It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that most notably stated, “all progress is precarious and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” I had never contemplated my personal success as precarious progress, or that my success to this point could bring any non-materialistic problems, but I now find myself, like many of my fellow successful, young, black men, in a moment of crisis.
Before I dive into what exactly this 21st century identity crisis is, what it is caused by, and what it ultimately means, I need to get some preliminaries out of the way to open some critical minds. First, this article is not intended to be braggadocious, I will discuss some of my personal success as I explicate this issue, but I will also share the success of several other young black men that I am close with. Neither their stories of success nor mine are expressed from a place of haughtiness, but instead from a place of humility. I fear that it is out of concern for being perceived as arrogant or out of touch that this side of the young black male’s story is so rarely told.
Next, this article is not intended to complain about success. I recognize that success is usually not a word associated with black men and I spend most of my article writing time trying to shed light on the crisis in our inner city schools. It is not lost on me that most young black men will never be in a position to engage in the dialogue that I am about to embark on, because their potential success has been stifled.
Finally, I recognize that much of what I will discuss at length not only applies to successful young black men, but also to successful young black women, and young successful minorities generally. I have consciously chosen to focus on the young black male success crisis because I understand it best first hand. It would be disingenuous of me to attempt to articulate the myriad of different pressures that other minorities or women experience as they climb the ladder of success. Therefore, for risk of speaking on that which I know little about, I have chosen not to explore those topics, but I hope that my fellow successful young minority colleagues and female colleagues will soon treat us with their own version of this crisis.
Now that preliminaries are out of the way, let’s get down to the issue; what exactly is the young successful black male’s 21st century identity crisis?
What is the crisis?
The crisis is epitomized by questions like: What am I going to do next? Where should I go from here? What should I aspire to? Do I have to choose between money and my commitment to my community? If I stay where I am in my career, am I settling? What do the people I am surrounded by expect from me? Do I want to meet their expectations? If I do not meet their expectations, have I failed?
At first glance, these seem like the types of questions that every twenty-something year old with boundless potential and opportunities are asking themselves. But when coupled with the pressure of constantly being an anomaly, these questions take on a different level of intensity. Young, successful black men in our society are just as easily defined by their accolades as by their status as an outlier.
For me, like many other young, successful black men, the reality of being outside of the mainstream started very early in life. I was no more than nine years old when the path of divergence started. Having transferred from a black Christian private school, where I had been a student from daycare to second grade, to a local public school, I was initially placed in a remedial third grade classroom, despite the fact that my records demonstrated I was doing work several years ahead of my peer group. Because my parents have been and continue to be my strongest advocates, they pressed the administration to put me in a classroom where I would not be bored and the work would actually be challenging. A few weeks into the school year, I was transferred into a more rigorous third grade classroom, where I was still bored and probably not the least talkative student. Again due to my parent’s pressure, I was tested for the school’s gifted program and admitted.
This point was the beginning of an academic path that would lead me to my present day success. In the gifted curriculum, I was the only black male. I formed my friends from my peer group, mostly white females, and matriculated with this group of peers up to high school. The academic impact is best illustrated by the progression of math courses I took through the end of high school. In middle school, I took pre-algebra, algebra I, and geometry, while all of the other black males in the school took two years of general math, finishing middle school with pre-algebra. In high school, I took algebra II, advanced trigonometry, advanced placement (AP) calculus, and by my senior year the school created a new math course called analysis taught by a local university professor, for me and a group of classmates, none of whom were black men, who had opted not to spend our senior year at the local college. On the other hand, the majority of my black male peers finished high school having matriculated through trigonometry.
All of my classes were predominated with white and Asian students, even at my 97% African-American, inner city high school, where I was in a magnet program (school within a school). The feeling of being an anomaly was my normal. Desiring to be surrounded by other brilliant African-American minds, I decided to attend Howard University. I achieved academically and otherwise, and met some of what I am convinced are the best minds in our generation. I left the haven, that alumni affectionately call the Mecca, because of its centrality for the black community since its inception, and joined Teach For America. I taught third grade in inner city Atlanta, where I came face to face with the students who were not in my classes as I matriculated from K - 12th grade. My students were educationally deprived and living in economically deprived communities.
Teaching was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, and also some of the most meaningful work I have done to this point. I finished my Teach For America commitment and reluctantly left the classroom to attend the Georgetown University Law Center, where I am presently a 2L. I did well my first year in law school, where there were no more than fifteen black men in my 1L class of nearly 600, and now every possible opportunity one might imagine is open to me. This is the beginning of my crisis.
The exact contours of my story do not parallel every young successful black male’s life, for some their path diverged in high school or college, for others they did not feel like an anomaly until they took their first job after school, and still for some the crisis has yet to make itself apparent. By way of example, I have several black male friends who recently graduated from law school and are trying to figure out what their impact will be with their newly attained degree. At the same time, I have black male colleagues who work at major Wall Street firms and are now trying to figure out where they should be spending their time and energy. Yet, despite the differences, the common threads of educational attainment, exceptionalism, and ambition are apparent. And now many of us have realized that we are in a metaphorical no-man’s land, where no one can guide us or point the way.
We are now forced to make it up as we go along and for many of us this is a nerve-wracking reality. Up to this point, we simply did the next logical thing, graduated from high school, went to college, took a career-oriented job track where we would be an associate for a few years before trying to move up, or went to professional school where we would pass the requisite exams and enter our professional careers. But now that we are here, where there is no next logical step, simply a vast number of opportunities, many of us find ourselves trying to answer the larger questions of life, like what I am supposed to do while I am alive, in order to gain a sense of direction.
What makes this crisis unique to young, successful black men?
I am sure that everyone who continues to be ambitious and pursue ever far-fetched goals eventually comes to the place that I just described. So, what makes it a crisis for young, successful black men, but simply a part of life for some others? The short answer is that it is a crisis because there are so few examples of high levels of success from which black men can mold a path.
Over the last 200 years of American history, there has been one African-American male President, one African-American male Attorney General, one African-American male Secretary of State, and two African-American male Supreme Court Justices. There is currently one African-American male governor, there have only been four in American History. Five (0.83%) of the Fortune 500 CEOs are African-American men. Approximately 1% of all law firm partners are African-American men. There has been one African-American male Surgeon General in American history. And fewer than six percent of all high-ranking military officers are African-American.
All of these statistics are an attempt to paint the picture that these laudable successes reinforce the crisis. The rarity of these accomplishments sends the message to similarly aspiring black men that getting into these positions comes with no guidebook, nor general path. Some might suggest that for many of the positions I cited there is no general path for anyone because so few people ever rise to those levels of success. However, this critique misses the point. For each position I named, there is a more or less common route, but those routes have not applied to African-American men who attained those positions.
For example, most presidents are governors before running for president, Obama was a U.S. senator. Most Supreme Court justices appointed directly from a seat as a court of appeals judges prior to becoming a justice, Thurgood Marshall was a solicitor general at the time of his appointment.
If I were a white male and I wanted to be a Fortune 500 CEO, it would make the most sense for me to get my undergraduate degree and possibly my MBA from Harvard, Stanford, U. Penn., or Columbia, which account for over 25% of all Fortune 500 CEOs. However, of the five black male Fortune 500 CEOs, three of the five went to one of the four named schools at some point, but the low sampling size makes it insufficient to call it a pattern, or even more, a potential path. For the white male CEO aspirant, the patterns is set, go to one of these schools and then have a one in four chance of being CEO. For the black male CEO aspirant, going to one of these four schools is probably a good idea, but in no way dispositive of increasing your likelihood of achieving your goal.
Before delving into suggestions for how young, successful black men should deal with the crisis, I want to deal with an issue that some who are reading this article closely may have noticed: I have purposefully avoided discussing industries where successful black men predominate; this was not a mistake.
When many Americans think of successful black men, besides President Obama, most think about NBA stars, NFL stars, black actors and music moguls. I have avoided these industries because more often than not, despite the fame and wealth of these black men, their team owners, record label owners, production companies, and movie studios are attaining more wealth. In fact, the dearth of black men in the ultimate decision-making positions in these industries simply reinforces the crisis previously articulated. If you consider athletes, actors, and musicians pay as a percentage of their respective company owners’ profits, they start to look a lot more like mid-level associates in large firms far away from the CEO suite.
Dealing with the crisis
1. Accept and acknowledge that you are now writing history
As we continue to wrestle with the question of where to go from here, we need to accept the reality that whatever we do will be historical. Therefore, we should be inclined to make it a story worth reading. This reality comes with a certain sentiment of adventure and a simultaneous pressure of responsibility. The adventure is derived from a sense that you can really go anywhere, do anything, and become anybody. But, the pressure results from a simultaneous reality that wherever we go, whatever we do, and whoever we become, everyone will watch us. We owe it to little black boys to give them something to strive toward and we owe it to our communities to continue to defy the common stereotypes.
2. Do good
Money cannot be our only motivating factor. Many young, successful black men, like myself, come from mid to low income families, we are often the first members of our families to graduate with any kind of degree, and we have the opportunity to gain wealth that no one related to us has ever been able to fully contemplate. However, this is not an excuse to selfishly seek personal wealth with disregard for doing good, especially for our communities. I cannot say what doing good means, it is subjectively different for everyone, but it should be a goal nonetheless.
3. Surround yourself with other young, successful black men
Once many of us graduated from our undergraduate institutions and attained our first job, we had surpassed every expectation placed on us by close relatives. Not because they do not want more for us, but because they have no idea what to want. This is the time to surround yourself with like-minded, and similarly successful black men who will keep pushing on you. The main question that you should be asking and that should be asked of you is: what am I/are you going to do next? There must be a visceral aversion to settling or getting too comfortable.
4. Mentor other young black men
Being a resource, confidant, and friend to several young black men attempting to climb their own ladders is one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, but it is a requirement for every young, successful black man. If we are going to ever see a day where we are not the anomaly, then we have to coach other young black men to the point that we have achieved. This does not mean waiting until you are CEO, president, or attorney general to start mentoring. You can start by helping someone just below your current position. If you made it to college, mentor young black men from your high school who are trying to get there. If you have already graduated from college, then mentor young black men are trying to get through their undergraduate years. If you are in professional school, mentor young black men that are trying to get into your profession. This is community uplift at its essence, everyone reaching back just a little bit to pull at least one person up to their level.
In sum, the 21st century identity crisis for young, successful black men is an inevitable reality of black men achieving greater levels of success than previously attainable, but still in extremely small numbers. The crisis will continue until enough black men have attained high enough levels of success from which a pattern or path of success can be forged. We are decades away from such a moment, and perhaps even further away if black men continue to be the least educated, most imprisoned, and generally least successful group in our country. It is this sobering reality that makes the crisis so poignant, if those of us in a position to get there, wherever our individual there are, don’t reach our fullest potential, it could be decades from now, or maybe never, before a black male ever has the opportunity to reach for it again.