What Booker T. Washington Can Teach Barack Obama

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Historians David Beito and Jonathan Bean have a fascinating article up at the History News Network comparing President Barack Obama to the 19th-century African American leader Booker T. Washington. The two men, Beito and Bean argue, share a similar mixed race background and employed similar tactics in forging successful political alliances. But there are some differences:

Despite the many similarities, the philosophical worldviews are profoundly different. Washington repeatedly emphasized that thrift was the basis of advancement. "You cannot plant a tree in air," wrote Washington, "and have it live." The secret of success was to shun excessive debt, delay gratification, and "learn the savings habit; until we learn to save every nickel and every dollar that we can spare." Washington's strategy eventually paid off. Without Washington, it is hard to imagine the rise of the black middle class in the 1950s. It was this middle class, often the product of black colleges founded on the Tuskegee model, which made the civil rights movement, and thus President Obama, possible in the first place….

Like most men of his time, Washington did not believe that anyone could spend their way to success. Progress ultimately rested on a solid foundation of hard work, thrift, and production. Excessive debt, especially without the means to repay it, only created a trap leading to more debt and regress. It is doubtful that Washington could imagine the endless bailouts of our own day. They certainly would have appalled him.

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  1. Booker T. Washington waqs a Muthafuckin’ fool.

  2. It is doubtful that Washington could imagine the endless bailouts of our own day. They certainly would have appalled him.

    Not sure about that. Obama, perhaps personally does believe in thrift, and saving every penny he can. As for applying that same philosophy to my money, Obama doesn’t seem so thrifty…

  3. Which is how Booker T. Washington became President of the United States.

    Actually, I very much enjoyed Washington’s book “Up from Slavery,” which everyone should read. But the line “Excessive debt, especially without the means to repay it, only created a trap leading to more debt and regress” is a bit much. In fact, it’s an untuous, ass-covering, homiletic tautology that makes me gag. Any debt is “excessive” if you lack the means to repay it, and no debt is excessive if you do have the means. Apparently, any article that takes a whack at Obama is “fascinating,” by Reaon’s lights.

  4. “Excessive debt, especially without the means to repay it, only created a trap leading to more debt and regress” is a bit much. In fact, it’s an untuous, ass-covering, homiletic tautology that makes me gag.

    Take that, Booker T.!

  5. Why learn political theory from Booker T. Washington when you can learn it from Greg Ginn?

  6. Threadjack, but I’m not sure where to put this and I’m sure it will be of interest to Reasonators. There’s a new book out about Kelo called “Little Pink House.” The author was interviewed on the Diane Rehm show this morning.
    http://www.wamu.org/programs/dr/09/02/03.php#24807

  7. In fact, it’s an untuous, ass-covering, homiletic tautology that makes me gag.

    The fact that our government is ignoring what you call a tautology is instructive, no?

    Any debt is “excessive” if you lack the means to repay it, and no debt is excessive if you do have the means.

    Are you kidding me? I have the means to repay a car loan, but I don’t want to get one because I want to spend my money on other things besides interest. Just because you have means to repay doesn’t mean going into debt isn’t a bad idea.

  8. I was going to mention that Obama, and nearly all of the prominent faces in what passes for the current civil rights movement, are cut much more out of the mold of WEB DuBois than Washington…but The Man himself seems to have gotten here first.

  9. Alan – The phrase used was “excessive debt”. Ordinary debt, with the means to repay it, is perfectly moral. But excessive debt, which D.C. is currently engaged in the production of, is immoral. We were already unable to pay off the national debt before the TARPs and bailouts, and the process of doubling it in the midst of an economic crisis in no way makes it easier. The only way we can get out of this trap is to default (immoral) on the debts, or inflate (immoral) it away.

    And it’s not just the debt! It’s one thing to borrow a bit when you know the downturn is temporary, but the only reason we’re excessively borrowing is to pay for the excessive increase in spending! It’s like someone maxing out their credit cards on booze and hookers in response to getting laid off!

  10. Apparently, any article that takes a whack at Obama is “fascinating,” by Reason’s lights.

    A little thin-skinned are we? Bush was in office for eight long years, your guy has been in for all of two weeks, and we’re already getting whining over rather mild criticism.

    Considering America will soon be the closest to a one party state it has been in decades, you guys had better get used to scrutiny, because there’s going to be plenty of it forthcoming.

  11. Without Washington, it is hard to imagine the rise of the black middle class in the 1950s.

    I beg to differ.

    Washington, for all of his good deeds–and there were several, to be sure–endorsed segregation (see his
    Atlanta speech and “Separate as the five fingers”) and traded political rights for economic rights. He also dismissed higher education for blacks (excluding, of course, himself and his family) and claimed in “Up From Slavery” that the Klan did not, in fact, exist at the time of his writing. (see last page of chap 4.)

    He didn’t seem to grasp the fact that once you give up rights, its awfully hard to get them back.

    It was this middle class, often the product of black colleges founded on the Tuskegee model, which made the civil rights movement, and thus President Obama, possible in the first place…

    Indeed, for the continued and endorsed exclusion of blacks from political and social equality in the South and the exclusion of qualified blacks from institutes of higher learning all over the nation, part of the legacy of Booker T. Washington was what the Civil Rights Movement was fighting against.

    Can we stop comparing Obama to past Civil Rights leaders, for good or ill, and just judge the man on what he does? Jesus.

  12. Apparently, any article that takes a whack at Obama is “fascinating,” by Reason’s lights.

    Wow. An article with (apparently) favorable comparisons of Obama to Booker T. Washington is “taking a whack” at Obama?

    Booker’s “embrace” of segregation was likely the result of an (accurate) calculation that segregation was not going anywhere for at least a generation, and his prescriptions were how to succeed in spite of that. For example: Can’t get into white universities? Found your own! I, for one, am unwilling to fault him for trying to work within the realities of his day which were beyond anyone’s power to change.

  13. Can we stop comparing Obama to past Civil Rights leaders, for good or ill, and just judge the man on what he does? Jesus.

    To which I would only add: let’s judge him on what he actually does, and not what he claims to have done, or says he will do when he gets around to it, or which other people have already done.

  14. I think Alan just confused Booker T. Washington with Denzel Washington and got pissed, because he just watched American Gangster.

    Damn you Ridley! Why have you lost your touch?

  15. ‘He also dismissed higher education for blacks’

    Which is probably why he founded Tuskegee University, which provided higher education for black people.

  16. Booker’s “embrace” of segregation was likely the result of an (accurate) calculation that segregation was not going anywhere for at least a generation, and his prescriptions were how to succeed in spite of that.

    2 things:

    1)Could he have stopped segregation? By himself, no. But what followed hardly qualifies as success,nor does it excuse the dismissal of Klan existence. It is one thing to “go along to get along”, it is another thing to lie about the existence of a terrorist organization that most definitely still existed.

    2) All the more reason not to compare Obama to Washington: the facts are so drastically different right now, that such a comparison is based almost solely on prominence and race. (Further, I fully agree with your last comment about does vs. says he’s going to do.)

    Mad Max — Tuskegee, at the time, would best be described as a trade school. Blacksmithing, other manual labor, etc. I’m talking classical liberal education where the children could learn to advance in polite/white society without being forever assumed to have physical prowess and correlating lesser intelligence. While remedial training would be best served for adults, children and young adults, like Washington himself, benefitted from proper higher ed. His public rejection of that path was detrimental in the long term.

  17. endorsed segregation (see his
    Atlanta speech and “Separate as the five fingers”)

    I know a number of my black friends also believe this and attribute blame de-segregation as the reason why black communities tend to be shitty.

    They believe that because of de-segregation the best and brightest blacks who had the financial means left their communities as soon as they could in order to move to white neighborhoods leaving only the poorest and least educated behind.

    It’s an interesting theory, but to me, the problem isn’t de-segregation but the willingness of those who left to not look back.

  18. “I’m talking classical liberal education where the children could learn to advance in polite/white society without being forever assumed to have physical prowess and correlating lesser intelligence.”

    I’ve seen too many college-educated idiots to believe education and intelligence have much in common.

  19. But what can his cabinet learn from the MGs?

  20. ‘It is one thing to “go along to get along”, it is another thing to lie about the existence of a terrorist organization that most definitely still existed.’

    If you are referring to his autobiography, Up from Slaver, when that book was first published in 1901 the Klan didn’t exist. There had been a Klan during Reconstruction, whose activities Washington described and denounced. Then he said that there was no such organization today (1901) – which was true. He added that he didn’t think such an organization could be established again – which was overly optimistic. Starting around fifteen years after Washinton’s book was published, there was a revival of the Ku Klux Klan – founded for the purpose of “protecting” the US against such menaces as Jews, Catholics and blacks. The new Klan was popular in parts of the South, in Indiana, in Oregon, and elsewhere in the country.

    Washington failed to predict the Klan revival. That doesn’t mean he lied. There was no Klan in 1901.

  21. Chicago Tom,

    The same thing happens with rural white communities. As our society stands today, most opportunities for self-advancement present themselves in urban areas (though this has lessened somewhat in recent years due to increasing rural Internet access).

    It’s not a desegregation thing. It’s a mobility thing.

  22. ‘They believe that because of de-segregation the best and brightest blacks who had the financial means left their communities as soon as they could in order to move to white neighborhoods leaving only the poorest and least educated behind.

    ‘It’s an interesting theory, but to me, the problem isn’t de-segregation but the willingness of those who left to not look back.’

    What a pathetic excuse. Instead of celebrating people who made something of themselves and were able to move into good neighborhoods, blame them for the f***ed-up-ness of the people who were “left behind.”

    I suppose that, as a gesture of “solidarity with my people,” President Obama should pull his kids out of Sidwell Friends and send them to the Washington, DC public schools.

    Why not be inspired by the successful ex-neighbors, and try to emulate them, instead of whining about their success?

  23. “Sometimes he had
    compromise in his talk–
    for a man must crawl
    before he can walk
    and in Alabama in ’85
    a joker was lucky
    to be alive.”

  24. I’m talking classical liberal education where the children could learn to advance in polite/white society without being forever assumed to have physical prowess and correlating lesser intelligence.

    Nothing helps to advance in society more than having useful skills. IE, not the kind you get from a liberal education.

    traded political rights for economic rights…

    Typical bourgeois-Marxist claptrap. Considering the degree of poverty of the average black person in the South in 1900, economic rights were far more important. Having the right to vote doesn’t do you much good if you’re starving.

  25. I suppose that, as a gesture of “solidarity with my people,” President Obama should pull his kids out of Sidwell Friends and send them to the Washington, DC public schools.

    Max, I agree with you on the general point…but considering that Obama opposes school choice, enrolling his kids in Sidwell Friends is extremely hypocritical.

  26. Apparently, any article that takes a whack at Obama is “fascinating,” by Reaon’s lights.

    Aww, what’s wrong? The other kids don’t want to play “worship the politician” with you? Poor baby.

    -jcr

  27. I suppose that, as a gesture of “solidarity with my people,” President Obama should pull his kids out of Sidwell Friends and send them to the Washington, DC public schools.

    I think that the DC school board should be concentrating on how to make their schools good enough that anyone would choose them even if they could afford an alternative.

    Kids aren’t property, and using them to make a political point is a shitty thing to do. There are many things I will knock Obama for; putting his kids in a good school isn’t one of them.

    -jcr

  28. “Having the right to vote doesn’t do you much good if you’re starving.”

    No, but it helps if you want to starve others to make a quick buck.

  29. “It’s not a desegregation thing. It’s a mobility thing.”

    Why must the common people move about so needlessly?

  30. Why not be inspired by the successful ex-neighbors, and try to emulate them, instead of whining about their success?

    The guys who I was talking to about it weren’t “whining” about anything — they were merely commenting on cause and effect.

    Essentially they believed that if segregation would have continued you would have had better black schools and black communities where neighbors would have looked out for one another and taken an interest in making sure the neighborhood stayed a nice safe place to live rather then biding their time until they get out.

    Not that I agree with it, it was just an interesting conversation for me since I (a white guy) was in the position defending desegregation to my black friends.

  31. But what can his cabinet learn from the MGs?

    How to groove?

  32. as a gesture of “solidarity with my people,” President Obama should pull his kids out of Sidwell Friends and send them to the Washington, DC public schools

    Nah. It’s good that he’s not confused about who his people are. He doesn’t live the lie. He just lies. That’s smart. White-smart.

  33. I’m talking classical liberal education where the children could learn to advance in polite/white society without being forever assumed to have physical prowess and correlating lesser intelligence.

    Nothing helps to advance in society more than having useful skills. IE, not the kind you get from a liberal education.

    I’d say it’s more complicated than that. The “classic liberal education” is a status marker, but it is one because it indicates being born into a situation where one has the wealth and time to obtain it rather than focusing on developing vocational skills (much more so in the past than now, although it’s still true to a degree). It advanced one’s status by separating those who came from an upper class background from those who had recently arrived.

  34. “I was going to mention that Obama, and nearly all of the prominent faces in what passes for the current civil rights movement, are cut much more out of the mold of WEB DuBois than Washington…but The Man himself seems to have gotten here first.”

    First, I must say, sorry for the typos; I’m getting old.

    Second, now I may have embraced communism in my later years. Yes, that’s true. I had my reasons. But Booker? He was a fool.

  35. W.E.B.,
    I see you glossed over your temporary boner for Mussolini.

  36. “I’ve seen too many college-educated idiots to believe education and intelligence have much in common.”

    You need to remember, back then, the core curriculum was completely different. There is no comparison. Back then no one majored in Queer Studies.

  37. “I suppose that, as a gesture of “solidarity with my people,” President Obama should pull his kids out of Sidwell Friends and send them to the Washington, DC public schools.”

    Bet that school would straighten up quick.

  38. Bradybuck-4:31

    Hopefully the someone to whom your hypothetical refers maxed out his credit cards at happy hours and had enough sense to check TER prior to induling in the other virtue to which you refer.

  39. Mad Max-5:51

    Amen.

  40. ‘Essentially they believed that if segregation would have continued you would have had better black schools and black communities where neighbors would have looked out for one another and taken an interest in making sure the neighborhood stayed a nice safe place to live rather then biding their time until they get out.’

    Well, I suppose it’s possible that the neighborhoods started sucking because the successful people moved out.

    Or maybe the successful people moved out because the neighborhood sucked.

    Why not try improving the neighborhood to see if successful people (of all racial backgrounds) start moving in?

  41. Tuskegee, at the time, would best be described as a trade school. Blacksmithing, other manual labor, etc. I’m talking classical liberal education where the children could learn to advance in polite/white society without being forever assumed to have physical prowess and correlating lesser intelligence. While remedial training would be best served for adults, children and young adults, like Washington himself, benefitted from proper higher ed. His public rejection of that path was detrimental in the long term.

    JPB:

    I don’t have to respond to all the misconceptions on this thread. Norrell does it far better than me in the magnificant, Up From History….but I can’t let this totally wrong-headed statement pass by. Tuskegee always required that all students take at least fifty percent of their courses in academic subjects, such as history. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of Tuskegee graduates were always teachers.

  42. JPB:

    Washington, for all of his good deeds–and there were several, to be sure–endorsed segregation

    The DuBois deserves to be tarred with the same brush. He endorsed Washington’s speech in Atlanta that you quote and without qualification. He never recanted this endorsement.

    Social segregation was simply the reality in the South in 1896 and both Washington and DuBois recognized that.

    As to political segregation, as Norrell shows in incredible detail, Washington represented probably the leading force in the United States to oppose it. He was constantly funding law suits against both Jim Crow and disfranchisement. Ironically, at the time DuBois was writing Souls of Black Folk, Washington offered to finance DuBois if he brought suit against a separate car law. DuBois was not interested in taking up Washington’s offer even though Souls of Black Folk attacked Washington for alleged failure to challenge these laws!

    Washington’s long-term goal was the precise opposite of segregation—that is why Southern segregationists such as Thomas Dixon and Ben Tillman attacked him so viciously.

  43. This thread started with reference to an article and veered off into preconceptions of Booker T. Washington (debunked by Norrell’s book, and a bit by my forthcoming book). The man was surrounded by terrorism (although not the Klan per se), stood his ground, survived and prospered.

    As for the role of black colleges — they played a crucial role in the first half of the 20th century, as so ably discussed by John Sibley Butler on the nexus of black fraternities, colleges, churches, and business (_Entrepreneurship and Self-Help_).

    Key point: Norrell shows that Booker T. Washington spoke out repeatedly against lynching, disfranchisement, denial of equal education, etc.

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