MAXWELL:  A black man’s plan for success

8/9/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


An open letter to black males and people who care about them:

Academics, journalists, public speakers and others used to label the black male in the United States an “endangered species.” Because of political correctness, the term has fallen out of favor and is rarely used in any public forum.

If truth be told, too many black males nationwide still are in big trouble. And we black people are duty-bound to find ways to break this cycle of endangerment once and for all.

Yes, racism, especially the institutional kind, is a problem. It has destroyed generations of lives and continues to do terrible harm to the most vulnerable. But we no longer can let it prevent us from aggressively doing what we can on our own to save our boys, of instilling in them the traits, practices, habits, attitudes and philosophies that will enable them and their children to succeed.

Let me begin by describing the lay of the land: We, black males, are the least-desirable group in the United States. We are not wanted. White racists despise us, fear us and want us to evaporate or, at the very least, buy a one-way group ticket back to Africa. Most white liberals who want to help us also fear us, especially our boldest youngsters whose behavior mocks society’s expectations of what is acceptable.

The bottom line is white liberals cannot help us. Welfare cannot. School reform cannot. Bill Clinton cannot. George W. Bush cannot. Al Gore cannot.

Only we can save ourselves by committing ourselves to reversing what Berkeley University linguistics professor John McWhorter calls “self-sabotage” _ a counterproductive condition that encourages separatism, victimology and, perhaps worst of all, anti-intellectualism that views being smart as “being white.”

Because we know from the get-go that society naturally rejects us, we must have the savvy to avoid everything that plays into the hands of the enemy. Why should we willfully set ourselves up for failure and contempt and societal abuse? Why do we re-enact all of the negative stereotypes?

I see such re-enactments each day: young brothers playing out the in-your-face style that turns off everyone else; getting arrested for stupid reasons; perpetually getting their mugs in newspapers and on prime-time TV; accumulating long rap sheets that destroy futures; roaming the streets all times of night; never reading a book or completing homework; dissing schoolmates who use their brains; refusing to master spoken and written English; rejecting the experience and wisdom of adults.

Why do we set ourselves up for mistreatment? Sometimes I believe that we want to be disliked. I hope that I am wrong. One thing I know for sure is that many brothers believe that they are getting back at white society with their behavior and attitude.

Simply stated, admissions officers do not give scholarships to those they perceive as dumb. Employers do not hire people they fear. Landlords do not rent to people they believe are destructive. Lenders do not lend to those they mistrust. Get the picture?

Yo, brothers, here is a secret I learned as a child: The best way to get back at white society _ the ultimate revenge _ is to succeed precisely where we are expected to fail, to do the unexpected.

What do I mean? To avoid miscasting someone else, let me use myself as an example. When I, a former migrant, arrived at the University of Chicago, few whites there expected me to succeed. Determined, I kept my nose in a book and surrounded myself with smart, well-traveled people. When I drank, I did so at Woodlawn Tap, where brilliant students and professors interacted, where I absorbed their intellectuality. I attended every play on campus and bought tickets to the Goodman and other theaters. I stalked the museums, the Art Institute and even acquired a lukewarm taste for chamber music and opera. I took part of my stipend to pay a doctoral student to teach me the Chicago Manual of Style so that I could write proper papers immediately. Using recordings, I even taught myself enough French to read Madame Bovary and appreciate Flaubert’s l’art pour l’art as he had intended.

In other words, I had a personal plan _ a black man’s plan _ for success beyond racism. A major part of my plan, as it is with most other successful blacks, is the simple matter of minimizing encounters with external, societal barriers to success. By avoiding external barriers, we enable ourselves to maximize our native talents and intelligence.

While continuing to battle racism as an external reality, we also must stop adopting self-sabotaging thought and conduct. Racism is never going away. Therefore, we must stop letting it be an excuse to fail. We must survive and thrive despite racism.