The Economics of Booker T. Washington

“Economic independence is the foundation of political independence… we must act in these matters before others from foreign lands rob us of our birthright… Land ownership is the foundation of all wealth.”
– Booker T. Washington-

These words before the National Negro Business League in Chicago, August 12, 1912, more than any others, represent the thought of Booker T. Washington regarding the road to prosperity for the descendants of African slaves in America.

While there are many within the black community in America today who claim to have the answer to black economic development, I doubt that most understand or share Dr. Washington’s vision for it.

The buzz word of the day and actually for the past several years has been the term “Economic Empowerment,” or “Black Economic Empowerment” (BEE). While the term sounds good, and I am sure is well intentioned, it speaks more to “economic entitlement,” than to empowerment. Black Economic Empowerment, simply put, appears to be a system where normal standards are relaxed, thereby making it easier for black enterprise and black individuals to succeed and harder for them to fail. Unfortunately, even given the preferential treatment, the majority of these endeavors have a negative outcome.

A Wikipedia post on Black Empowerment mentions a program launched in South Africa in 2008 “to redress inequalities.” It states the following:

“Black Economic Empowerment is a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving previously disadvantaged groups (black Africans, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese declared as Black in June 2008 âwho are SA citizens) economic opportunities previously not available to them. It includes measures such as employment equity, skills development, ownership, management, socio-economic development and preferential procurement.”

While much is stated in this paragraph, the operative and most significant concept is found in the phrase – “preferential procurement.” Translated this means lowered standards and preferential treatment.

A striking aspect about BEE is that the idea is not limited to any one side of the political or ideological spectrum. A quick internet search will reveal a myriad of groups dedicated to the idea of Black Economic Empowerment. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans seem enamored with the idea of Black Economic Empowerment. They are all fixated on the idea that government should facilitate this so-called empowerment through special grants, tax breaks, or the outright gifts of land or money. Of particular interest to me, and somewhat surprising, is the fact that many Black Conservatives, Independents and/or Republicans hold the same notion that it is somehow empowering to receive the largess of the federal government. In my opinion, they are mistaken. In fact it is exactly the opposite of empowerment to rely on the government’s beneficence. It is enslaving and not empowering.

Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington never envisioned such a concept as they considered how to build the economy of their race very early after slavery had ended. To quote Douglass:

“Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,your interference is doing him a positive injury. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone!” Frederick Douglass- What The Black Man Wants 1865

Booker T. Washington expressed it in a different way. He said: “The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges.” Booker T. Washington- Cotton States and International Exposition Speech September 18, 1895

He did not simply leave it at that. In a 1912 speech to the National Negro Business League, he said, “Our great Creator has ordained that races and nations shall prosper in proportion as they find, develop and use the natural resources of the earth in promoting wealth, intelligence, happiness and justice….But to do these things we cannot start at the top, but must begin at the bottom. I call upon the men and women from our colleges and universities to lead the way in these fundamental directions.”

While the drift toward reliance upon government is not limited to the black community it is most devastating to it. I have long maintained that the best way for the wealthy white elite class to prevent others from competing with them or their children and to entrench their elite status is to convince those outside the fold that they cannot or they need not compete. This attitude applies to most all endeavors, including; academics, politics and economics. The single endeavor where black competition is still required and rewarded is in the field of sports. Is it our desire to continue to be so marginalized?

At the core of what Douglass and Washington sought to convey was the idea that competition, on a level playing field, results in sharpening and bringing out the best in the individual. To remove obstacles and competition does not produce the strength and quality desirable in individuals or in businesses.

The great black inventors, pioneers, teachers and others of our rich past did not benefit from any “Black Empowerment” program. They benefited from the strength of their core values which gave them a drive to do what is right, and to do it better than anyone else. That prescription is still the operative one for today and will continue to be the operative prescription for the future.

What is the real key to Black Empowerment? First, to empower ourselves with the knowledge that if God is for us who can be against us. Second, to be ready to work harder to provide a better service or to produce a better product than others in our field. We must then pass this ethic on to our children and from generation to generation. This is the formula that has worked and the formula that will always work.

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