What Happened to the New Negro?

This past summer, I was invited by Shawn Akers, the dean of the Helms School of Government here at Liberty University and my boss, to present a lecture during his public policy summer intensive at the Liberty University School of Law, the topic being race and politics. I enjoyed not just the experience of teaching and engaging some of the brightest young minds in the country, but the process of preparing for the lecture. I never fail to add to my repository of knowledge as I do my research, and my prayer is that the outcome enriches the students as much as the process enriches me. One of the resources I consulted in preparation for the lecture was black historian Carter G. Woodson's Miseducation of the Negro, first published in 1933. I first read it a few years ago after coming across some quotes from it which I found surprising, because they validated some positions I've held for most of my life regarding the state of black America.

The reason I was surprised is because, for decades, this book has been a staple of African-American studies programs, which have come under criticism for their narrow focus on the victimization of black people and America's irredeemable racism, their emphasis on leftist philosophies and remedies, and their lack of comprehensive scholarship on the entire black experience in America. Upon reading the book for myself, I came away feeling the way author Debra Dickerson did after reading it:

I had been led to think that The Miseducation of the Negro was about how white people had miseducated us. But that's not what it's about. Those books are really about communal critique. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson—these guys faced lynchings just for being who they were at the time, but here they were talking not about white people, but about what the standards of our community should be! It just—oh, man—rocked me on my heels. And it made me really angry. But it was also inspiring: in the thirties things were just as bleak as they could possibly be for us, and yet Carter G. Woodson was sort of calm and circumspect about it all, saying: Take the long view, take the historical view.

In fact, the book didn't shy away from the topic of how blacks were being "miseducated" to think of themselves as inferior, and collectively bereft of significant contributions to the advancement of American society. This "miseducation" was the impetus for the creation by Dr. Woodson of what has become Black History Month, which he hoped would emphasize the accomplishments of black Americans and serve as a source of pride and encouragement.

He often compared the mindset of the indigenous black population in America to that of black immigrants from the Caribbean, who had not been subjected to the drumbeat of inferiority and, as a result, not only considered themselves the equal of any man, but became accomplished in academia and the professions at a level disproportionate to their presence in the population.

For example, Dr. John C. Walter notes that in 1930, black immigrants from the West Indies represented 40% of all doctors of color in America, even though they represented only 1.2%-1.5% of the black population. A similar phenomenon can be seen in immigrants from Africa who, according to a study reported in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in the winter of 1999-2000, were more likely to have a college degree or a graduate degree than any other immigrant group, including Asians, who are generally perceived as the most highly intellectual of immigrants to our nation.

In fact, African immigrants outperformed native-born whites and blacks in both categories, with a significant achievement gap between African immigrants and native-born blacks. The study reported that "…they were more than three times as likely to have a college degree than native-born African Americans," and the percentage of indigenous blacks with graduate degrees was "less than one fifth the rate of African immigrants to this country."

There was more to Dr. Woodson's work, however, than simply a critique of an educational system that kept blacks in a state of inferiority. He spoke directly and candidly to the educated blacks of his day, challenging them to take responsibility for black ascendancy. He believed the solutions should come from within the black community, and he declared that "those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning."

Dr. Woodson also had a vision for how blacks should engage in the political process, and "Chapter XVII: Higher Strivings in the Service of the Country," held a particular fascination for me as a student of politics and policy. After reading it, I was led to ask myself, "What happened to 'the New Negro in politics,' as Dr. Woodson described him?" Woodson begins his chapter with these words:

Another factor the Negro needs is a new figure in politics, one who will not concern himself so much with what others can do for him as with what he can do for himself. He will know sufficient about the system of government not to carry his trouble to the federal functionaries and thus confess himself a failure in the community in which he lives.

He establishes a couple of key themes from the beginning – self-sufficiency, competence, and local action. Regarding the latter, he writes, "The New Negro in politics will not be so unwise as to join the ignorant delegations from conferences and convention which stage annual pilgrimages to the White House to complain to the President because they have socially and economically failed to measure up to demands of self-preservation."

He looked upon these blacks as helpless and, therefore, scorned by those from whom they sought help. I'm reminded of the treks black leaders of today make to the White House with their "black agenda," and how they are politely received, yet little is done for them. Woodson believed that "the New Negro in politics" would establish his or her worth, and have something of value to offer, before asking for help from others: "If he does something for himself, others will do more for him."

He also imagined "the New Negro in politics" would be independent and "not a tool for the politicians," declaring:

This higher role can be played not by parking all of the votes of a race on one side of the fence…but by independent action. The Negro should not censure the Republican Party for forgetting him and he should not blame the Democratic Party for opposing him.

Any people who will vote the same way for three generations without thereby obtaining results ought to be ignored and disfranchised. As a minority element the Negro should not knock at the door of any particular political party. He should appeal to the Negroes themselves and from them should come harmony and concerted action for a new advance to that larger freedom of men. The Negro should use his vote rather than give it away to reward the dead for some favors done in the distant past.

Adjusting his statement to fit modern times, Dr. Woodson would probably write, "The black man should not censure the Democratic Party for taking him for granted, and he should not blame the Republican Party for ignoring him." I imagine Dr. Woodson would be dismayed by the monolithic and ironclad 85-96% black voting bloc consistently granted to the Democratic Party since 1964, and the fact the Democrats expect it and the Republicans don't contest it proves the point he made back in 1933.

Woodson also came out against the public sector positions to which professional blacks of his day aspired, saying, "The few state and national offices formerly set aside for Negroes have paled into insignificance when compared with the many highly lucrative positions now occupied by Negroes as a result of their development in other spheres." He believed that politics would be ineffective in solving "any serious problem" in the black community unless blacks had the wealth and power that only came from being "prominent in education, business or professional life." He said, "A class of people slightly lifted above poverty…can never have much influence in political circles." By building personal wealth and power, and striving to "give the world something rather than extract something from it," the black professional would find that "he will not have to knock at the doors of political parties but will have them thrown open to him."

Blacks today, however, are disproportionately represented and dependent upon public sector jobs. The University of California - Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education reports that blacks are 30 percent more likely than nonblacks to work in the public sector, and roughly 21 percent of black workers are public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of nonblacks. As a result, reductions in the public sector workforce have had a disparate impact on the unemployment rate in the black community. The disproportionate number of blacks on public assistance is well documented and need not be repeated here.

Therefore, it's no wonder that black organizations like the NAACP, and self-anointed black leaders like the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, believe the "black agenda" and expanding government are inexorably linked, and to oppose the latter is to oppose the former. It places us directly at odds with the principles of limited government and self-rule upon with the nation was founded, and it marginalizes us politically.

Another cause of black marginalization within the American political process, according to Woodson, was black politicians' myopic focus on "black" issues, and he warned "the new Negro in politics" against this:

When such Negroes go into office you will not find them specializing in things which peculiarly concern the Negroes, offering merely antilynching bills and measures for pensioning the freedmen. The New Negro in politics will see his opportunity not in thus restricting himself but in visioning the whole social and economic order with his race as a part of it. In thus working for the benefit of all as prompted by his liberal mindedness the New Negro will do much more to bring the elements together for common good than he will be able to do in prating only of the ills of his particular corner and extending his hand for a douceur.

Were he alive today, I believe he would, upon examination, note that the issues which concern black politicians primarily tend to be "black" issues, and the fact they sometimes are part of a larger agenda is purely coincidental. This, and the theory that black elected officials, with few exceptions and one notable one, tend to represent majority black constituencies as an unintended consequence of the mandates within the Voting Rights Act of 1965, puts them in a "political ghetto" where they are isolated in their "particular corner," to use Woodson's words, and set apart from the political mainstream because of the people and issues they represent.

I hasten to add here that this "ghettoization" isn't an outcome that warrants the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It is, however, an illustration of the byzantine process of crafting legislation in Washington, where multiple agendas result in bills which are engineered to do too many things, not all of them desirable. As columnist Matt Lewis puts it, such legislation "is a prime example of how governmental intrusion comes with unintended consequences — often at the expense of the very people it ostensibly tries to help." Because of familiarity and proximity, local governments and self-rule stand a better chance of fixing problems without the unintended consequences.

Perhaps the most eye-opening words in the chapter Woodson wrote on "the New Negro in politics," however, were the ones in which he rejected communism and socialism outright as a solution for black Americans. He wrote that every system in which "no one is to enjoy the fruits of his exceptional labor any more than the individual who is not prepared to render such extraordinary service" has "broken down," and "If the excited whites who are bringing to the Negroes such strange doctrines are insane enough to believe them, the Negroes themselves should learn to think before it is too late."

He warned against political causes which purportedly had the best interests of black Americans at heart, but which "merely mean to use the race as a means to an end" and would abandon them as soon as their goals were met. He accused "the Republican machine" of his day of abandonment once they locked in the black vote, but the formula is being repeated today with the Democrats, who are practiced at stirring up racial fears and resentment toward their opponents but, after the election is over, don't do much in the way of policy to help blacks break the cycle of generational dependency and become equal heirs to the American Dream.

Woodson believed the assertion that blacks couldn't succeed in the free market served to "discredit the Negro as a capable competitor in the economic battle of life." He said the only reason blacks hadn't succeeded at that point is that they didn't have the opportunity to try, and he was confident in what they could do when given that opportunity. In that respect, he echoed the faith in black Americans held by great men like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, whose individual achievements despite slavery, institutionalized discrimination and a culture steeped in racism, exposed the lie of black inferiority and demonstrated how hard work and excellence could overcome any obstacle.

In my opinion, black leaders of yesteryear had more faith in black Americans than do the self-anointed black leaders of today. Their words may speak of such faith, but their deeds and endless demands highlight, in Woodson's words, "the tendency of the Negro to look to some force from without to do for him what he must learn to do for himself."

We have tremendous potential for achievement if we adopt self-rule and pursue our own salvation, and I've spoken before about our potential and how we can use it. If "the New Negro in politics" is ever to become a reality, we need to free ourselves from the "miseducation" of our current black leadership and look to those in the past who truly believed in us, even in our darkest hour.