“If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born . . . you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago,” President Obama told newly minted Howard University graduates this month. “You wouldn’t choose the ’50s or the ’60s or the ’70s. You’d choose right now.”
Obama’s point was that America today is better than ever, and that the African American college grads should be grateful to those who labored to make it so. But I thought the notion of choosing to be born in another era was still worth contemplating, even if Obama seemed certain that the graduates would not.
Suppose that you could go back in time and, using today’s hard-earned insights, nip some of the most persistent problems in the bud.
“We’ve still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity,” Obama told the graduates. “The overall unemployment rate is 5 percent, but the black unemployment rate is almost 9. We’ve still got an achievement gap where black boys and girls graduate from high school and college at lower rates than white boys and white girls. Harriet Tubman may be going on the twenty, but we’ve still got a gender gap when a black woman working full time still earns just 66 percent of what a white man gets paid.”
Go back, say, 100 years or so, and you’ll find Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois discussing these very same issues, but far apart on the best solution. Washington is advocating vocational education, moral instruction and economic independence as a way to black advancement; DuBois says liberal arts education and civil rights are the way to go.
Having seen the future, you know that DuBois must not be allowed to win this debate. The contest with Washington should end in a tie. Otherwise, vocational education will ultimately fall by the wayside and millions of black people who could have been skilled laborers and business owners will end up untrained and chronically unemployed.
Moreover, in turning their backs on Washington, many blacks will fail to learn the value of land. Millions of acres will be lost as black families flee their farms in the South for factories and government jobs in the north. Decades later, when the housing bubble bursts, black people will find that their cavalier regard for real estate has resulted in more black wealth being lost than at any time since slavery.
Obama said he expects the new graduates to help close those economic and academic gaps. But unless they are willing to go back in history, they won’t have a clue about where we went wrong. Or, realistically, how to make it right.
“We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails,” Obama said. “This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.”
Go back to the 1940s, and you’ll find Carter G. Woodson making the case that black boys and girls are being systemically brainwashed — by schools and by the media — into believing that they are inferior to whites. At the root of the problem is a deliberate distortion of black history, in which Africans are depicted as subhuman and African Americans as brutish, clownish and mentally dullard.
A lack of self-knowledge is draining black youth of self-confidence and self-respect, Woodson argues. As adults, they will come to believe that anything made or owned by white people is better than what black people can produce; that even the “white man’s ice was colder, that his coal burned hotter,” as the saying goes.
Among the worst consequences is an inordinate amount of interracial strife and violence, which would only get worse until drastic changes were made in the way black children were being educated.
In the 1960s, social scientists are noting that the black family — a child’s first and best teacher — is in peril, with 25 percent of black children being raised in single, female-headed households. Today, that number has risen to 75 percent.
“So make no mistake, Class of 2016 — you’ve got plenty of work to do,” Obama told the graduates. “But as complicated and sometimes intractable as these challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges, to flip the script.”
They could go back in time and draw on, say, Fannie Lou Hamer for inspiration. That just might help them remember that, as Hamer said, nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.