A century ago, as America made clear its retreat from the egalitarian gains of Reconstruction, two powerful voices set out differing agendas for how black Americans should respond to the rise of Jim Crow. For Booker T. Washington, the best that blacks could hope for was to accommodate themselves to the tide of white reaction and, through economic and social self-help, perhaps could make themselves deserving of full political and legal rights. In contrast to Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that such accommodation only legitimized and bolstered white reaction, and he counseled that blacks should retreat not an inch in claiming their full rights as citizens.
Today, as America undergoes a similar retreat from the gains of the civil rights era, two books mirror a similar split in the strategies and tactics of black Americans. In Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences, Ward Connerly casts himself as a latter-day version of Washington. In fact, Connerly takes great pride in a comment made to him by Washington’s great-grandson: “Your message is basically the same as his. Stand on your own two feet, rely on yourself, and stop blaming the world for your problems.”
The first part of Connerly’s book provides a Washingtonian, Up From Slavery-esque account of early years. For him, proper doses of family love, discipline and hard work are all that’s necessary and sufficient for success. “It is not the life we’re given, but the life we make of the life we’re given that counts,” he opines. Not only does Connerly fail to recognize that race and class exert a powerful effect on what kind of life we can make for ourselves, but certain aspects of his own life story ring false. As he tells it, one of the central events in his upbringing was as a teenager, when he and his maternal grandmother (who raised him after the death of his mother) were forced to go on welfare, an experience that he found stigmatizing and degrading. After a year and a half, Connerly decided that he’d had enough, and he stormed out of the house to look for a job. According to him, he accepted a part-time (he’s quite clear on this point) job that paid 65 cents an hour, which allowed him to make $80 a month–$20 more than what welfare provided. For Connerly, this relative amount is important, since he wishes to demonstrate that hard work, even on a part-time basis, is more profitable than welfare. But at 65 cents an hour, one would have to have worked nearly full-time to earn that much, suggesting either that Connerly’s memory might be a bit selective or that the value of low-wage work over welfare might not be as obvious as he would like it to seem.
But discrepancy or no, Connerly rarely misses an opportunity to criticize contemporary young blacks. In one instance, he writes: “As I drove out of my old neighborhood, an elderly black man waved at me, and a black teenager spit in the direction of my car. I wasn’t sure what to make of any of this.” (If he wasn’t sure, what is the point of the anecdote–other than for the reader to draw an unfavorable impression of young blacks?)