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Was Booker T. Washington Too White?


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According to the Washington Post, on May 31, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Talking about Race” portal published a graphic of “Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” As reported by Thomas DiLorenzo, it characterized “most U.S. white people most of the time” as including “self-reliance, independence, merit, competitiveness, belief in equality under the law, protection of property rights, ability to speak and write plain English, avoidance of conflict, politeness, Christianity, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the work ethic, associating ‘pay’ with work, the scientific method, respect for authority, planning for the future (i.e., savings, delayed gratification), and belief in the traditional nuclear family.”

As people started noticing the claims that such characteristics represented whiteness, rather than what Frederic Hess and R.J. Martin termed “intellectual and personal traits that promote personal and civic success – in the U.S. or anywhere else,” it created enough controversy that the graphic was taken down last month, leaving many unanswered questions in its wake.

However, that graphic helped me understand something that has puzzled me for a long time. That something is that every Black History Month, which annually promotes many role models for imitation, gives such short shrift to Booker T. Washington. While my research has led me to conclude that he was an exemplar of the moral means to success – self-improvement that benefits others as well through voluntary arrangements – apparently that makes him “too white” to emulate today. But that is a hard conclusion to defend.  

Washington was born a slave, and was seven when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced. At 11, he got his first book and taught himself to read. He thought to “get into a schoolhouse and study … would be about the same as getting into paradise.” At 16, he went 500 miles to Hampton Institute in Virginia with only $1.50 in his pocket. He attended classes by day and worked nights for room and board. After graduation, Hampton made him an instructor. In 1881, he founded and then led what is now the Tuskegee Institute for years as principal, emphasizing education and an unwavering work ethic.

Washington was a tireless educator and advocate of black self-improvement. At Tuskegee, he taught technical skills needed to provide the ability to earn a good living. He pushed the values of individual responsibility, the dignity of work, and the need for enduring moral character as the best means for former slaves, who started with little but the shirts on their backs, to succeed. He encouraged business, industry and entrepreneurship, rather than political agitation, as the most effective foundation for success. He formed the National Negro Business League. He understood and modeled the spirit of capitalism, recognizing that those who serve others best will benefit themselves by doing so.:snip:

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