Black Leaders Examine Responsibility to Black Underclass

The Future of the Race

By Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornel West

Alfred A. Knopf

196 pp., $21

By focusing primarily on leadership, this book offers a refreshing way to think about race in the United States today.

The authors are top black scholars and writers in Harvard University's well-heeled Afro-American Studies Department. Henry Louis Gates Jr. heads that department and Cornel West, formerly head of Princeton University's African-American Department, teaches there now.

Both offer long essays commenting on aspects of a famous 1903 essay by the formidable American black intellectual and leader W.E.B. Du Bois. That essay, republished as an appendix in this book, is titled, "The Talented Tenth."

As Du Bois sees it, exceptional black men (evidently not women) are to save their race.

Du Bois's essay attempted to define the duty of leadership and service the black college graduate owes to the whole black community, and especially to the lower classes within it. The authors of "The Future of the Race" chose to comment on it as a means of thinking out loud about their own complex task today.

This reader began the book by first reading Du Bois's essay, which has a long and helpful introduction by Gates. DuBois was the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, in 1895 (after taking an AB at Fisk University and a master's at Harvard). He knew the classics and studied in Berlin with the famous German sociologist Max Weber before completing his PhD. And he writes with great power and elegance.

Du Bois and Weber remained close friends, Gates says, and Weber came to Atlanta University in 1904 to join in Du Bois's annual conference on the status of blacks. By 1903, Du Bois already had earned a top spot among black leaders, at the young age of 35, almost exclusively through the publication that year of a book of essays called "The Souls of Black Folk."

The "Talented Tenth" essay, also published later that year, complemented the book of essays by attempting to deal with the problem of class differences among blacks. These were largely caused, according to Gates, by unequal access to education.

All of this background is necessary to grasp the challenge scholars like Gates and West see before them. It also helps the reader grasp the authors' left-of-center remedies to the fact that blacks were discriminated against as a group as well as individually. As a consequence, Gates and West say, blacks, particularly the black underclass, are owed remedies including quotas enforced by law and in some cases, subsidies.

The authors hold these views in contrast to the increasingly mainstream position that blacks need to take advantage of opportunities based on merit that democratic societies offer, and not expect quota systems and subsidies.

The politics of race in the US, and politics in general, have not developed along the lines of Du Bois's ideas. He was clearly a Marxist. In 1948, he restated his thesis of the "Talented Tenth" in an address (also published in this book) in which he lauds Karl Marx's theories of "just" distribution of income. His "Talented Tenth" were to become experts in Marxist economics as well as learned men.

Gates points out that Du Bois's nemesis was his contemporary Booker T. Washington. The latter championed "a form of group uplift," while DuBois called for securing a civil-rights agenda by transforming American society.

Gates, and especially the very politically correct West, both clearly feel that the New Deal and the Great Society in fact tried Du Bois's way and in many ways failed. Yet they admit they are "cross-generation" - the first to benefit from the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.

The authors, and presumably Harvard as well, know that the times do not favor the Du Bois legacy.

But they also know that a third of blacks today live in sorry poverty.

Yet a third of US blacks are well into the middle class, many with high incomes. It would be interesting for a scholar, if he or she could, to find out to what extent all economic, social, and political views will be presented to the young blacks that will study under Gates and West.

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