The head of President Kennedy's Housing and Home Finance Agency -- and the first black Cabinet member -- describes the responsibilities of black leadership.
The Negro as an American
Speech by Robert C. Weaver, the first black Cabinet member
June 13, 1963
When the average well-informed and well-intentioned white American discusses the issue of race with his Negro counterpart there are many areas of agreement. There are also certain significant areas of disagreement.
Negro Americans usually feel that whites exaggerate progress; while whites frequently feel that Negroes minimize gains. Then there are differences relative to the responsibility of Negro leadership. It is in these areas of dispute that some of the most subtle and revealing aspects of white-white relationships reside. And it is to the subtle and less obvious aspects of this problem that I wish to direct my remarks.
Most middle-class white Americans frequently ask, "Why do Negroes push so? They have made phenomenal progress in 100 years of freedom, so why don't their leaders do something about the crime rate and illegitimacy?" To them I would reply that when Negroes press for full equality now they are behaving as all other Americans would under similar circumstances. Every American has the right to be treated as a human being and striving for human dignity is a national characteristic. Also, there is nothing inconsistent in such action and realistic self-appraisal. Indeed, as I shall develop, self-help programs among non-whites, if they are to be effective, must go hand-in-glove with the opening of new opportunities.
Negroes who are constantly confronted or threatened by discrimination and inequality articulate a sense of outrage. Many react with hostility, sometimes translating their feelings into overt anti-social actions. In parts of the Negro community a separate culture with deviant values develops. To the members of this subculture I would observe that ours is a middle-class society and those who fail to evidence most of its values and behavior are headed toward difficulties. But I am reminded that the rewards for those who do are often minimal, providing insufficient inducement for large numbers to emulate them.
Until the second decade of the twentieth century, it was traditional to compare the then current position of Negroes with that of a decade or several decades ago. The depression revealed the basic marginal economic status of colored Americans and repudiated this concept of progress. By the early 1930's Negroes became concerned about their relative position in the nation.
Of course, there are those who observe that the average income, the incidence of home ownership, the rate of acquisition of automobiles, and the like, among Negroes in the United States are higher than in some so-called advanced nations. Such comparisons mean little. Incomes are significant only in relation to the cost of living, and the other attainments and acquisitions are significant for comparative purposes only when used to reflect the Negro's relative position in the world. The Negro here -- as he has so frequently and eloquently demonstrated -- is an American. And his status, no less than his aspirations, can be measured meaningfully only in terms of American standards. Viewed from this point of view what are the facts?
Median family income among non-whites was slightly less than 55 percent of that for whites in 1959; for individuals the figure was 50 percent.
Only a third of the Negro families in 1959 earned sufficient to sustain an acceptable American standard of living. Yet this involved well over a million Negro families, of which 6,000 earned $25,000 or more.
Undergirding these overall figures are many paradoxes. Negroes have made striking gains in historical terms, yet their current rate of unemployment is well over double that among whites. Over two-thirds of our colored workers are still concentrated in five major unskilled and semi-skilled occupations, as contrasted to slightly over a third of the white labor force.
Despite the continuing existence of color discrimination even for many of the well prepared, there is a paucity of qualified Negro scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and highly-trained clerical and stenographic workers. Lack of college-trained persons is especially evident among Negro men. One is prompted to ask why does this exist? In 1959 non-white males who were high school graduates earned on the average, 32 percent less than whites; for non-white college graduates the figure was 38 percent less. Among women a much different situation exists. Non-white women who were high school graduates earned on the average some 24 percent less than whites. Non-white female college graduates, however, earned but slightly over one percent less average annual salaries than white women college graduates. Significantly, the median annual income of non-white female college graduates was more than double that of non-white women with only high school education.
Is it any wonder that among non-whites, as contrasted to whites, a larger proportion of women than of men attend and finish college? The lack of economic rewards for higher education goes far in accounting for the paucity of college graduates and the high rate of drop-out among non-white males. It also accounts for the fact that in the North, where there are greater opportunities for white-collar Negro males, more Negro men than women are finishing college; whereas in the South, where teaching is the greatest employment outlet for Negro college graduates, Negro women college graduates outnumber men. There is much in these situations that reflects the continuing matriarchal character of Negro society -- in a situation which had its roots in the family composition under slavery where the father, if identified, had no established role. Subsequent and continuing economic advantages of Negro women who found steady employment as domestics during the post Civil War era and thereafter perpetuated the pattern. This, in conjunction with easy access of white males to Negro females, served to emasculate many Negro men economically and psychologically. It also explains, in part, the high prevalence of broken homes, illegitimacy, and lack of motivation in the Negro community.
The Negro middle-class seems destined to grow and prosper. At the same time, the economic position of the untrained and poorly trained Negro -- as of all untrained and poorly trained in our society -- will continue to decline. Non-whites are doubly affected. First, they are disproportionately concentrated in occupations particularly susceptible to unemployment at a time when our technology eats up unskilled and semi-skilled jobs at a frightening rate. Secondly, they are conditioned to racial job discrimination. The latter circumstance becomes a justification for not trying, occasioning a lack of incentive for self-betterment.
The tragedy of discrimination is that it provides an excuse for failure while erecting barriers to success.
Most colored Americans still are not only outside the mainstream of our society but see no hope of entering it. The lack of motivation and anti-social behavior which result are capitalized upon by the champions of the status quo. They say that the average Negro must demonstrate to the average white that the latter's fears are groundless. One proponent of this point of view has stated that Negro crime and illegitimacy must decline and Negro neighborhoods must stop deteriorating.
In these observations lie a volume on race relations. In the first place, those who articulate this point of view fail to differentiate between acceptance as earned by individual merit and enjoyment of rights guaranteed to everyone. Implicit, also, is the assumption that Negroes can lift themselves by their bootstraps, and that once they become brown counterparts of white middle-class Americans, they will be accepted on the basis of individual merit. Were this true, our race problem would be no more than a most recent phase in the melting pot tradition of the nation.
As compared to the earlier newcomers to our cities from Europe, the later ones who are colored face much greater impediments in moving from the slums or from the bottom of the economic ladder. At the same time, they have less resources to meet the more difficult problems which confront them.
One of the most obvious manifestations of the Negro's paucity of internal resources is the absence of widespread integrated patterns of voluntary organizations. The latter, as we know, contributed greatly to the adjustment and assimilation of European immigrants. Both the Negro's heritage and the nature of his migration in the United States militiated against the development of similar institutions.
Slavery and resulting post-civil war dependence upon whites stifled self-reliance. Movement from the rural south to northern cities was a far cry from immigration from Europe to the new world. This internal migration was not an almost complete break with the past, nor were those who participated in it subjected to feelings of complete foreignness. Thus the Negro tended to preserve his old institutions when he moved from one part of the nation to another; the immigrant created new ones. And most important, the current adjustment of non-whites to an urban environment is occurring at a time when public agencies are rapidly supplanting voluntary organizations.
Although much is written about crime and family disorganization among Negroes, most literate Americans are poorly informed on such matters. The first fallacy which arises is a confusion of what racial crime figures reflect. When people read that more than half the crime in a given community is committed by Negroes they unconsciously translate this into an equally high proportion of Negroes who are criminals. In fact, the latter proportion is extremely small.
In a similar vein, family stability, as indicated by the presence of both husband and wife, which is very low among the poorest non-whites, rises sharply as income increases.
Equally revealing is the fact that, in all parts of the country, the proportion of non-white families with female heads falls as incomes rise. A good, steady pay check appears to be an important element in family stability. Those Negroes who have been able to improve their economic position have generally taken on many of the attributes of white middle-class Americans.
But poverty still haunts half of the Negroes in the United States, and while higher levels of national productivity are a sine qua non for higher levels of employment in the nation, they alone will not wipe out unemployment, especially for minorities. The labor reserve of today must be trained if it is to find gainful employment. Among non-whites this frequently involves more than exposure to vocational training. Many of them are functionally illiterate and require basic education prior to any specialized job preparation.
The very magnitude of these problems illustrates that society must take the leadership in solving them. But society can only provide greater opportunities. The individual must respond to the new opportunities. And he does so, primarily, in terms of visible evidence that hard work and sacrifice bring real rewards.
Many white Americans are perplexed, confused, and antagonized by Negroes' persistent pressure to break down racial segregation. Few pause to consider what involuntary segregation means to its victims.
To the Negro, as an American, involuntary segregation is degrading, inconvenient and costly. It is degrading because it is a tangible and constant reminder of the theory upon which it is based -- biological racial inferiority. It is inconvenient because it means long trips to work, exclusion from certain cultural and recreational facilities, lack of access to restaurants and hotels conveniently located, and, frequently, relegation to grossly inferior accommodations. Sometimes it spells denial of a job and often it prevents upgrading based on ability.
But the principal disadvantage of involuntary segregation is its costliness. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in education and housing. By any and all criteria, separate schools are generally inferior schools in which the cultural deprivations of the descendants of slaves are perpetuated.
Enforced residential segregation, the most stubborn and universal of the Negro's disadvantages, often leads to exploitation and effects a spatial pattern which facilitates neglect of public services in the well-defined areas where Negroes live. It restricts the opportunities of the more successful as well as the least successful in the group, augmenting artificially the number of non-whites who live in areas of blight and neglect and face impediments to the attainment of values and behavior required for upward social and economic mobility.
The most obvious consequence of involuntary residential segregation is that the housing dollar in a dark hand usually commands less purchasing power than one in a white hand. Clearly, this is a denial of a basic promise of a free economy.
For immigrant groups in the nation, the trend toward improved socioeconomic status has gone hand-in-hand with decreasing residential segregation. The reverse has been true of the Negro. Eli Ginzberg, in his book, The Negro Potential, has delineated the consequences.
It must be recognized that the Negro cannot suddenly take his proper place among whites in the adult world if he has never lived, played, and studied with them in childhood and young adulthood. Any type of segregation handicaps a person's preparation for work and life. . Only when Negro and white families can live together as neighbors . . . Will the Negro grow up properly prepared for his place in the world of work.
Residential segregation based on color cannot be separated from residential segregation based upon income. Both have snob and class appeal in contemporary America. Concentration of higher income families in the suburbs means that many of those whose attitudes and values dominate our society do not see the poor or needy. But more important, cut off by political boundaries, it is to their interest not to see them.
Yet there are over 30,000,000 Americans who experience poverty today. For the most part, we resent them and the outlays required for welfare services. They are a group which is separate from the majority of Americans and for whom the latter accept only the minimum responsibility. Thus we have, for the first time, class unemployment in the United States.
I happen to have been born a Negro and to have devoted a large part of my adult energies to the problem of the role of the Negro in America. But I am also a government administrator, and have devoted just as much energy -- if not more -- to problems of government administration at the local, the state and the national level.
My responsibilities as a Negro and an American are part of the heritage I received from my parents -- a heritage that included a wealth of moral and social values that don't have anything to do with my race. My responsibilities as a government administrator don't have too much to do with my race, either. My greatest difficulty in public life is combating the idea that somehow my responsibilities as a Negro conflict with my responsibilities as a government administrator: and this is a problem which is presented by those Negroes who feel that I represent them exclusively, as well as by those whites who doubt my capacity to represent all elements in the population. The fact is that my responsibilities as a Negro and a government administrator do not conflict; they complement each other.
The challenge frequently thrown to me is why I don't go out into the Negro community and exhort Negro youths to prepare themselves for present and future opportunities. My answer is somewhat ambivalent. I know that emphasis upon values and behavior conducive to success in the dominant culture of America was an important part of my youthful training. But it came largely from my parents in the security and love of a middle-class family. (And believe me, there is nothing more middle-class than a middle-class minority family!) Many of the youth which I am urged to exhort come from broken homes. They live in communities where the fellow who stays in school and follows the rules is a "square." They reside in a neighborhood where the most successful are often engaged in shady -- if not illegal -- activities. They know that the very policeman who may arrest them for violation of the law is sometimes the pay-off man for the racketeers. And they recognize that the majority society, which they frequently believe to be the "enemy," condones this situation. Their experience also leads some of them to believe that getting the kind of job the residents in the neighborhood hold is unrewarding -- a commitment to hard work and poverty. For almost all of them, the precepts of Ben Franklin are lily-like in their applicability.
Included in the group are the third generation of welfare clients. It is in this area -- where they learn all the jargon of the social workers and psychologists -- that they demonstrate real creativity. It is in activities which "beat" the system that they are most adept -- and where the most visible rewards are concentrated.
All youth is insecure today. Young people in our slums are not only insecure but angry. Their horizons are limited, and, in withdrawing from competing in the larger society, they are creating a peculiar, but effective, feeling of something that approaches, or at least serves as a viable substitute for, security. In the process, new values and aspirations, a new vocabulary, a new standard of dress, and a new attitude toward authority evolve. Each of these serves to demonstrate a separateness from the dominant culture.
As a realist, I know that these youth relate with me primarily in a negative sense. They see me in terms of someone who has been able to penetrate, to a degree, the color line, and to them I have bettered the "enemy." If I should attempt to suggest their surmounting the restrictions of color, they cite instances of persons they know who were qualified -- the relatively few boys or girls in their neighborhood who finished high school or even college -- only to be ignored while white youths with much less training were selected for good jobs. And such occurrences are not unique or isolated in their experience.
The example which will be an inspiration to the Negro boys and girls whose anti-social behavior distresses most whites and many Negroes is someone they know who has experienced what they have experienced and has won acceptance in the mainstream of America. When the Ralph Bunches, William Hasties, and John Hope Franklins emerge from their environment, the achievements of these successful Negroes will provide models which have meaning for them.
This is reflected in the occupations which provide the greatest incidence of mobility for slum youth. One thinks immediately of prize fighting and jazz music. In these fields there is a well established tradition of Negroes, reared in the ghetto areas of blight and poverty, who have gone to the top. For youth in a similar environment, these are heroes with whom they can and do identify and relate. And in these fields, a significant proportion of the successful are non-whites. For only in those pursuits in which native genius can surmount (if indeed it does not profit from) lack of high level training does the dominant environment of the Negro facilitate large-scale achievement.
For many successful older colored Americans, middle-class status has been difficult. Restricted, in large measure, to racial ghettos, they have expended great effort to protect their children from falling back into the dominant values of that environment. And these values are probably more repugnant to them than to most Americans. This is understandable in terms of their social origins. For the most part, they come from lower-middle class families, where industry, good conduct, family ties, and a willingness to postpone immediate rewards for future successes are stressed. Their values and standards of conduct are those of success-oriented middle-class Americans.
It is not that responsible Negroes fail to feel shame about muggings, illegitimacy, and boisterousness on the part of other Negroes. Many -- particularly the older ones -- feel too much shame in this connection. Accordingly, some either repudiate the "culprits" in terms of scathing condemnation or try to escape from the problem lest it endanger their none too secure status.
These attitudes, too, are shifting. The younger middle-class Negroes are more secure and consequently place less stress upon the quest for respectability. But few Negroes are immune from the toll of upward mobility. Frequently their struggle has been difficult, and the maintenance of their status demands a heavy input. As long as this is true, they will have less energy to devote to the problems of the Negro subculture. It is significant, however, that the sit-ins and freedom marches in the south were planned and executed by Negro college students most of whom come from middle-class families.
Middle-class Negroes have long led the fight for civil rights; today its youthful members do not hesitate to resort to direct action, articulating the impatience which is rife throughout the Negro community. In so doing they are forging a new solidarity in the struggle for human dignity.
There are today, as there always have been, thousands of dedicated colored Americans who don't make the headlines but are successful in raising the horizons of Negroes. These are the less well-known leaders who function at the local level. The teachers, social workers, local political leaders, ministers, doctors, and an assortment of indigenous leaders -- many among the latter with little formal education -- who are effective have familiarized themselves with the environmental factors which dull and destroy motivation. They become involved with the total Negro community. They demonstrate -- rather than verbalize -- a concern for Negro youth's problems. They are trying to reach these young people, not by coddling and providing excuses for failure, but through identification of their potentialities and assistance in the development of these. Involved are both genuine affection and sufficient toughness to facilitate and encourage the development of self-reliance.
Those, white and black alike, who reach the newcomers in our urban areas avoid value judgments relative to cultural patterns. When they suggest thrift, good deportment, greater emphasis upon education and training, they do so as a pragmatic approach. For them, it is not a matter of proselytizing, but in a matter of delineating those values and patterns of behavior that accelerate upward mobility in contemporary American society. Such a sophisticated approach enables them to identify deviations from dominant values and conduct which are not inconsistent with a productive and healthy life in modern urban communities. The latter are left undisturbed, so that there will be a minimum adjustment of values and concepts and the maximum functional effectiveness on the part of individuals who will not soon become middle-class America.
What are the responsibilities of Negro leadership?
Certainly the first is to keep pressing for first-class citizenship status -- an inevitable goal of those who accept the values of this nation.
Another responsibility of Negro leadership is to encourage and assist Negroes to prepare for the opportunities that are now and will be opened to them.
The ultimate responsibilities of Negro leadership, however, are to show results and maintain a following. This means that it cannot be so "responsible" that it forgets the trials and tribulations of others who are less fortunate or less recognized than itself. It cannot stress progress -- the emphasis which is so palatable to the majority group -- without, at the same time, delineating the unsolved business of democracy. It cannot provide or identify meaningful models unless it effects social changes which facilitate the emergence of these models from the environment which typifies so much of the Negro community.
But Negro leadership must also face up to the deficiencies which plague the Negro community, and it must take effective action to deal with resulting problems. While, of course, crime, poverty, illegitimacy and hopelessness can all be explained, in large measure, in terms of the Negro's history and current status in America, they do exist. We need no longer be self-conscious in admitting these unpleasant facts, for our knowledge of human behavior indicates clearly that anti-social activities are not inherent in any people. What is required is comprehension of these -- a part of society's problems -- and remedial and rehabilitation measures.
Emphasis upon self-betterment if employed indiscriminately by Negro leaders is seized upon by white supremacists and their apologists to support the assertion that Negroes -- and they mean all Negroes -- are not ready for full citizenship. This, because of the nature of our society, Negro leadership must continue to stress rights if it is to receive a hearing for programs of self-improvement.
Black Muslims, who identify the white man as the devil, can and do emphasize -- with a remarkable degree of success -- morality, industry, and good conduct. But, the Negro leader who does not repudiate his or his followers' Americanism can do so effectively only as he, too, clearly repudiates identification with the white supremacists. This he does, of course, when he champions equal rights, just as the black Muslims accomplish it by directing hate toward all white people.
Most Negroes in leadership capacities have articulated the fact that they and those who follow them are a part of America. They have striven for realization of the American dream. Most recognize their responsibilities as citizens and urge others to follow their example. Sophisticated whites realize that the status of Negroes in our society depends not only upon what the Negro does to achieve his goals and prepare himself for opportunities but, even more, upon what all America does to expand these opportunities. And the quality and nature of future Negro leadership depends upon how effective those leaders who relate to the total society can be in satisfying the yearnings for human dignity which reside in the hearts of all Americans.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it Reagan? Kennedy? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United States through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?