that’s not you, your test is up here, Frank.

If what we classify as the club we don’t want to be in is the club that creates success, we lose the opportunities to succeed. Far too many of our kids have lost these opportunities, or if they have them, it’s episodic, and if they get in trouble, there’s no one there to help them. We’ve got to change this dynamic. I benefited from people constantly showing me the power of example, saying, here’s somebody who succeeded, here’s what success looks like, here are things that you ought to think about. And they weren’t crazy things; they were all things that were within reach. And then it was the possibility of going to college, going to a good college, and becoming a lawyer, that made a big difference.

How long it will take African Americans to catch up depends a lot on society. If the society makes a commitment and looks at things like affirmative action as part of that commitment of catching up, not giving an advantage to someone but just letting them catch up, I think we can make a lot of progress in another couple of generations. If not, it’s going to take another hundred years, because as more and more make it, it gets harder for the ones who haven’t made it.

We attitudinally have got to get the country back to understanding that the job is not done. People think it’s done when they see a few black CEOs or a few other highly successful African Americans. It’s not done. But the country will benefit when it is done, and everybody in the country will be better off. It’s not just black people who will be better off. Everybody will be better off, because the more homeowners there are, the more entrepreneurs there are, the more workers there are, the better off everybody is. This isn’t a zero-sum game where because a black person gets a job, it means a white person didn’t get a job, and that’s the whole story. That’s not the way capitalism works. When one person gets a job, he starts buying things, and this creates the potential for more jobs. The miracle of compound interest is not just a personal thing; it also happens to a whole economy. Henry Ford understood this with his Model T. He was creating these cars and he said, I’ve got to pay these workers enough so they can afford to buy my car. If they can afford to buy my car, then I can afford to pay them, and the whole process went from there.

BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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