Bankole: Detroit’s ‘Talented Tenth’ missing in action

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the year W.E.B. DuBois earned a Ph.D from Harvard University. 

A pair of journalists from a German/French television network in town to document the renaissance asked what role Detroit’s black civic leaders are playing in addressing the challenges of inequality. The journalists wanted to know whether the city’s black elites are adding their voices to the crucial public debate about extreme poverty.

In other words, does Detroit’s perennial underclass who are largely confined in distressed neighborhoods have allies among the most affluent?

I told them during an hour-long May 9 interview that they would be hard-pressed to find voices (if any) among the ranks of the black elite in Detroit who will publicly ask tough questions regarding gaps left in the recovery.

I explained that my experience with some of those who proudly brand themselves custodians of the city and live in upscale and protected communities away from crime and murder is that they won’t speak on the record about their discontent of the recovery. They prefer to offer their criticism secretly.

Then came the next question from the French journalists: Doesn’t Detroit have a history of the black intelligentsia speaking out?

I said yes. But that is the past.

As we continued the interview, it dawned on me that we were standing on Hogarth off Linwood on the city’s west side greeted by dilapidated buildings and boarded houses that looked like life had been sapped out of that community. Only a few houses seemed to have residents in them.

The irony is that a few blocks north of Hogarth is the Boston-Edison neighborhood, one of the largest historic neighborhoods in the country that many of the city’s upper black middle class call home.

In Boston-Edison, it’s a different kind of existence that includes manicured lawns and well-lit streets than what I and the television journalists saw on Hogarth and the surrounding streets of Whitney, Columbus, Montgomery, Vicksburg and Lawton, which is said to be a notorious crime area. We saw two communities living side by side with two different realities.

The truth is that children growing up in Boston-Edison are more likely to succeed because they have access to greater resources than those being raised on Hogarth with little or no opportunities. And the common denominator about these two environments is that they are both predominantly black neighborhoods. This reality further underscores the “two Detroit” phenomenon no longer defined by race alone, but class as well.

If the city is going to experience a full recovery where everyone is included, it will also require the black elites to step up and not just depend on rich white business men and women to save the day.

The responsibility that high-achieving blacks have to the poor in their communities is rooted in history.

At the turn of the 20th century W.E.B. DuBois, leading scholar, civil rights activist, who in 1895 became the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, sought to place the responsibility of addressing the needs of the masses of disadvantaged blacks at the feet of those who have achieved upper mobility.

In his seminal work, “The Talented Tenth,” published in 1903, DuBois sounded a note of urgency that 115 years later should prick the conscience of Detroit’s black elite class.

“A hundred half-trained demagogues will still hold the places they so largely occupy now, and hundreds of vociferous busy-bodies will multiply. You have no choice; either you must help furnish this race from within its own ranks with thoughtful men of trained leadership, or you must suffer the evil consequences of a headless misguided rabble,” DuBois wrote.

Where is Detroit’s “Talented Tenth”?

Until the black elites heed DuBois’ call, the contrast between Boston-Edison and Hogarth and other neighborhoods across the city will continue to make mockery of the recovery.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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