Moving Past Black America's "Talented Tenth": Can The Black "Bourgeoisie" Do More?

This is the season for cotillions and now botillions, scholarships, luncheons and banquets, opportunities for those who have, and for those who work for companies who have, to send as many students to college as they can -- or so they say. Or do they send as many students to college as they can?

College has become more competitive as higher education has become a more prized commodity in the global workforce. Even the once "self-made" man and woman, whose entrepreneurial spirit once shunned education, had better have an MBA from some top tier "B-school" (business school), or have someone working for them who has one, in order to compete. And it is in this season that Black professionals and socialites call their scholarship rolls of “their children,” who are often second and third generation college attendees (with a few first generation college attendees mixed in), and who replicate the legacy tradition of America’s elite democracy practices.

This, from a people who were 99% illiterate at the point of slavery’s abolition in 1865 and yet 30 years later, in 1895, were arguing the best way to achieve social acceptance, labor proficiency (Booker T. Washington) or intellectual proficiency (W.E.B. DuBois). Forty years after slavery, after the turn of the 20 Century, Black folk had stratified into "social classes" and the appearance of “Black elites” emerged with DuBois’ new “talented tenth” ideology that the top ten percent would lead the other 90% of the race into social acceptance. Well, 100 years later we’re still waiting for that ideology take hold, and what we’ve witnessed, instead, is the perpetuation of Black elitism and the formation of a Black "bourgeoisie," who would just as soon save themselves and leave the masses behind.

This is a dangerous mindset, as our children need more help now than at any time in our history since the turn of the 20th Century. The talented ten percent have shrunken to a more exclusive "five-percent," as college bound Black students in the "A" or "B+" range (3.5 grade point average and above) represent just five percent of all Black students. Today, a 4.0 (what used to be an A average) will not get a student into some of the top tier universities and colleges in America. Yet, many of our best and brightest go to college, many with multiple scholarships offers, while the rest end up in community colleges or out of college, just because their grades aren’t good enough. Moreover, college is not an affordable endeavor for students not part of the elite tier of scholars.

Does that mean those who can should not try to help the rest get into college, or live the "bourgeoisie" experience? Have the Black elites lost sight of what they could do, and should do, to change the plight of Black America? Some think so. Some think the Black bourgeoisie can do more.

This is a controversial topic for Black America, as the race grapples with economic classism within. The wealth gap is greater than ever within the race, and we see a bifurcation like never before, within the Black community. We live in a "chic society," where exclusivity separates the best from the rest, as VIP rooms, velvet ropes, private clubs and personal bankers insure clique-ish exclusive access to "the good life." There are benefits to accomplishment and success. However, exclusivity doesn’t have to translate to elitism. Elite opinion directs how his country rolls, while mass opinion keeps it from rolling out of control.

It is the same in the Black community. Success is defined by where you live, what you drive, what you wear, and the groups to which you belong. Being considered part of the "Black elite" is centered on whether you are on enough "A list" invitations to be considered "in" or whether you can hang in the most exotic (and decadent) of social affairs. When it comes to community service, charity in some of these groups (I’m not talking about all of them), borders on tokenism. The awarding of scholarships is just one of these areas.

In the 20th Century, it was the Black fraternities and sororities, along with prominent social groups, that put up the money for the Brown cases, cases that endowed Black colleges, that opened private schools for Black children, that built Black hospitals. Much of this is, today, only fractionally done by Blacks. The talented tenth, 100 years ago, did more with less money and fewer numbers than the so-called Black elite today. There’s something to be said for that. Today, we give less even though college costs more, and fewer give at all beyond their own children’s need. We need to do better.

Many professional Black men’s monthly "green fees" or "pu**y bills" (lavish expenditures entertaining women who entertain them) are greater than what they give in annual scholarships. Professional Black woman’s monthly "pamper" bill (hair, nails, and massage upkeeps) are more than what they give in annual scholarships. I haven’t even factored in "bling" (jewelry) and clothing expenses, or semi-annual trips. Many Black folks are doing well, but could learn to do good at the same time.

Clearly, the Black bourgeoisie could do more. And just to clarify, all Black professionals aren’t bourgeoisie, but many do engage in elitist behaviors that could be considered "bourgsie" acts. One well-known socialite group held a cotillion for foster girls. It received rave reviews in the community, even though the members were deeply divided on it. Their fear was that it would make them appear "common" by dealing with "common girls." The Black elite’s biggest fear is that of being perceived as common — not doing something good for the community. Another group bought prom dresses for foster girls and girls from poor families. Another gave $100,000 in scholarships. The 100 Black Men of Los Angeles and its affiliated supporters, through its Young Black Scholars Program, gave over $200,000 in scholarships for this coming academic year. These are significant commitments, but dare I say it — more can be done. For to whom much is given, much is expected.

I am appealing to other exclusive organizations to expand their reach beyond the A and B student, a position I’ve held for 20 years, to help others students see their future by helping them to fulfill their academic potential. If we can’t see it, they’ll never be able to see it.
We can all do that. We can encourage others to give more and reach out to more than just their own children. All our children deserve the same opportunities as the "well to do." It is time those who have, make an effort far beyond what they have already done to make a difference. Otherwise, the grassroots community and the generation we, by and large, perceive as disconnected from the struggle and from us, will see us as just a bunch of bourgsie ni**as who made no sacrifices for them. They’re all talented. We just have to move past the ten (or five) percent, and reach the masses.

  • Black Commentator Columnist Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is Click here to contact Dr. Samad.
  • The Black is a weekly Internet magazine featuring commentary, analysis ad investigations on issues affecting African Americans.