Privileged African-Americans must advocate for working class
If the familiar narratives of the black experience — those of economic disparities, discrimination and the criminal justice system — have been lived out by members of the black economic underclass, then they are being documented, recorded and given a voice by the members of the black community who have made their way into universities and other sectors of the middle class.
Harvard scholar and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in an article for the New York Times that black millennials who have attended college have been instrumental in the creation of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has brought national attention to the hardships that black Americans face.
These African-American students and graduates, Gates said, have been what W.E.B. Du Bois might deem the ideal descendants of the Talented Tenth, constantly rising to the top without ever forgetting to pull their black counterparts out of the depths of economic poverty.
While this comparison coming from an important American figure is emboldening for young black students everywhere, the time is never too early to remember the faults of the original Talented Tenth and make every effort to avoid the same pitfalls.
The original Talented Tenth were able to rise out of the shadow of slavery not due to any qualities superior to the majority of black people in America, but because they began their races out of this shadow on different bases.
Du Bois was born in 1868 in Massachusetts on a small colony of free blacks. Gates notes that around 11 percent of black people in America were free before the Civil War, which is a generational privilege.
The original Talented Tenth of the 19th century actually distanced themselves from other members of the black community, as if they could find themselves above the culture, which they justified with the belief that their talent, rather than blind luck, placed them in a position of mobility.
The current generation of black cultural leaders are certainly talented, but one thing that should never be forgotten is the way in which privilege factors into the equation.
Conversations about privilege in the black community are often held in private for fear that predatory audiences might make a jump on any critiques offered by the black community of itself, then use any semblance of black failure or insecurity to further discredit and jeopardize genuine and principled movements for justice.
Nonetheless, these private conversations and whatever critiques they may offer have always been necessary to the success of black rights movements.
While the task of documenting the harshest injustices African-Americans have faced is not easy, it is important to acknowledge that although African-Americans are overrepresented in poverty statistics, nearly three-quarters of black American households are living above the poverty line.
Though the data may show the majority are not “living in hell,” as President Donald Trump remarked in a 2016 debate, African-Americans — who represent 13 percent of the population — are still overrepresented in terms of economic instability and interactions with the criminal justice system.
This is why advocacy must remain important in the black community.
As a grassroots movement, Black Lives Matter has made waves across the nation. Although it lacks official headquarters, the movement manifests on college campuses with the help of students everywhere.
African-Americans in the upper and middle class must understand that their interest in climbing the socioeconomic ladder is as important as acknowledging the privileges of class, which often separate them from other insidious effects of economic immobility that their less-enriched counterparts face.
Being a part of the Talented Tenth of the 21st century means acknowledging your educational privilege, which the vast majority do, and honoring the legacy of advocacy that brought us into the future.
Now more than ever, members of the black community who have access to education and understand the nature of the oppressive forces must work as advocates for the people who are most impacted by those forces.
Assistant opinion editor Mia Valdez is a creative writing junior from Corpus Christi. She can be reached at [email protected]