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Why an American trailblazer fears we’re losing the next generation of ‘black pioneers’

Clifton Wharton, an American trailblazer in international development and business, has led a storied life. In “Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer,” Wharton reflects on his successes, as well as his experiences with racism. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his life and race relations in the United States today.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now the newest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Clifton Wharton Jr. is sometimes known as the quiet trailblazer, much accomplished, but not widely known. His memoir, "Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer," has just been published.

    He sat down to talk about it recently with Judy Woodruff.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Admitted to Harvard at age 16, the first black student to earn an economics doctorate at the University of Chicago, worked on development issues in Latin America and Asia, president of Michigan State University, chairman and CEO of TIAA-CREF, a pension and financial services company, and number two man at the Department of State, these are but a few highlights from a storied life.

    Clifton Wharton, welcome.

    CLIFTON R. WHARTON, Author, "Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer": Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's great to have you with us.

    You — the title of the book, "Privilege and Prejudice," signaling that you have experienced both.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    In equal amounts or one more than another?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Well, I wouldn't say that I would try to measure them.

    It's merely the fact that, throughout my life, when I have had exposure, it sometimes has occurred, prejudice.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you grew up the son of a diplomat, of an ambassador.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    That's correct.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A pretty sophisticated life. You were overseas much of the time as a child.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Yes, right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A lot was expected of you.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Yes.

    When we lived abroad, most of my early years were spent in the Canary Islands of Spain. I knew that I was black because my mother had taught me a great deal about outstanding blacks, including my father. So I didn't experience any significant racial incident until I came back to the United States.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You were about 10 or 11 years old.

    And I was struck. You wrote about it. You said, although — and it was a tough experience for you. You said, "Although it never went away, over time my indignation cooled to a small diamond-hard ire I could usually disregard."

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Oh, yes, indeed.

    And it also provided me with a tremendous amount of inner strength to be able to deal with it. I first experienced it when I was temporarily in the fourth grade on home leave. A youngster in class was very angry because a teacher used me to show the students how to read.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    In one of the evacuation periods, he came up to me and says, "You think you're a smart N." And I didn't know what that word meant.

    And so I went home and I said to my mother, what is that? So, she explained to me. She said, that is a term which is used to put you in a box. She said, don't ever let anybody put you in a box.

    And she was right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You do mention dealing with race throughout the book.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Yes. Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you always just worked right through it.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Oh, yes.

    There are times when it becomes a matter of how you deal with it yourself. That is to say, you begin to approach it as an instant where the other person — the other person who may be expressing racist sentiments requires a bit of education, and teach them exactly what is that they're doing and why.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Clifton Wharton, when you see where the United States is today with race relations, what do you make of it all?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Well, I would say that we have, to a great extent, improved situations, but made some of them worse.

    But one of the things which disturbs me a great deal today is that we are, in fact, reducing the opportunities, for a variety of reasons, for young minorities to receive a great and good education.

    And I say that because I think the United States needs to recognize that the failure of providing that education creates a loss in human capital for the country as a whole.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You mean failing to provide it in K-12 or at the higher education…

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    In all of it, particularly in K-12, but also in colleges and universities.

    Let me give you an example. A recent — there has been a recent study that shows that, if you are in the upper quartile of families in income in the United States, your child has an 85 percent chance of getting a college degree. If you're in the last bottom quartile, your child has an 8 percent chance.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But why haven't we done better in that regard? I mean, you…

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    I think it's because people fail to recognize some of times that they have institutional racism, whether it's built into the psyche of people.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why is it so hard to minimize this or to get rid of it?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    There are individuals who continually develop aspects of institutional racism.

    For example, why is it that we have so many young blacks, such a huge percentage of the population, in jails? That creates, itself, a particular psyche.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You don't get discouraged when you think — you're about to turn 89, you were telling me.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And things have gotten better, as you just said.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But we still have a long way to go.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Oh, and we certainly do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You don't get discouraged?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    And, no, I don't get discouraged in that sense.

    I get discouraged when I see that we are not correcting some of the problems that are creating it. That, to me, is the really significant…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But why? Whose fault is that?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    I think it's everybody's fault, in a sense, that we have — we have missed the opportunity to recognize what it is we're doing.

    It's not in the national self-interest to avoid developing the human capital that could contribute to our society. It's…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But doesn't someone bear responsibility?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Not individually, but collectively. Collectively, there's a problem.

    We have so many times missed the boat on these things. And once they become this cycle of poverty, which perpetuates itself, it's very, very hard to break.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, finally, what, Clifton Wharton, is your advice to young African-Americans in the United States today?

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Oh, I would say, be prepared. Be prepared. And always look for the kind of opportunities where you think you can make your own way and contribution to society.

    Many of these individuals need that kind of encouragement, that people believe in them, people recognize that they have skills and competencies and would be able to succeed.

    And, quite frankly, for me, the greatest return is when you see them being converted into significant human capital for the society. That's wonderful.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Clifton Wharton, the book is "Privilege and Prejudice: The Life of a Black Pioneer."

    Thank you very much.

  • CLIFTON R. WHARTON JR.:

    Well, thank you for having me.

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