While I was enjoying my food at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner last week, a colleague gasped while thumbing through a copy of the program. There, in full color, was an advertisement for Coors beer, and he wanted to know how a man like Coors could be a sponsor of a black event.
Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about the two black worlds that exist in this country, and how some blacks, like labor union members, are very upset with Coors while other blacks -- like Mayor Marion Barry -- are probably toasting their success with the stuff.
Before getting bent out of shape over Adolph what's-his-name's beer, you have to understand the kind of event that his product kept popping up at. This was a collection of some of the wealthiest, best-educated blacks in the country, people whom W.E.B. Du Bois called the "Talented Tenth." Now they were demonstrating how far they had come by drinking Coors-brewed beer and even wearing diamonds from South Africa.
Du Bois had high hopes for these people. In a paper written in 1928 called "The Colored World Within," he postulated that "American Negroes must know that the advancement of the Negro people since emancipation has been the extraordinary success in education, technique and character among a small number of Negroes and that the emergence of these exceptional men has been largely a matter of chance; that their triumph proves that down among the masses, ten times their number with equal ability could be discovered and developed, if sustained effort, sacrifice and intelligence were put to this task."
Du Bois would be disappointed today. Deep down, his people don't see their good fortunes as the result of chance but as a result of their being better than the rest. Sacrifice is the last thing they have on their minds and racial pride has become a romantic fantasy fostered somewhere on the Dark Continent. These days, their message to the masses is to get an Ultra Curl Kurly Kit and get that kinky stuff out of their hair.
The most important affairs of the week took place at Coors-style receptions where businessmen, some of whom had sold out their "black front" 8a minority businesses to whites, were now looking for ways to get in on some of Ronald Reagan's giveaway defense contracts and consulting scams.
And on stage, Jesse L. Jackson was still talking about "only us can do for us."
Du Bois' intellectual sparring partner, Booker T. Washington, believed in this notion of self-sufficiency as Jackson does, and their people also were represented at the gala weekend -- serving the beer. But perpetual cheap labor was not exactly what Booker T. had in mind, either.
Amid the finery of the talented tenth, there were black men in ill-fitting jackets using strainers to empty cigarette butts from sand ashtrays, while the hotel manager ordered black maids to run for more ice to keep the beer cold.
Something had gone wrong in Du Bois' world. So far behind had poor blacks fallen that they had been written off as the "underclass," a permanent subset without hope for advancement. And as Du Bois' talented tenth improved their economic status, they simply kept on truckin'.
Although black Americans continue to profess a "black unity," the world within was clearly showing signs of strain. Both Du Bois and Washington saw it coming in their later writings, when both acknowledged that they really hadn't understood the exploitive nature of capitalism.
Now the ideological conflict fostered by the two men has transcended a theory of progress for blacks and centers instead on an ever-widening gap, first socially and now, with the Coors controversy, politically.
Not long ago, chief executive William Coors added insult to injury when he remarked that the best thing to happen to blacks was being shackled in chains and brought to America. No doubt, many of the furred and silver-shackled folk celebrating at the Black Caucus believe him.
The caucus had turned down Coors' offer to underwrite one of the weekend's official functions, but hadn't balked at accepting the company's two-page, full-color ad in the official program. Having Coors sponsor anything related to the caucus showed the grossest insensitivity to the masses of blacks, whose improvement through legislation and political action the caucus claims to be about.