February 2002 | Those of
us with forebears branded by history hold in our hearts an awful truth: to
be born black and male in America is to be put into shackles and then challenged
to escape. But that is not our only truth, or even the one most relevant.
For in this age of new possibilities, we are learning that the shackles forged
in slavery are far from indestructible, that they will yield, even break,
provided that we attack them shrewdly.
Today's America is not our grandfathers' or even our fathers' America.
We are no longer forced to hide our ambition while masking our bitterness
with a grin. We don't face, as did our forefathers, a society committed to
relentlessly humiliating us, to forcing us to play the role of inferiors
in every civilized sphere. This doesn't mean that we are on the verge of
achieving the all-encompassing revolution, of reaching that lofty state of
exalted consciousness that sweeps all inequities away. What it does mean
is that we have a certain social and cultural leeway; that, in a way our
forefathers could only dream about, we are free to define our place in the
That freedom is nowhere near absolute. But today's obstacles are not nearly
as daunting as those faced by our ancestors. It's the difference between
stepping into the ring with both hands lashed behind your back and stepping
in with one hand swinging free.
Still, if the one hand is all you have, you must use it twice as well as
your opponent uses his. And because you have so much less room for error,
you must fight strategically, understanding when to retreat and when to go
all out and how to deflect the blows that inevitably will come your way.
You must understand, in short, how to compete in this new arena, where the
rules are neither what they seem nor quite what they used to be. So what
I have set out below is a list of things that may help us in our competition.
Call them new world rules, or keys to survival, or Cose's commandments; or,
better yet, call them hard truths of this new age -- an age of both unlimited
potential and soul-crushing inequality.
1. Play the race card carefully, and at your own peril.
As Johnnie Cochran cleverly demonstrated when he saved O. J. Simpson's hide,
there is a time when playing the race card makes perfectly good sense. In
November 2000, researchers at the University of Michigan published a study
showing that white mock jurors were especially likely to find blacks guilty
in seemingly racially neutral situations. But when an explicit racial context
was provided, when an assailant's offense was provoked by a perceived racial
insult, whites were no longer so likely to see blacks as more guilty; they
treated black and white defendants more or less equally.
The lesson seems to be that there is some value in certain circumstances
in reminding people about the reality of racism; for when they are reminded
of racism (which is different from being accused of it), they make a greater
attempt to be fair. Life, however, usually is not conducted under controlled
experimental conditions. And as the Simpson trial demonstrated, Americans
see racially charged incidents very differently. We (meaning blacks) have
been so battered by and sensitized to racism that we sometimes see it where
it doesn't exist. Whites have such an emotional investment in denying that
they are racists that they often refuse to acknowledge racism when it is
perfectly obvious to us. Other racial groups, depending on their experiences
and sensitivities, also view racially tinged incidents through an ethnocentric
Given such psychologically complex phenomena as racial guilt and racial pain,
you are not likely to find much empathy or understanding when you bring racial
complaints to whites. The best you can generally hope for is an awkward silence
accompanied by the suspicion that you are crying wolf. This is not to say
that you should grin and bear bad treatment, but that you are generally better
off finding a less charged terrain than that of racial grievance on which
to fight the battle.
2. Complain all you like about the raw deal you have gotten in life, but
don't expect those complaints to get you anywhere.
America likes winners, not whiners. And one of the encouraging developments
of this new, more enlightened age is that America even, at times, embraces
winners who are black. There is a certain strong incentive to do so, since
the very existence of black winners can be made into a rather fantastical
argument that discrimination no longer hinders black advancement. Whiners,
on the other hand, simply remind too many Americans of history they would
prefer to forget, and of unpleasant current realities they would prefer not
Thankfully, we have moved past the time when whites collectively spent much
time hating us; these days they mostly just don't care. Did that boss (teacher,
classmate, administrator, stranger) call you stupid because of your color,
or despite it? Were you assumed to be a ballplayer instead of a scholar simply
because you're black? Was your rival promoted ahead of you because he's white?
Was your intellect (ability, judgment) questioned in an instance where your
white colleague's would not have been? You can drive yourself crazy trying
to figure it out and also end up wasting a lot of energy that could be best
An editor in Chicago, where I began my writing career, gave me a valuable
piece of advice. "If you're going to be a writer," he said, "you'd better
develop a thick skin." Much the same could be said about just being a black
man in America. If you are going to survive with your sanity and emotional
health intact, you're going to have to learn not to sweat much of the routine
stuff that makes being a black man difficult. If you can engage life with
a certain amount of humor, or at least with a sense of charity, you'll not
only be happier but a lot less likely to need blood-pressure medication.
3. Expect to do better than the world expects of you; expect to live in a
bigger world than the one you see.
One of the most unfortunate realities of growing up as a black male in America
is that we are constantly told to lower our sights; we are constantly nudged,
unless we are very lucky and privileged, in the direction of mediocrity.
Our dreams, we are told in effect, cannot be as large as other folks' dreams;
our universe, we are led to believe, will be smaller than that of our nonblack
peers. Franklin Raines, head of the Fannie Mae Corporation, speaks of his
early exposure to a life beyond inner-city Seattle as "a period of time when
my world grew bigger," when his sophistication and exposure increased. What
Raines really is describing is the natural progression of knowledge and the
optimal progression of life. When Arthur Ashe wrote that his "potential is
more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity,"
he was speaking for all of us. When Maurice Ashley, America's first black
grandmaster of chess, talks of a "rope of destiny pulling me along," he is
talking of something we all should feel. For those of us who are accustomed
to hearing, "You will never amount to much," dreams may be all that give
us the strength to go on. And as we dream big dreams, we also must prepare
ourselves to pursue them, instead of contenting ourselves with fantasies
of a wonderful existence that will be forever beyond our reach.
4. Don't expect support for your dreams from those who have not accomplished
very much in their lives.
The natural reaction of many people (especially those who believe they share
your background) is to feel threatened or intimidated or simply to be dismissive
if you are trying to do things they have not done themselves. As a very young
man and a "junior leader" in my neighborhood Boys Club, I was invited to
a dinner at which multimillionaire W. Clement Stone spoke. After delivering
a stirring talk detailing his personal journey of success, Stone handed out
an inspirational book (whose title I can no longer recall), which I took
with me to bed that evening.
Don't share your dreams with failures, warned the book, which went on to
explain that people who had not done much in their own lives would be incapable
of seeing the potential in yours. While that is certainly not true in all
cases, it is true much too often. The book's observation helped me to understand
why some people I knew seemed more interested in telling me what I could
never accomplish than in helping me achieve what I could. It also helped
me understand why I owed it to myself to tune out the voices around me telling
me to lower my sights.
5. If someone is bringing out your most self-destructive tendencies, acknowledge
that that person is not a friend.
No one should, willy-nilly, toss away friendship. People who will care for
you, who will support and watch out for you, are a precious part of a full
and blessed life. But people who claim to be friends are not always friends
in fact -- as Mike Gibson, an ex-prisoner who is now a Morehouse student,
His time behind bars taught Gibson to "surround myself with people who want
to see me do good."
On the streets he learned that when things got tough, the very buddies who
had encouraged him to break the law were nowhere to be found: "When I was
in the cell, I was there by myself ... I always found myself alone." It's
easy to be seduced by those who offer idiotic opinions disguised as guidance.
It's even easier to find people who attach themselves to you for their own
selfish reasons, or who will say they have your back when, in reality, they're
only looking out for themselves. It's sometimes a bit harder to let them
go, which sometimes is what you must do in the interest of your own survival.
6. Don't be too proud to ask for help, particularly from those who are wiser
While working on a previous book, "Color-Blind," I interviewed mathematician
Philip Uri Triesman, who has had astounding success teaching advanced mathematics
to black students who previously had not done very well. Unlike Chinese-American
students who typically studied in groups, blacks, he had discovered, tended
to study alone.
For blacks, the solitary study ritual seemed to be a matter of pride, reflecting
their need to prove that they could get by without help, that they were not
inferior to whites. By getting them, in effect, to emulate some of what the
Chinese-Americans were doing, Triesman spurred the black students to
unprecedented levels of accomplishment. Too often (and not only in math),
we feel we have to face our problems alone. We are uncomfortable admitting
our pain, our inexperience, our incompetence; and, as a result, we sometimes
ignore resources we usefully could tap. Whether in schools, in the streets
or in corporate suites, too many of us are trying to cope alone when we would
be much better off if we reached out for help.
7. Recognize that being true to yourself is not the same as being true to
a stupid stereotype.
A few years ago when I visited Xavier University, a historically black college
in New Orleans, I was moved by a student who proudly proclaimed the university
to be a school full of nerds. At a time when many black men and boys are
trying their best to act like mack-daddies and bad-ass muthas, Xavier (which
sends more blacks to medical schools than any other university) is saying
that it has another image in mind: blackness really has nothing to do with
projecting a manufactured, crude street persona. Xavier celebrates accomplishment
instead of denigrating it, and it makes no apologies for doing so. We desperately
need to promote archetypes other than rappers, thugs and ballplayers of what
it is possible and desirable for us to be -- if for no other reason than
that so few of us can find success on such limited terrain.
8. Don't let the glitter blind you.
Almost invariably when I have spoken to people who had made their living
selling drugs, they talk a lot like "Frank," who said, "I didn't want to
be the only dude on the streets with busted-up shoes, old clothes." They
talk of the money, the women, the cars, the gold chains -- the glamour, the
glitter of the dealer's life. Only later do most acknowledge that the money,
for most dealers, is not all that good, and that even when it is, it generally
doesn't last very long -- partly because the lifestyle so often leads to
either prison or an early grave. Maybe you don't care about that. Nonetheless,
I urge you to realize that you have a better chance (provided you prepare
for it) of getting a big job at a major corporation than of making big money
for a long time on the streets -- and the benefits and security are a hell
of a lot better.
9. Don't expect competence and hard work alone to get you the recognition
or rewards you deserve.
For all our skepticism about the so-called system, it sometimes seems that
people of color are the only ones alive who truly believe in the meritocracy.
We work hard, pour all our energy into our jobs and then are stunned and
shattered when our hard work is not rewarded. Why, we ask, is our ability
not being recognized? Why is our hard work being overlooked? Why can't they
see our talent? The answers are as varied as the possible circumstances,
but the general rule is that any organization (government, private business,
educational or other) is essentially a social body that rewards those fully
engaged in the game. To the extent we try to hold ourselves above that process,
we end up losing.
10. You must seize the time, for it is already later than you think.
When working on "The Rage of a Privileged Class," a book I published in 1994,
I was touched by a confession from Basil Paterson, lawyer, high-ranking
Democratic National Committee official and former deputy mayor of New York.
"It's too late for me to get rich because I spent too much time preparing
for what I've got ... Most of us are 10 years behind what we should have
been. We didn't get credentials until we were older than other folks," he
Paterson was talking of a particular generation, one hobbled by a much more
blatant, more virulent form of discrimination than exists for the most part
today; but the essence of what he said is still true -- at least for those
without well-to-do parents or fancy educations. Daniel Rose, founder of the
Harlem Educational Activities Fund, tells his young disciples: "Your chief
competitor started yesterday. And you are already a day behind." While it
is never too late to accomplish something in life, lost ground is hard to
make up, and it only gets harder the longer one waits, as competition becomes
even stiffer and opportunities dry up.
11. Even if you have to fake it, show some faith in yourself.
Confidence, lightly worn, can be contagious, and you might even manage to
fool yourself into letting go of your doubts. "A lot of our kids don't believe
in themselves because they've been told by so many people that they ain't
worth s -- t. I was labeled the bad kid, so I know how that feels," says
Chicago youth worker J. W. Hughes. "Go to any high school with black males
and tell them they are smart enough to go to any university in the world.
Many of them will say, Not me.' I know that because [I was] one of
them," says Zachary Donald, a member of the Omega Boys Club, a San
Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to rescuing young souls from the street.
So much energy has been expended undermining our confidence, picking apart
our faith in ourselves, that we sometimes forget faith does not depend on
the beliefs of others or on demonstrating a list of accomplishments. "Faith
is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," says
the Bible (Hebrews 11:1). And there is so much that we have not yet seen,
so much waiting to be revealed when it comes to our potential on this planet.
But the first step is to believe that we can go where others say we can't.
12. Don't force innocent others to bear the price of your pain.
Sister Simone Ponnet, executive director of Abraham House (a New York Roman
Catholic organization that works with prisoners and their families), spoke
feelingly of ex-convicts and prisoners who lamented growing up fatherless,
or with abusive fathers, and then ended up treating their own children no
better. Even some of us who haven't been locked down at times feel so much
pain, so much anger that we feel justified in taking out our frustrations
on everyone around us.
Threatened in so many realms, unable to control the forces enveloping us,
we sometimes try too hard to exert control in the few areas we think we can:
sometimes over women, sometimes over children and sometimes over random souls
unlucky enough to get in our way. Before giving in to the temptation to turn
loved ones into targets, we should remind ourselves that those who love us
are the best hope we have to regain whatever humanity we have lost; that
they, in other words, are our salvation.
ALL THAT I HAVE SAID ABOVE focuses on the personal, on what we, as individuals,
can do to improve the quality of our lives. This is not to say that I believe
the only problems we have in America are individual ones. Nothing could be
farther from the truth. Huge and systemic problems remain that prevent America
from being the best country that it can be. We continue, as a country, to
leave our young people uneducated and, often, illiterate. We continue to
stress incarceration where we should be stressing human reclamation. We continue
to confound the dream of true equality by rejecting the investments in
remediation and infrastructure needed to achieve it. We continue to permit
society to label young black men as undesirable, as troublemakers, and we
throw up our hands in exasperation when the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes
fact. I could go on, but those are subjects for another day.
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