Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Black Lies, White Lies
The Truth According to Tony Brown
By Tony Brown

Chapter One: Different Ship, Same Boat

We didn't all come over on the same ship, but we're all in the same boat.-Whitney M. Young

In the early 1950s, the townspeople of Charleston, West Virginia, practiced a rather benign form of segregation compared to many parts of the country. The White population in my hometown was not consciously intent on keeping Blacks out, but they did like to keep us at a fair distance.

My experiences as a child were therefore rather mixed when it came to racial matters. Before junior high school, my best friend was a White child, my neighbor, Corky. But when it came to the opposite sex, it seemed to me that the prettiest girls in the world were those from Washington Manor, the Black housing project. The great equalizer in my boyhood world was poverty. Nearly everyone I knew, White and Black, was poor, though Blacks were made poorer by the fact that welfare and public assistance were for Whites only in that time and place. The only"welfare"Blacks were allotted was a sack of potatoes, usually rotten, from a federal program now and then.

The lives of Blacks in Charleston were hardscrabble, but racism and poverty inspired resourcefulness. There was a sense that the world owed you nothing, and even if it did, it wasn't going to pay up soon. So you learned to take care of yourself and your own family, which was often no small task. Families were often extended to include cousins, second cousins, half brothers and sisters, and even people outside of your particular gene pool. Households too were often organized along untraditional and occasionally shifting lines.

My brother, two sisters, and I were raised separately, and for a time, none of us lived with either natural parent. In my younger days, I was reared by two women, Elizabeth"Mama"Sanford and her daughter, Mabel Holmes. From the age of two months, when I was delivered to these guardian angels, they called me"Sonny Boy"because they said I shone as brightly as the sun.

I lived with these surrogate mothers until they died within a year of each other just as I reached my teenage years. I was then returned to my birth mother, who by that time had also reclaimed my brother and my older sister. My siblings and I may not have been raised from birth by our natural mother, but we certainly had been stamped with her physical features, and we seemed to inherit also her quick mind and strong will. The key to my overachieving nature, I suspect, is the nurturing I received from my"mama,"Elizabeth Sanford, my supportive schoolteachers, and an extended family that in many ways encompassed most of the Black community.

In Charleston, Blacks felt responsible for each other and for each other's children. Adult supervision was considered a community responsibility as well as a parental one. Black children who misbehaved on public transportation could expect to be set straight; not just by their own guardians, but by any other Black adults who happened to be present. Our Black schoolteachers also imparted their intense interest in our proper development. In this communal setting, I learned that when you break the rules, you risk forfeiting your standing in the group. This was peer pressure in its most benevolent form, as a force for good. I was taught that in a world that set us apart because of the shade of our skin, we are all we've got, and if we don't stick together, we are doomed.

Early Awakenings

I grew up, then, instilled with the belief that I was under a moral obligation to my community and society in general. At an early age, I developed a finely tuned sense of moral outrage at injustice and dishonesty. The truth, I was taught, could not be denied. My general environment was fundamentalist and proud--to the point of arrogance. If there were Whites who didn't want us around, we thought entirely too much of ourselves to be bothered about it. God would get them for what they did to us, I was taught. Still, when I was a young boy, there were periods when I couldn't wait for God to wade in. I came to see racism as immoral as well as illegal, especially in a nation that preached the Ten Commandments as a way of life and proclaimed that all men were created equal.

That was how I came to view the world I lived in as a child in Charleston. By age fifteen, I was already instilled with righteous anger over racial segregation when there came the opportunity to express it publicly. My poor English teacher, my beloved Mrs. Ruth Norman, did not see it coming when she asked me to represent the youth of my community as part of the program for a dedication of the town's"colored"YMCA.

When told I was scheduled to speak right before the guest of honor, I was flattered to be so well regarded by my teacher and to be granted a position of prominence before the entire Black community in a forum reserved for dignitaries. I had heard Paul Robeson speak and sing at a previous meeting. I remembered also the stone-faced White FBI agents who never joined us in our thundering ovation for Robeson, our Black champion. Some said Robeson was a Communist, but I had no fear of him. He was a Black man who was smart and important, and he could raise the roof with the resonant power of his soulful voice. He was big-time, and now so was I, for I was to be on the same circuit as that great and proud Black man.

Eager to emulate my hero, I had Billie, my twelfth-grader sister, help me prepare my speech. I did the writing, she coached my gestures and pauses. I did what Mrs. Norman had instructed:"Organize your thoughts into a succinct message, put them on three-by-five cards, use psychological word triggers, read the ideas over and over, practice in the mirror, project your voice, use your diaphragm, and remember, we love you and we want you to do well."

When I got to the Garnet High School auditorium that evening--it was a Sunday and I was wearing my Sunday blue suit--I met my three buddies, Arthur Fisher, Lewis Smoot, and Reginald Taylor. I ignored Mrs. Norman's instructions to report backstage immediately. I was panicked by the sight of the crowd, the heavy perfumes of the women, and the serious mood of the men. So I hung with my three giggling buddies in a secluded section of the balcony. Every few minutes, I checked my three-by-five cards--just in case I was discovered and called to speak.

From my retreat, I could see that up on the stage were various town luminaries, many of my teachers, and a very distinguished and self-assured White man. I was taking in this scene when suddenly the call came:"Will Anthony Brown please come to the stage? Is Anthony Brown in the auditorium?"If I had planned a clandestine exit, my buddies eliminated that option."Here he is!"they announced, delighted at my discomfort. Wearing my bravest face, I surrendered, reported to the stage, and nervously took my seat. I vaguely remember being introduced to the undistinguishable faces in the audience. I had this sense of being up there alone with my three-by-five cards.

Then the words came spilling out of me. These were powerful words that came not from my carefully prepared speech but from my heart. I had the sense that I was hearing someone else speaking boldly, through me.

"Why have we come tonight to celebrate a damp, raggedy old building with hand-me-down, smelly furniture and flat-sided Ping-Pong balls and pool tables that run downhill?"this bold speaker demanded to know."Why are we pleased with a facility--if you can call it that--lacking even a swimming pool, while the White YMCA has a first-rate pool just two short blocks down Capitol Street? Why are we content to be second-class citizens and to celebrate our second-class role tonight? No, thank you. When we have something to celebrate, let's do it. Until then, let's do what we have to do to have equal facilities and equal respect under the law. Thank you and God bless you."

In the next few minutes, I was reborn. The YMCA fundraiser crowd burst into a sustained standing, ovation. I remember tears welling in the eyes of some of the women, and pride in the set chins of the men, many of whom were high school graduates lucky to get jobs as dishwashers or shoeshine"boys."My own fear that I would he booed or reprimanded by my teachers gave way to a guarded sense of accomplishment. Realizing that I was not going to be reprimanded for speaking my heart, I forgot my fears and basked in the glory, particularly when I saw the reserved Mrs. Norman's enthusiastic approval.

After the audience and the amens quieted, the grave White man took the podium. He said he was moved by my sincerity, and, as diplomatically as possible, he noted that he was in general agreement with my remarks. It would be a waste of time for him to go on any further, he said. So he gave his thanks to the audience and returned to his seat. Something had happened to him also, but I was not sure what it was.

The next day in school, Mrs. Norman called me to her desk and said that the White man whose thunder I had stolen was the chairman of the board of the YMCA, and that he wanted me to present the exact same speech to his board members, the most substantial pillars of the community.

I will never forget the smell of the pool at the White YMCA. It hit me before I saw the pool itself. And then when I did see it, I was dazzled. The water was translucent, mesmerizing, the cleanest, most sparkling water I had ever seen. I was guided past the swimming pool, and when we came to the meeting room where the board members had gathered, I was not escorted in. They were eating. I would wait until I was called to speak.

The chairman of the YMCA board came to get me. He solemnly reminded me that he wanted his members to hear the exact message I had given to the Black community. I stood at the end of a long table with a confidence inspired by the fresh memory of my audience's reaction at the Black YMCA ceremony. And I let loose with the truth. as I saw it upon the White board members. I challenged them to open up our city to Black children as well as White. It would take all of us working together to make Charleston great, I told them.

When I finished this time, there was no sustained standing ovation. Only silence and stares. I had expected at least a small, polite applause. Nothing. Obviously, I had not inspired them as I had my previous audience. It was apparent from their response that the White board members wanted nothing to do with embracing me as part of their community, and nothing to do with me either as a partner in civic development. Clearly, these silent, unapproving men preferred that Blacks remain on the margins of their society.

In the ensuing years, I would see my hometown lose scores of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and other Black human capital as a result of this White ostracism. They drove us away, and we let them.

I received no lunch and no applause at the White Y. I did get a valuable life lesson. In my separate speeches to the Black and White audiences, I discovered the power of truth. Black people, who may have been too intimidated at the time to say it themselves, responded to the truth when they heard it boldly declared, even by a teenager. My speech to the White civic guardians of Charleston taught me that speaking the truth frees you to live without the incumbrance of lies and deceit.

The town's White elite did not like what they heard out of my precocious tenth-grade mouth, but they were better off for hearing it. In my gut, I somehow understood that in spite of the stoic reception I received from the White board members, I had at least dented the armor of prejudice with the sheer power of the truth. Their own basic sense of fairness had been dulled by generations of hate, but it was still there--and, I believe, it still is present in all people.

A National Dilemma in Black and White

I believe in the inherent goodness of this country and all of its people. But I fear we are on the path of self-destruction as a nation; that the United States of America is committing national suicide. I do not want to see this country destroyed because we fail to see the truth about where we are headed.

My goal in these pages is to alert the reader to the moral and economic crises that threaten to destroy us. By offering the truth, I seek to revive our national courage and our will to survive.

Unless America confronts its racism, its greed, and its moral rot, we face at the very least a drastically reduced standard of living. At the worst, I fear a racial conflagration and national bankruptcy. To avoid these catastrophes and to ensure economic growth, Blacks and Whites must join together to work for the common good on a national scale. We must have the courage to accept mutual responsibility, and to demand change and shared sacrifice from all Americans. If we fail to unite, there will be no Black or White winners, just American losers.

We are all responsible, but Black Americans have an especially significant role to play in this process of national renewal. Blacks must stop waiting for Whites to rescue them. They must take charge of their own economic development. It is imperative that Blacks take that responsibility and that they become economically competitive through their own initiative. White people are not going to do it for them. It is time we set White people--and ourselves--free of that expectation.

The fate of all Americans, however, is ultimately in the hands of the nation's majority and its ruling class, White Americans. If this nation is to survive, Whites will have to lead us all away from greed and self-interest. Whites must also reject the lie that their fate is not tied to the lives of other racial groups. Whites must come to see the truth in the philosophy of Whitney Young, former president of the National Urban League, who said,"We didn't all come over on the same ship, but we're all in the same boat."

I do not blame Whites for the decline of this country. I believe we are all equally at fault for the present dire circumstance. We all must scrutinize the actions of our leaders and the way those leaders operate. In particular, we must honestly evaluate the failed policies of traditional Black leadership and those of its liberal White supporters who have made Black America ashamed of itself and dependent on handouts for survival.

This book, then, is not about the problems of Black Americans and what Whites must do about them. It is about the problems of all Americans, and what we all must do to resolve those problems.

Socioeconomic Metastasis

The primary threats to our national sovereignty are the loss of moral virtue in the American character, racial conflict between Blacks and Whites, and the burden of national debt. These are not new problems, but they have become malignant and now demand our focused attention. These three threats have put enormous pressure on our society, and pressure seeks relief indiscriminately. It is up to us to determine whether America's response to the growing societal pressure is positive action or negative reaction

These threats endanger us all, but currently, they weigh most heavily upon Black Americans, whose underclass is the most exposed and vulnerable segment of society. There is an old saying among Black people:"When Whites catch a cold, Blacks get pneumonia."As in any community, the weakest fall first to an epidemic; eventually, though, even the strong fall victim. Drugs, crime, moral degeneracy, the devaluation of life--we all face these societal threats because a malignant cancer spreads rapidly through our entire culture. I call this process socioeconomic metastasis.

It has been observed also that when the more successful and affluent White population feels threatened or comes under pressure--for example, when a recession lowers the standard of living--Blacks become scapegoats. History is full of episodes in which the dominant culture group (such as the Aryan Germans) takes out its frustration on a numerical minority group (such as the Jews), by first marginalizing them and then attacking them as scapegoats, which in the end did nothing to solve Germany's economic problems. White Americans should do all they can to ensure the physical and economic health of the Black community, not out of philanthropy, but out of their own self-interest.

Symptoms of social disorganization that manifest first in a society's most marginal group also confirm structural shifts that have been taking place over a longer period at the economic level. Deficiencies in the Black community often are the result of the same underlying economic turmoil that will eventually become apparent in the White community. The epidemic of illegitimate births among the"gangsta"culture subset of young Black men and women and among low-income Whites, for example, has now spread to the much less marginal groups--including White middle-class teenagers. Between 1940 and 1950, illegitimate births to teenagers constituted 4 percent of all births. The percentage started going up dramatically every year beginning in 1970, and today over 30 percent of births are to single women.(1) The figure is projected to hit 50 percent by 2003. In some areas and among the most marginalized groups, the illegitimacy rate already far exceeds 50 percent.(2)

While Black women have historically led the rate of out-of-wedlock births (80 percent of Black births are illegitimate; 22 percent of White births are illegitimate1, figures now suggest that socioeconomic metastasis has kicked in.(3) Between 1980 and 1989 the rate of increase among Black women was 40.4 percent, compared to a huge 85.6 percent increase for White women.(4) From 1982 to 1992, the rate of illegitimate births increased overall from 15.8 percent to 24.2 percent. That was the largest increase in the history of this country. During that period, illegitimate births increased most for White women.(5)

This is a frightening and unacceptable trend. If the societal impact of unmarried teenage mothers was considered burdensome among a numerical minority group, consider what it will be when the epidemic spreads among those in the middle-class majority.

The Spread of Drug Abuse

By looking carefully at the social and economic conditions of the most marginalized group in our society, we can see the future of the most privileged sector. The drug trade, probably the fastest-growing sector of the American economy, also illustrates how the problems that afflict the lowest strata of society eventually spread to the higher levels.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Whites in New York City had to go"uptown"to Harlem to buy cocaine. Many believe that law enforcement authorities realized they could not stop drug use--or perhaps they had no interest in stopping the lucrative illicit business--and so instead it was decided to allow Harlem and Black neighborhoods across the country to flourish as"safe zones"for drug purchases in order to isolate the accompanying problems.

Like vendors at the ballpark, organized crime was awarded the drug concession in Black neighborhoods. And then, after decades of being allowed to build an efficient manufacturing and distribution system in Black neighborhoods, the marketers of illicit drugs branched out. Today in America, Whites no longer have to go uptown to get cocaine. They can find it on their own school playgrounds, their college campuses and office buildings, or even the neighborhood pizza parlor. Several years ago, federal investigators discovered that organized crime was using pizza parlors in small towns across the country to distribute drugs to the White middle class. Investigators found that the"Pizza Connection,"as it came to be known, reached into the nation's heartland.

Today, 60 percent of the illegal drugs distributed in the world go to customers in the United States, which has only 4 percent of the world's population. The drug lords can thank racism for allowing their networks to become established. And we can thank it also for the lives destroyed by drugs, not just in Black neighborhoods but across the nation.

Many White Americans still do not realize that by allowing drugs to flourish in the Black community, they poisoned their own sons and daughters. America's socioeconomic crisis is primarily visible as a Black predicament today, but I predict that it will be--just as drugs are today--a national dilemma within the next decade as the middle class is hit with shrinking employment due to technological displacement. Traditional inner-city problems--crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, homelessness, welfare dependency, illegitimacy, school and domestic violence, unemployment, school dropouts, gang activity--are all headed for the White middle class. By the year 2000, we may well have a large White underclass with social pathologies identical to those of today's Black and Hispanic underclasses. At that point, with that many citizens impoverished, our nation will be more like a Third World country than America the beautiful.

Little Gangstas on the Prairie

Not too long ago, I told my television viewers that to get a picture of White America tomorrow, all they had to do was take a photograph of Black or Hispanic America today. But in many ways, and in many parts of the country, the metastasis has already become painfully obvious.

Focus, for instance, on the 2,500 members in twenty-five street gangs that have been identified by police in the blue-collar Midwestern burg of Davenport, Iowa, and the surrounding Quad Cities area. Just as Black rhythm and blues music was embraced by young middle-class Whites in the 1950s and 1960s,"gangsta"values are invading the middleclass White mind-set. Criminologist James Houston told a Spin magazine reporter who examined the phenomenon of gangs in the Corn Belt that teenage Whites are attracted to the gang mentality and the allure of sex and drugs in part because of"overall economic hardships."(6) When both parents are forced to work, when financial pressures disrupt the family and threaten security, self-esteem drops. And when self-esteem is at low levels, gang membership thrives. Gang leaders, who use their members as sacrificial lambs, prey upon the need of young people to belong and to be recognized. Lynn Kindred of the Davenport police department described gang-banging in the heartland:"These little white shitheads act black, they talk black, they think they're tough, but they are mutts without their gangs, just idiots. They get recruited by the older black members, who run them like tops."(7)

One seventeen-year-old Davenport gangsta told Spin that he is a"W.A.R. lord"--a"White African Relative."He added that he did not like"straight white honkies. I like to kick their asses."(8) Midwestern White youths threatening"straight white honkies"is almost too bizarre to believe. Although it has been difficult for many small-town Midwesterners to accept the fact that their sons and daughters are Black-gang-member wannabes, one incident brought the reality home to the Whites in the Quad Cities area.

A seventeen-year-old White girl was partying late one summer night with boys from her school when they apparently hatched a plan to rob a convenience store in order to finance their budding cocaine operation. When asked to lend her car for the robbery, the girl refused. Police say she was then raped, beaten, and shot through the back of the head with a shotgun. Her body was dumped on a rural road. Within fifteen hours, six teenagers were in custody for the crime.

"The first day after the murder we didn't have any pictures of the arrested,"Quad-City Times reporter Cheri Bustos told Spin."I know everyone around here thought, `Oh. These black kids again.' Then we ran the mug shots, and I can tell you there was real shock. There were six white teenage faces staring off the front page."(9)

As the gang situation in Davenport illustrates, while poor Blacks generally have been the first to fall victim to societal problems and perils, we are all increasingly vulnerable. Senator Daniel Moynihan has estimated that eight of ten Black children will be paupers before they are eighteen years old.(10) I predict the same will happen to White children within two decades, if current trends continue.

In the 1960s, Moynihan accurately predicted the breakdown of the Black family unit. Based on the theory of socioeconomic metastasis, I am predicting the breakdown of the nuclear White family by the end of this decade--poor Whites first, swiftly followed by the middle class. What kind of America will we have when the majority population, a base of approximately 200 million people, has a poverty rate of 32 percent (equivalent to that of Blacks in 1994) and one out of every three Whites is living under Depression conditions? Or when eight of ten White children become paupers before they become eighteen years old? Or when street gang values overwhelm traditional values across society?

Malignant Economics

Annual budget deficits and our national debt weaken the very foundation of our national economy. If Americans can address critical economic problems, especially the debt, we might have a much greater chance to avoid self-destruction as a world power. Economic stability would not only help the underclass where the short-term adverse results are already visible, but spare the far greater majority of Americans who eventually would be affected.

Everyone in America is linked economically. As the prominent economist Lester Thurow pointed out in The Zero-Sum Solution, those in the upper-income classes should realize the inherent danger to themselves in the present decline of the middle class. The"hammering"of the middle class, Dr. Thurow writes, will"move on"to hit the upper classes as immediate economic problems and in the long term as social chaos."Today production jobs moving offshore; tomorrow engineering, design, and managerial jobs are apt to be moving offshore,"(11) he has said.

As an illustration, Thurow offers the General Motors-Toyota joint production facility in California where autoworkers have regained their jobs (the cars will be built in America), but all of the engineering and design work is done in Japan."If this arrangement foreshadows the future, America regains some middle-income jobs but loses upper-income jobs,"Thurow notes."Similarly the 13 million video recorders being purchased by Americans but built by the Japanese represent the loss of a lot of engineering, design, and management jobs. What is today a threat to the middle class will tomorrow become a threat to the upper classes."(12)

We can already see the impact that foreign competition, a high-tech workplace, downsizing, restructuring, and enormous accumulated national debt are having on the general population and relations between population groups. As productivity in this country declines and growth slows, group rivalries are heightened. When we feel powerless, we blame one another. For example, it is generally assumed by many Whites that Blacks and affirmative action are mostly responsible for the recent decline of wage parity of White males. The true reason is a structural change in the economy that has more to do with globalization and technology than with Blacks and affirmative action. As Thurow explained to me,"In the 1980s, White male high school graduates were the big losers. This was because they kind of had a monopoly on the automobile, the machine tool, the steel jobs. Those are the ones we lost to the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Europeans."(13)


Like it or not, Blacks and Whites are in this together. We win as a team or we lose as a team. Since we are all Americans, we play on Team America, and, frankly, our team is in the dumps right now. The decline is obvious on all socioeconomic levels, and it is rooted in our loss of moral character. Instead of looking for ways to help this country prosper as earlier generations did, we look to prosper from government help. Parasitic lobbyists, who poison the political process, are the most blatant of those in line for handouts. These and other white-collar parasites suck the blood out of the institutions and values that hold the democratic system together.

The corrupting influences of lobbyists and political action committees and special-interest groups seem more deeply damaging to me than young inner-city men who sell drugs for enormous short-term financial rewards even as their comrades are ritually sacrificed every night on the televised news.

What the average hardworking American does not seem to understand is that the problems in the underclass cannot be arrested, imprisoned, and then forgotten. What happens in Watts or Liberty City or Harlem is merely a harbinger of the future for your neighborhood and mine. Therefore, it is imperative that we halt the rapid deterioration of our nation's economic and moral systems if we are to protect all levels of the socioeconomic strata of society. I believe we can do that with a program that offers opportunities to those who show both potential and real need for assistance in developing that potential. I arrived at this concept after pondering an unusual source--Christ's Parable of the Prodigal Son.

America's Prodigal Sons and Daughters

In my opinion, all Americans could benefit from this lesson, agnostics and atheists included. The Parable of the Prodigal Son serves as a blueprint for breaking the cycle of racial animosity and relieving our economic crisis. It offers a lession of love and compassion and fairness. The Prodigal Son is considered the"gospel within the gospel"by theologians, and to me it has additional meaning regarding the role of the individual in the nation and the nation within the individual.

In this famous parable, Jesus taught his disciples about a man who had two sons. The younger son asked his father to give him his share of the family wealth so that he could go off on his own. The father complied, dividing the property between the two sons. The younger son quickly ran off and squandered his share in sinful living. Near starvation, he decided to return home and beg for forgiveness:". . . But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son."(14)

His father sought no apology, nor did he condemn the wayward son. Instead, he ordered a feast and a celebration:"For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."(15) The father ordered the preparation of"the fatted calf."Upon learning that his father was celebrating the return of the younger son, the older brother became angry and questioned his father's judgment. The father answered:"Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."(16)

My reading of this parable is that the father (government) in his wisdom knew that to help the forlorn son (those in greatest need) is the most pragmatic way to help everyone in the family (nation). To have given a fatted calf (entitlement benefits) to the faithful son (the stable population; the bedrock of society) would not have increased the overall stability or output (goods, services, and personal wealth) of the family unit (society in general). But in strengthening those who are without the basic requirements for successful participation in society--education, child care, health care, training, financial aid, etc.--we strengthen the overall stability of society.

To divert a young person from becoming a drug pusher to becoming a doctor who saves lives rather than kills people saves more than lives. It saves society the collateral damage and the expenses of a destructive and irresponsible life. Society benefits in additional income and productivity. Only in strengthening the weakest link in the chain do we strengthen the entire chain.

The Prodigal Son's rehabilitation was the difference in the growth of the family--not the son whose contribution could already be depended upon. The father's action was as pragmatic as it was charitable. The father was helping the group by helping the most needy son. By rehabilitating the weakest son, the father enriched his family, making it possible to raise more crops and fatten more calves in the future. In the most fundamental sense, it is love, forgiveness, and compassion in a society--its essential fairness--that drive its productivity, its gross domestic product.

If the Prodigal Son analogy is too spiritual for you, let me explain it in hard, cold, capitalistic free-enterprise terms--a more modern example of the sort of affirmative action that makes sense to me: the player draft for professional sports. This form of affirmative action was pointed out to me in one of the many lessons that I received from my mentor Dr. H. Naylor Fitzhugh, who in 1931 became the second Black to receive an M.B.A. from Harvard. At the end of the regular season in professional sports, what team gets first choice at selecting the best new player to be drafted? The answer, of course, is the team with the poorest winning record--the worst team in the league. Why, one may legitimately wonder, would a system allow the worst team in the league to get the best new player? My Prodigal Son logic is that if you strengthen the worst team in the league, you strengthen the overall league. This means that the entire league becomes more competitive, because on any given day or night any team in the league can defeat any other team. A more competitive league increases consumer participation and media attention. The TV networks make more money from the advertisers because more people watch and attend the games, and the team owners increase their earnings; as a result, because the wealth of the league has grown, the players can successfully bargain for larger salaries.

The spectators win, the TV networks win, the owners win, and the players win. But most of all, the public wins. It is a win-win situation--only because we strengthened the weakest team in the league. Now that's affirmative action.

However, the proponents of privileged-class affirmative action reject that need-based emphasis. They argue for preferences for Blacks, Hispanics, women, Asians, and Native Americans, among others, without any distinction between the classes within those respective groups. Could it be that there are Blacks, Hispanics, women, Asians, and Native Americans who are perfectly capable of making it on their own? Too often, our government offers a support system for the son who stayed at home at the expense of the one who left.

The New York Times reported that during the last three decades of affirmative action preferences,"the proportion of poorest Blacks has grown."(17) And in a testimony to these elitist preferences, the Times attested to affirmative action's inherent inefficacy. Although the already upwardly mobile Blacks have benefitted enormously,"those programs left legions of blacks behind. . . ."(18) Unarguably, affirmative action has not made a major impact on poverty and is a failed racial remedy. Opponents argue that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are mostly members of the African American middle class who do not need the aid of the program anyway. Elitist supporters of upper-class preferences counter by arguing that they have never claimed affirmative action to be a self-sufficient policy that will address social and economic disadvantage; instead, it should be applied at"gateway points"for the middle class.

This"Me-ism"argument is a tacit admission that privileged-class affirmative action is concerned neither with moving people from poverty to the middle class nor with overcoming the past effects of discrimination. Instead, privileged-class affirmative action is applied mainly at the"gateway points,"in employment and higher education to make the entry smoother for the handful of inner-city refugees who by some miraculous set of circumstances reached the"gateway points"or those middle-class, upper-class, and wealthy Blacks who have outperformed 90 percent of the White population educationally and financially. In fact, middle-class White women are the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action. And one-fourth of the contracts awarded by the Small Business Administration as set-asides in 1994 went to 1 percent of the"minority"firms. This classic privileged-class affirmative action concept is snobbish, uninformed, nonproductive, and divisive.

My characterization of this affirmative action approach is that of a bait-and-switch scam. If young Blacks and Hispanics overcome racism and miraculously score 1200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then, and only then, privileged-class affirmative action will sponsor them as targeted"achievers."But, as we have seen far too many times, privileged-class affirmative action is not designed to help these ethnic minority academic achievers overcome the formidable barriers confronting them before they reach the"gateway point."

Blacks graduating from Harvard and other elite schools will not be the salvation of the Black community. Too many of them choose not to reinvest their talents into the Black community anyway. Their ambition is all self-directed. The focus should not be on saving these who qualified for the most elite schools--these high achievers would undoubtedly have made it one way or another. Instead, we need to concentrate on those who might, with some assistance, qualify for less elitist campuses. For example, every time you take a drug pusher off the corner in Harlem or a youth out of the cotton patch in the rural South, you change and improve the character of the Black community. The Black graduate at Harvard, or even Howard, was going to graduate from somewhere anyway. The pusher and cotton picker had no other options. Because of my socioeconomic status, if I received an affirmative action transfer benefit, I would defer it to a socially or economically disadvantaged person living in Appalachia or Harlem. That would do the most good for all of us.

Giving Help Where It Is Needed the Most

My proposal for improving our failed affirmative action policy is quite simple. I propose instead a universal Affirmative Opportunity Program, a modified and refocused form of affirmative action. Simply stated, it is designed to do something good for someone who truly needs the help and is ready to seize opportunity. Blacks will benefit disproportionately because they are disproportionately in the underclass, and Whites will dominate as numerical beneficiaries. But needy people would be helped. Thus, it becomes a mainstream opportunity program to rebuild the nation, rather than as a payoff (albeit for a noble reason) to the middle class in various aggrieved groups. The program, in this manner, becomes an affirmative opportunity rather than another middle-and upper-class entitlement benefit.

How can America as a nation be helped in the long term by providing affirmative action only to middle- and upper-class Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, women, and rich Asians? And how could these groups be harmed by affirmative opportunity? If 100 percent of the people benefiting from an Affirmative Opportunity Program qualified based on need--whether they were Black or female or Hispanic or White or Native American or Asian--it would not matter, would it? Because the most needy Americans would be getting help--and that would maximize the benefits to all of us.

The most efficient way to develop human resources is suggested in these words from James Russell Lowell:

Not what we give, but what we share--

For the gift without the giver is bare;

Who gives himself with his alms feeds three--

Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.

That lesson came home to me one Sunday afternoon, April 13, 1992, at the Black Expo U.S.A. at Philadelphia's Civic Center when I told fifteen hundred Black people that the salvation of the Black community is the development of Black people into"human capital."Income and wealth are different, I said. Income is what you earn; wealth is what you're worth. And what you're worth is based on what you know. An informed, educated people will earn large incomes; the uninformed and uneducated will permanently be marginalized groups on society's economic and social fringes. My theme was that when we help the least in our group, we do the most for our group.

The next morning, I found the opportunity to put into practice what I had been preaching. A CHILD SHINES AMID THE SHAMBLES,"said a six-column, front-page headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reporter Kimberly J. McLarin had written a wrenching story about a young Black girl of great promise who was in danger of never realizing that promise:"Karesha Lowe is 14, and fatherless and poor, with a mother serving life, a half sister as a reluctant guardian, a crowded house, an angry brother and an intellect so hungry she thinks algebra is fun,"(19) said McLarin's opening paragraph.

In one way, Karesha'a life was no different from those of millions of Black youths trapped in a cycle of poverty, war-zone schools, and antisocial gangsta values. In another sense, put eloquently by McLarin, Karesha was ' a rose growing through rubble, one that will unfold or be trampled underfoot."(20) Those words burned themselves into my mind. Unless someone helps her, I thought, she will undoubtedly be trampled.

Karesha was not yet eleven when her father was shot to death in a fight. She was barely twelve when her mother was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The pretty teenager and her thirteen-year-old brother, Chris, were living in a"dim and crowded row house"with a stepsister who had three children and two grandchildren of her own.

In spite of all the tragedy in her life, Karesha was making straight A's at Vaux Middle School. She had graduated from eighth grade at the top of her class and was accepted into one of the best public high schools in the city. In spite of the well-adjusted math whiz's accomplishments, I knew that she was not out of the woods. To succeed and reach her potential, Karesha needed a supportive home life and a college education. Without help, she might not reach her full potential, I realized.

In a series of newspaper columns, I appealed to the readers of 130 Black newspapers across the nation:"These are our children, our potential human capital; this obligation is our responsibility."If the Talented Tenth--the elite of Black society has $16 billion to spend on annual meetings of Black organizations each year, we certainly have enough money to save the boy or girl who may discover the cure for some mysterious disease, or set up the first space station on Mars, or become the first Black to be elected President of the United States.

I appealed for donations to establish a fund for Karesha's education and maintenance. Contributions poured in, from Blacks and Whites. We raised $6,025 very quickly for clothes, books, food, and incidentals. The funds are administered by me and two of Karesha's former teachers, Lynne Johnson and Florence Johnson, who have become her surrogate mothers and her mentors.

On May 13, almost a month after I first learned of Karesha's plight, I held a press conference at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Isaac B. Horton III awarded a full $50,000 scholarship for Karesha to the College of Wooster, Ohio. It was sponsored by the Delaware Valley chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemical Engineers in conjunction with the College of Wooster, which had responded to my appeal.

In addition to the $50,000 scholarship and the $6,025 in donations, an invaluable present was made by the Muncy State Prison officials, who at my request allowed Karesha's mother, Cheryl Casper, to make a surprise visit at the press conference. Those who donated to this cause would have been paid back tenfold had they witnessed the joy and pride. Karesha wrote to me afterward:"Not only did you help change my life for the better, you also changed my mother's, my sister's and my brother's. . . . And for that I thank you with all of my heart."

Karesha Lowe now attends the exclusive George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. She still loves math, has served as a member of the student council, and has tutored seventh-graders after school. Teacher Florence Johnson sent me a report on Karesha from George School along with the comment:"All who have invested time and money in her have made a great investment."

I fell short of raising my goal of $100,000 for Karesha, and I have been accused of grandstanding by a handful of middle-class Blacks. One Black elitist offered that I had wasted my time and money because there were so many others who needed help. Her rationalization, and this is what it is, soothes her conscience and simultaneously provides her with a perpetual excuse to do nothing but complain about what White people will not do.

I have received some criticism, but I have no regrets about helping Karesha. I take great pride in the knowledge that Karesha will probably never need public assistance. She will not be a criminal, and she will be less likely to be a victim. Instead, she will be in a position to help make this more the kind of world we want to live in--in fact, she is already working with the disadvantaged, sharing her gifts. And as a successful doctor, chemist, astronaut, or President of the United States, she may remember that someone helped her when she needed it.

Karesha Lowe is the Prodigal Sister. She was lost and now she is found. And in finding her, those of us whom God used to help her helped ourselves, and our nation.

© 1995 Tony Brown

Back to the top