Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Lesson that Black America Needs to Learn

Last Sunday, President Obama gave the commencement speech at Morehouse, a Historically Black College in Atlanta. And in his address, he gave some tough love to the soon-to-be graduates. Here's an excerpt:
Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.
That is going to be the operative paragraph for the 21st century. And it was poorly received by one Ta-Nehisi Coates over at The Atlantic: 
I think the president owes black people more than this. In the 2012 election, the black community voted at a higher rate than any other ethnic community in the country. Their vote went almost entirely to Barack Obama. They did this despite a concerted effort to keep them from voting, and they deserve more than a sermon. Perhaps they cannot  practically receive targeted policy. But surely they have earned something more than targeted scorn.
 Coates is falling into the very trap that President Obama warned him about. He took umbrage at his remarks because it didn't salve his pride. That pride is toxic. And it seeps into everything we (not just blacks) do. Pride is what makes people lose perspective and rationality.

The President is right. The emerging markets of the Pacific Rim and South America? They're rising. They're about 15 years from developed market status. And, increasingly, the value of labor will drop. Minimum wage laws will price many black Americans out of the labor market, and white Americans will (many would argue they already have) become increasingly segregated by class and wealth barriers. That will perpetuate prejudice against blacks.

If those in charge are white, it's easier for lower status whites to ingratiate themselves into the favor of the establishment. The reason why executive boardrooms are overwhelmingly white and male is because most of the wealth is held by white males. People go with what they know. And white males know a lot of other white males. Greater diversification in the boardroom will only occur when females and minorities start amassing more and more wealth. Unfortunately, as blacks know all too well, it's hard to improve your relative status when everybody else starts at higher status.

The fact is you have to work harder, and get more breaks to achieve the same results as somebody who has a higher status than you. That will never change. And many factors are out of your hands. You have to hope that people higher up than you will become complacent and self satisfied. And then you have to work hard and smart so that you can eventually catch up and surpass them. That's the only way.

The next time you eat out at a restaurant, take a good hard look at your server. Your server does not want to be at that job. They're making terrible money. They work irregular hours. They frequently have to deal with customers with an exaggerated sense of what they're entitled to when they eat out. And they have to do everything with a smile so that you'll tip them properly. Thank you, sir; may I have another?

That is the reality of minority/junior status in any society. To advance, you can't just do the same amount/quality of work as somebody who has higher status than you. You have to be better than them. It's not fair. But life is not fair. If you want to make it more fair (or if you want life tilted in your favor) you need to put in the time and effort to do so. Because nobody else will ever care as much about it as you will.

And don't put that time and effort into public policy. Public policy will not give you the advance in status that you seek. When markets were crashing in 08, Congress panicked and you know what they did? They bailed out the banks. They bailed out the rich. Because when push comes to shove, money wins over government every single time.

There's another article in The Atlantic about The Jeffersons. And in it they describe one scene that illustrates the dynamics of race and money:
Money, in George's mind, represented the best defense against discrimination. "Let me tell you something about people," George tells his old adversary Archie Bunker at a cocktail party. "That bartender's willing to work for me because if you got enough green in your pocket, then black becomes his favorite color."
Money is power. And those who have power get to make the rules that everybody else has to live by. If you want to call the shots and you're disadvantaged, you have to work harder and smarter than everybody else and can't expect that "good enough" will cut it. That is the lesson that black America needs to take to heart. And that was what President Obama was saying to the graduates of Morehouse.

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