Saturday, December 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Please respond to this famous statement by W.E.B. Du Bois: 'The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the
Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.'

             Before I respond to this famous and sometimes controversial statement by W.E.B. Du Bois, I would like to first quote a few verses from the oldest sutra in the Pali canon of Buddhism. This is the Khaggavisana Sutra. The term means "a rhinoceros horn," so the sutra is generally called Rhinoceros Sutra. When I say it is the oldest sutra we have I mean that we have these verses on palm leaves discovered not long ago in a jar in the town of Hadda, near the Khyber Pass in present-day eastern Afghanistan. They were written around 30 A.D. In other words, the original Gandhāra scroll fragments (the Kharoṣṭhī Fragments) were written when Jesus was still walking the Earth and teaching. This version is kept in the British Library, and was translated by my colleague Richard Salomon and his team in the Department of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington. The verses I wish to share are as follows:
If you gain a mature companion,
a fellow traveler, right-living and wise,
overcoming all dangers
go with him, gratified,

If you don't gain a mature companion,
a fellow traveler, right-living and wise,
wander alone
like a king renouncing his kingdom,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds,
his herd.

We praise companionship
-- yes!
Those on a par, or better,
should be chosen as friends.
If they are not to be found,
living faultlessly,
wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

Avoid the evil companion
disregarding the goal,
intent on the out-of-tune way.
Don't take as a friend
someone heedless and hankering.
wander alone
like a rhinoceros.

Consort with one who is learned,
who maintains the Dhamma,
a great and quick-witted friend.
           People follow and associate
           for a motive.
           Friends without a motive these days
           are rare.
           They are shrewd for their own ends, and impure.
           Wander alone
           like a rhinoceros.
The Rhinoceros Sutra is said to refer to the value of living a solitary life like that of the forest monks in Southeast Asia, and it describes as well the Pratyeka-buddha ("solitary awakened one"), the man or woman who, not associated with a sangha or community, achieves awakening on his (or her) own. Shakyamuni Buddha himself may be regarded as a Pratyeka-buddha. So now we come to the question: Why have I begun my response to Du Bois with these verses?
Du Bois speaks of a Talented Tenth, the "best" among black Americans, and of the "Worst in their own race and other races." He also identifies education as crucial for our understanding of "exceptional men." When he speaks of education, I believe Du Bois means more than an academic education. He also means moral education. We've all seen educated people, black white and otherwise, with Ph.Ds in the various sciences and humanities commit crimes, lie, steal, cheat, engage in sexual misconduct, abuse alcohol and drugs, and even commit murder. While well-educated in a secular sense, it is clear such people lack a moral (or spiritual) education, or at least one that has significantly shaped their character.
And what Du Bois is also describing here with his Talented Tenth idea is just that, i.e., black people of good character. Two thousand years ago, the Rhinoceros Sutra urged followers of the dharma to walk alone if they could not find "a mature companion, a fellow traveler, right-living and wise," one who "maintains the Dhamma, a great and quick-witted friend." But they should walk alone if all they encounter are people who were "heedless and hankering," who have a selfish motive behind their being friendly, people who are "shrewd for their own ends, and impure." I take Du Bois to mean such folks are the "Worst in their own race and other races."
The Talented Tenth, then, are both educated and moral. Du Bois was, of course, not interested in seeing them walk alone. Most likely this was, in part, his reason for establishing more than one hundred years ago Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, the professional organization for black men: a kind of secular sangha (with local chapters all over America) for black Americans during the era of segregation who were devoted to "uplifting" the race in all ways---as educators, lawyers, businessmen, artists, ministers, political activists, etc. One purpose of the Boulé was to provide these race leaders with like-minded company, credentialed learned and moral, that would give them support in their efforts to improve the conditions of our people.
 But do the "exceptional" amount to only ten percent of black people (or any people)? We can argue about this percentage, and during the 1960s young militants did, in fact, criticize Du Bois for being elitist, glibly saying "Why not a Talented One Hundred Percent"? This complaint comes, I suspect, from an egalitarian impulse, the democratic ideal shifted from politics to personal performance, or the sentimental desire to believe that all people are equal in all ways (or should be). Unfortunately, as so many have pointed out, among them John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, that thesis is not supported by evidence. In the Lebenswelt (or Lifeworld) as well as in what we traditionally call Nature, difference and/or inequality is an eidos, a structure or invariant meaning. (And all our lives we practice discrimination in ways big and small on the basis of this difference and inequality, choosing this potential spouse over that one, this college over another, this meal over another, etc.) 
 Whether we like it or not (and as I wrote in Dreamer, page 47), "Not only was the distribution of wealth in society grossly uneven...but so was God-given talent. Beauty, Imagination, Luck. And the blessing of loving parents. They were the products of the arbitrariness of fortune. You could not say they were deserved." For example, I have a suite of skills and talents. But, believe me, I will never play chess like Garry Kasparov. Sing like Luther Vandross. Box like Muhammad Ali. Preach like M.L. King Jr. Solve problems in physics like Murray Gell-man, who gave us the word "quark" for a quantum entity. Play a guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Shoot hoops like Michael Jordan. Read eleven lines at a time like Wallace Thurman (according to Langston Hughes in The Big Sea). Or, like the reclusive Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman in 2003, provide a proof for the Poincaré Conjecture, which had eluded mathematicians for more than a century (Perelman rejected the $1 million prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute for creating that proof). Such intellectually and physically exceptional individuals---prodigies and geniuses---obviously account for less than one percent of the human species.
Therefore, there are only two possible places I know of where equality between men and women exists: before the law and in the eyes of the Almighty. But despite this inherent inequality and difference that we find in things, men and women, as Rawls reminded us, can choose in a democracy to share one another's fate. (Something I found fascinating when lecturing abroad in the '80s and '90s for first the U.S. Information Agency, then the State Department, was that American embassy workers were issued exactly the same furniture for the places they stayed in other countries. The same number and kind of furniture items so that no one had more than anyone else. Or so I was informed by a member of the U.S. embassy personnel.)
 So when Du Bois selects ten percent for Negroes who have "talent," perhaps he is being generous. If there are 308,000,000 Americans (according to the 2010 census) with 40,040,000 of these being black people (about 13% or 12.6%), the Talented Tenth account for 4,000,000 individuals, enough to fill the city of Los Angeles. If you find that number interesting, consider the statement in Linda Selzer's critical study Charles Johnson in Context, that "A 1974 report published in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association...found that only thirty-five blacks with the terminal degree in philosophy could be identified nationwide: 'one black Ph.D. in philosophy for every million black citizens'." (I suspect this number is now at least in the 40s or 50s, perhaps even higher.)
Given the difference in access to education in Du Bois's time a century ago and the post-civil right era, ten percent is likely too low a percentage. (And I daresay the efflorescence of talent does requires nurturing and much education.) Perhaps we now have a Talented Twentieth. Or a Talented Thirtieth. I won't speculate on what a better percentage would be. But I will say that if we believe in meritocracy, then I see Du Bois's statement as being heuristic, and still worth thinking about---and perhaps even working with---in 2011 and beyond.

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